By: James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC
Senior Staff Therapist
The Family Institute at Northwestern University
Homework for couples
As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I assign homework between sessions to the couples I counsel. Homework will not solve conflict, communication or resentment issues. Those issues need to be addressed in session. Home work will, however, help and typically addresses the following:
Civility and Respect
This one is a must. Civility and respect is the foundation of your relationship. When a couple loses civility and respect, their relationship is in serious trouble. They feel distant and as a result intimacy suffers. There is never a good reason to scream, swear, name call, or act out. If you have gotten into these habits you may need professional help to get it under control. It will take some time; it is a process – but if you work at it and strive for consistency you can regain civility and respect. As in any process, owning your errors is important. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge it if you say something that is not civil or respectful. Say, “I am sorry I should not have said that.” and mean it. All couples need rules of engagement for conflict. You can never allow yourself to lose control. It is the foundation of your relationship. You can’t build a house without a good foundation. Couples can’t permit yelling, screaming, swearing and name calling to undermine their relationship.
Call Time Out
When conflict becomes too intense and one or both of you are in danger of losing civility and respect, call a time out. The words time out will become a signal for both of you to settle down. Never follow your spouse when they are trying to retreat from the conflict. Standing outside the bathroom door and continuing the discussion is out of bounds. If you decide to go for a walk or to a movie, say so your spouse knows when you are coming back. It is cruel to just walk out without regard for the others feelings. The rule of time out is you must get back to the discussion within 24 hours. Far too often couples will just let the issue go unresolved, swept under the rug. This creates resentment and distance. Hopefully, after a day to reflect, you will be able to discuss the issue calmly. If not, hold the issue for the next therapy session.
Reduce Alcohol/Drug Use
Many fights occur when too much alcohol has been consumed. Alcohol reduces inhibitions making it easier to allow yourself to lose control. If you are drinking daily, you may have a problem. Denial is a huge part of alcoholism. I typically say, Can you stop drinking for a week or two month (for binge alcoholics). If you make excuses and refuse the challenge, you have an alcohol problem. There is no good reason one should be drinking on a daily basis
A night out alone is a common suggestion among both therapists and self-help books. As I have said, couples lose their way because of all that life throws at them. Don’t forget to nurture the relationship by spending time together alone. This does not have to be a big money issue. Many people with financial stress will simply go out for coffee or ice cream. I find it a statement of the current economic times and somewhat sad that couples will go out after therapy because they can’t afford a babysitter twice in one week.
Meet and Greet
Meet and Greet is another way to address the lack of affection that many spouses feel. Touch is very important. This is not sexual touching. This is simply affection. Offer a hug and kiss when you leave and when you return. The responsibility is on both of you to find one another and do this when one of you walks in the door or leaves for work. Reaching out and holding hands when walking or just watching TV is also a way to address lack of affection.
Parent as a Team
Children learn quickly who to go to get what they want. Sometimes tension between parents is picked up on by the children and they will take sides. As I say, “the walls have ears.” Even when you don’t think they hear your arguments more than likely they do. I have had children tell me, “I listen to their arguments through the heating vent in my room.” A daughter will often side with mom. The result is when dad tells the daughter to get ready for bed, she ignores him. He gets upset and mom steps in often creating even more conflict between mom and dad. Mom needs to back dad and of course vice versa. “Do what your father says”. When mom is angry at dad anyway due to unresolved marital issues, mom unconsciously gets satisfaction from the child’s disrespect toward dad. This will continue for a while until marital issues are addressed and parents recognize how they undermine the others authority and the child sees that they are consistently parenting as a team . Parents need to support one another in family meetings to address disrespect to the other parent. This is a common issue addressed under family meetings below.
“I feel” Statements
Inability to express feeling is a major issue in many relationships. One of the hardest things for many men to do is to get in touch with feelings. I find that many men have difficulty expressing their feelings at all let alone civilly and respectfully. Yet, lack of expression of feelings is a major cause of marital discontent. Opening up is critical for a good relationship. In addition, expressing feelings out loud appropriately helps dissipate negative feelings. Women, especially it seems, need to know what their man is feeling in order to feel connected and consequently warm and fuzzy in the bedroom. Men are more R rated; they don’t like to talk. Women say about 6,000 words per day; men only 2,000. I believe that good communication is romance and that communication is needed for marital success. For most women and many men, it is that expression which makes a couple feel connected. I encourage “I feel” statements….”because.” It may at times still be a confrontational statement but much less so than when you begin statements with “you always“. First of all, never say never and always. When you have something difficult to say be nose to nose with your arms around the person. Say, “I feel” and it will more likely be perceived less defensively then things are said from across the room or behind a closed door.
No History Lessons and no skidding off current issues
Stay on the present issue. Many couples allow their conflicts to skid into the past. When this happens there is rarely a resolution to the current issue. This can create hostility and resentment. When you find yourself fighting about where you squeeze the toothpaste tube (he squeezes in the middle you squeeze on the end) obviously you are not addressing the real issues.
Now I can work via zoom with anyone, anywhere in the country and it may still be covered by BCBS Insurance. Check with your BCBS representative for more information.
Call James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC, Senior Staff Therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, 847-733-4300 Ext 638.
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Disclaimer: This material is meant to be used in conjunction with psychiatric treatment, medication, if necessary, and supportive therapy. Always share this material and your questions about this material with your doctor and therapist.