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Changing Unrealistic Cognitions Is the Critical Component in Couple Therapy
by Milton Spett
Christiansen, A. & Jacobson, N.S. (2000). Reconcilable differences. Guilford: New York. This book describes emotional acceptance techniques for the general public.
Christiansen, A., Jacobson, N.S., & Babcock, J.C. (1995). Integrative behavioral couple therapy, in Jacobsen, N.S. & Gurman, A.S. (Eds.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy pp. 31 64. Guilford: New York. This chapter describes emotional acceptance techniques for professionals.
Abstract: The authors call their approach Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy because their therapy includes both traditional behavior change techniques and their new emotional acceptance techniques. My advice is to skip the theoretical mumbo-jumbo, check out the short overview of traditional behavior change interventions, and study the detailed description of the authors new emotional acceptance techniques. These new techniques are very useful, but the concept would be more powerful it the authors discussed the unrealistic cognitions which usually impede or prevent emotional acceptance.
Behavior Exchange. The authors correctly point out that distressed couples exhibit fewer pleasing and more displeasing behaviors toward each other than non-distressed couples. Behavior exchange encourages each partner to do more of whatever is pleasing to the other partner. The authors point out that this technique has traditionally been implemented by asking each partner (the recipient) to make a list of what he or she would like the other partner (the giver) to do. Christiansen et al. report that they obtain better results when they let the giver choose which pleasing behaviors to increase and when.
My concern with this technique is that it assumes that each partner pleases the other in exchange for the other pleasing him. This creates the risk of one or both partners feeling that the other is not doing their share, and resentments or arguments may occur over alleged inequities. I prefer to emphasize that there should be no linkage between what Caitlin does for Jon and what Jon does for Caitlin. I tell each partner that when they please the other, they are benefiting to both of them. Making your partner happy means that you will be living with a happy person, and this is certainly more pleasant than living with an unhappy person.
Problem Resolution Techniques. These include: discuss one problem at a time; make no inferences about your partners motivation, attitudes, or feelings; paraphrase your partners statement before responding; compliment your partners positive behavior before requesting changes; state your requests in specific, behavioral terms; acknowledge your own contribution to the problem; discuss many possible solutions to the problem; and specify your agreements in writing.
1. Empathic joining. Instead of criticizing and blaming, understanding your partners feelings, and experiencing empathy for your partners pain.
2. Detachment from the problem. Analyzing the problem intellectually instead of reacting to it emotionally.
3. Tolerance building. Seeing the positive aspects of your partners negative behavior
4. Greater self-care. Relying on yourself or others to provide what your partner is not providing.
Counteracting the Unrealistic Cognitions Which Impede Emotional Acceptance
My concern with the authors approach is that many couple therapy patients are angry at their partners, and this anger will impede or prevent them from accepting the behavior that is evoking their anger. Couple therapy patients often believe their partners have wronged them and mistreated them. If we ask these patients to be more tolerant of their partners behavior, they will experience us as unempathic. With these couple therapy patients, the key issue to address is their anger and the unrealistic cognitions which have created and maintained that anger. The most common unrealistic cognitions in couple therapy are:
He doesnt love me. If Caitlin is angry that Jon spends too much time at work, or with friends, or with the kids, his behavior may trigger her anger, but the cause of her anger is their cognition Jon doesnt love me. If he loved me he wouldnt do that. Often Caitlin can be shown that Jon does love her, but he is obsessed with pleasing his boss, or fearful of losing his friends, or focused on being the good father he never had. If she can attribute Jons behavior to these psychological needs, rather than to a lack of love for her, she may still be disappointed by Jons neglect, but she will be less angry and more accepting of Jons behavior.
She tries to control me. If Jons cognition is that Caitlin is always trying to control him, a more realistic cognition would be that she is controlling him, or rather Jon is letting her control him. Jon is probably unassertively suppressing his own wishes, doing what Caitlin wants, and then feeling controlled. Other times Jon is probably misinterpreting Caitlins requests as commands, and feeling controlled when Caitlin is merely making a suggestion.
He criticizes me all the time. When Caitlin describes this presenting problem, I immediately think low self-esteem and unassertiveness. If Caitlin complains that Jon is constantly criticizing her, it is very likely that she often misinterprets Jons innocent comments as criticisms, but it is also likely that Jon does criticize her a good deal. Here Caitlins anger is caused by her experiencing Jons criticisms as a blow to her fragile self-esteem. If she were really self-confident, his criticism wouldnt bother her. Of course constant criticism can become annoying, but if she is letting Jon criticize her constantly, then she is being unassertive. She needs to forcefully and consistently tell him to stop putting her down.
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