A couple steps into my office for their first counseling session. The look on their faces is familiar: disappointment, hurt, anger… maybe even disdain. They sit on the couch, careful to leave enough space for the wall between them, and begin to present their cases. Each offers an argument that has failed them so far—accusing the other of being the primary cause of their unhappy marriage.
We will eventually need to get into the unique details of their relationship, but I already know one thing about this couple: they need to move in a new direction.
Couples can be characterized by either moving toward each other, away from each other, or against each other. This couple is moving against or away, which is a natural fight-or-flight response to hurt. But they need to start using each experience of disappointment or conflict as a trigger to move toward each other instead.
Easier said than done, I know. When facing conflict, spouses (myself included) are naturally more concerned about winning than about finding a way to move closer together. But this kind of “win” is rarely satisfying and only reinforced a battle mentality.
On the other hand, learning to change “How can I win?” to “How can I move toward?” is a dynamic shift that drastically alters both the experience and outcome of a conflict. Self-protection gives way to empathy. Stubbornness gives way to caring. And it only takes one person to make the first move.