April 27th, 2021
What do you do if your spouse won’t go to therapy, you’re not ready to be done, but you need to make some changes to your relationship if it’s going to have any shot of lasting?
Can you work on things on your own?
I recently spoke with a client whose husband had a very legitimate trauma stemming from being forced into therapy at a very young age with an abuser. This man won’t go near therapy, as he believes everything got much worse when he went to therapy as a child, and he blames it on the therapy (not the abuser, unfortunately).
Because my client isn’t ready to leave her husband, and because her husband has recently shown signs of wanting to change their dynamic, I suggested another way for them to communicate their issues, something I call the Weekly State of the Union (WSOTU).
Here’s how it goes.
- Both partners agree on a day and time for these weekly meetings. They should be no longer than 45-minutes long. Both partners schedule this meeting in their calendars as absolutely non-negotiable. The only exception to this is if you’re in the middle of a fight. If that’s the case, reschedule your WSOTU for the following day, or as soon as possible.
- Book a weekly sitter, or tell older children you are not to be disturbed during this time. Phones go off, or stay in another room. There should be NO distractions.
- Begin the WSOTU with appreciations. This is very important as it sets the tone for the meeting as being loving and collaborative. Each person should give their partner three appreciations. An appreciation goes something like this:
“I really appreciated it when you unloaded the dishwasher yesterday without me having to ask. It made me feel less stressed and cared for.”
“I appreciated it when you held my hand while we were watching TV last night. It made me feel really loved.”
“I appreciated that you called me when you were going to be late on Tuesday. It made me feel valued.”
- Each person can bring up one topic to be discussed at each WSOTU. You should alternate who goes first. Don’t bring up a topic that you are feeling overly angry or emotional about; it’s best to wait until tempers have cooled before bringing a topic to your WSOTU.
- Keep your topic in “I” language. Do not use blame-speak. Keep your dialogue clear and concise, and make a specific request at the end. It could sound like this: “I feel really overwhelmed by all the work I have to do in the house and for the kids. I don’t feel like we’re really partners in this. We both work and yet when it comes to kid-stuff I feel like the burden is mostly on me, and I’m exhausted. It would really help me if you could get all the snacks and gear ready when you take them to sports activities. Since that’s something special you do with them, it would really make me feel less overwhelmed and really partnered if you’d take on that responsibility.” Notice the request is specific, not just a general “Do more,” which never helped anyone. Notice also that the topic starts and ends with personal feelings. The framework for this dialogue is:
- I feel x
- Describe why/how
- (Bonus points if you can express what childhood wound this might trigger for you)
- Make specific and measurable request
- Say how this will help and make you feel x
- The person who is on the receiving end of this conversation has one job: to listen. Do not interrupt, do not argue, and do not grimace. Your partner is telling you something important and now is the time for generosity and curiosity. If you’re having trouble listening without being defensive, ask your partner to pause and take some deep, grounding breaths and remind yourself why you’re here. This is the most important step of the entire process.
- When the sender is done, the person receiving summarizes everything the sender said, including their request, to the best of their ability. The receiver then asks the sender if the summary is correct. The sender adds or alters what the receiver summarized until they’re satisfied the receiver has fully received the message.
- The receiver has an option to accept, reject, or counter the request. If the request is far too difficult for you to accomplish, or triggers you in some way, you may say, “I really want to help solve this problem, but what you’re asking sounds really challenging for me. I’m wondering if there’s another way we can look at it.” Or you can say, “I’d like to do that for you and it’s pretty easy for me to do. How about I do it on Mondays and Thursdays before school as well?”
- Remember, these requests should feel hard. They should challenge you and stretch you. If they didn’t you wouldn’t be having these dialogues. So agree to stretch and be challenged! Not because your partner is making you, but because you are working together to make this marriage work and because this would make them feel loved.
- Once an agreement is reached, thank each other.
- Repeat the process for the other partner.
- At the end of the WSOTU, hug and kiss each other and move on to some other activity. Do not bring up topics from the WSOTU later in the night or during the week. It’s not your job to remind your spouse to honor the request they agreed to. It is your job to make note of the request you agreed to and work on honoring that request, no matter what.
Some clients find it nice to have the WSOTU kick off a date night. Others get right back into parenting/life. However you do this, please don’t deviate from the structure above. A good couples therapist will hold this space for you and keep you on track, but if you’re going to do this on your own you’ll need to be extremely self-disciplined.