I sometimes joke that when I am not busy defusing angry people on stage as a public speaker, I get in the middle of family arguments. I am about to graduate soon as a marriage and family therapist, and actually, I enjoy it tremendously. It is gratifying work where couples and families often move from a place of anger and pain to re-discovering one another again, with a little guidance.
At the same time, I have to be honest with you: what I do is really pretty simple. There is more science behind it than you might think. And you can do it yourself in your own relationship. Looking back on several hundred therapy sessions, I could boil many of them down into five simple rules:
1. No criticism. Ever. Really. Before my first session with a family is over, I tell them my mantra: you can never successfully criticize anyone for anything, ever. There are few less successful undertakings than trying to convince someone else they are wrong.
We all have a hard-wired survival instinct to push back against criticism – listen carefully – no matter how right it is. Get this and everything starts changing.
2. Ask for what you want. So now what happens with all those grievances you have with your loved ones: the crumbs in bed, the bad attitude, the affair two years ago? Here's what you do: ask them for something specific and actionable. And remember, NO criticism.
I can read your mind right now. You are saying, "Look, I've asked my partner over and over and over to stop doing X, and she keeps doing it anyway." No you haven't. You've been complaining to her in a tone of voice that would curdle milk, and she's responded with human nature. So try it again: "Agnes, honey, I would love it if you could do X. It would make me so happy. Where could we go with this?"
Maybe the other person will say yes. Maybe they will say no. Maybe the problem is unsolvable, like when she wants children and he doesn't. Either way, you'll be talking productively, instead of watching the other person respond passively or aggressively to your gripes. So ask them to go mountain climbing, see a movie with you every week, or kiss you passionately. Then watch what happens.
3. Ask what they want. What makes your kid happy? What is your partner most worried about? How do they feel about the X that you are asking for? Knowledge is power, and most of us spend too much time wondering what to say to someone and not enough time wondering what to ask.
4. Cheer the other person on. Do you have a rotten kid, or a complaining spouse? Pop quiz – how often do you compliment them, or say things that accept them for who they are, or comfort their mistakes? There is a stronger correlation between these things than you might think. People are capable of amazing transformations when they feel loved and supported.
5. Create your own great life. In grad school, they teach us a spectrum. At one end people are "enmeshed" – highly reactive and dependent on others for their emotional well-being. At the other end they are "differentiated" – loving and secure, but not needy. We want you to be more differentiated and less enmeshed. So start being a great partner or family member by making yourself happy.
Is that all there is to it? Well, not always. But as long as you both care, and aren't beating each other with sticks or recovering from trauma, this is actually a pretty good summary of where a family therapist might lead you. Try it for yourself, and watch some amazing things start to happen with the people you love.