Feedback-Focused Couples Counseling By Dan Bates, LMHC on 4/12/22 - 12:08 PM

In couples counseling, I often share with clients that feedback functions like a two-way street in intimate relationships. There’s a steady flow of information traveling in both directions. If that flow of information were to stop and the cars metaphorically crashed, it would be cause for concern and immediate redress. Therefore, in order to maintain the vitality of their intimacy, each partner must be open to feedback and willing to give it. Most importantly, the goal of feedback is to positively and constructively share needs, requests, desires, and observations for the benefit of the relationship. Yes, there is an element of influence taking place, but it's important to distinguish influence from manipulation. The simplest way to draw a line between these two concepts is by pointing out that influence comes at a cost. To influence your partner, you must, in turn, be willing to be influenced.

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Some time ago I was texting back and forth with a prospective client on whether or not he should engage in counseling. He didn’t see the need for sessions but was willing to do so in order to prove to his wife that he didn’t have a problem. Great reason for counseling, right?! I texted him, “If it matters to the ones who matter to you, then it’s worth doing.” I think the candidness of my message and the practical wisdom behind it caught him off guard. He quickly texted me back and said that was reason enough to try.

Intimate relationships can be catalysts for personal growth. We develop as a people and attune to the rhythm of our partners to greater and greater degrees. Certainly, there are limits to this idea—if your spouse is asking you to become a drug dealer, terrorist, or contract killer, then yes, maybe rethink the relationship. However, couples often get stuck and struggle to really listen to each other when there is a request for change on the table. At these stuck points, I purposely slow the pace of conversation and ask my clients to boil down what their partner is saying. If someone can get past their defensiveness, they realize their partner is, in actuality, asking them to be more consistent, be a better listener, follow a budget, back them up on parenting choices, or equally contribute to household chores. When blame is removed and defensiveness is quieted, partners are typically offering genuine feedback and making reasonable requests of each other. I remind couples that feedback is offered with the intent to make the relationship better, not subordinate one partner to the whims of the other.

Back to the story of the client I was texting. His wife wasn’t willing to continue the relationship because she viewed his behavior as abusive. He strongly disagreed. If he wanted to keep his marriage, he was going to have to reevaluate his behavior. This, as you can imagine, would be a difficult and or challenging thing to do. He asked again why he should do this. I repeated what I said to him in the text: “If it matters to those who matter to you, then do it.” My text exchange was enough to intrigue him, and his wife was impressed with his openness to my challenges, so they decided to come in for a “trial run.”

Sitting down with the two of them, I made the case that out of all people we have to change for, why not your spouse? Every day, we make constant adjustments and changes to our behavior and routines for co-workers, bosses, family members and friends, but when it comes down to spouses, we throw a fit? How does that make sense? I went on to say to the husband, if you aren’t going to receive your wife’s feedback, then who are you going to listen to? She of all people he should trust, especially since she had his best interests in mind. He struggled to receive what she said not because of what the feedback was or who it was from, but because he perceived her feedback as a threat and attack, which always put him on the defensive. He couldn’t hear what she was trying to say. He couldn’t understand the intent behind her words. She gave the feedback that he was not a good listener and it hurt her when she felt unheard. Instead of trying to understand, he’d argue that was actually an excellent listener and it was her fault they couldn’t communicate. That, in fact, she was the problem, not him. His comments betrayed his underlying, hidden assumptions. He did not believe that his relationship was an opportunity for growth, or that he had anything to improve upon. He did not think feedback was necessary for a vital relationship. He could not see the noble intent behind his wife’s feedback. Sad to say, their relationship did not survive.

I keep this unfortunate case in mind when I work with couples. It serves as a real-life example of how important feedback is to the vitality of an intimate relationship. This case motivates me to impress upon my clients early in the therapy process the absolute necessity of feedback.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy