This week I worked with a number of couples' issues, but two stand out. The first, Couple A, has been less than happy in their marriage for several years. The husband, Logan (pseudonym), came in for an individual session with me, frustrated by several things: the unwillingness of his beautiful wife, Barbara (also a pseudonym) to invest more heavily in her education (she is foreign born and speaks English poorly), her lack of monetary contribution to the relationship (she has a low-level job), and the infrequency of sex. As I questioned him, it became apparent that the wife was making efforts in all three of these areas, but Logan felt they were insignificant and certainly less than he expected (Logan is a handsome, successful executive, also foreign born but well-educated and with an excellent command of English). When I asked him whether he had complimented Barbara on the efforts she had been making, he replied that, no, he hadn't done much of that because: "I shouldn't have to. I've made it clear to her over and over again how important these things are to me, and yet she still doesn't get it. To give you an example, she hasn't signed up for another English class, even though the one she was in ended months ago."
Couple B, Kevin and Pamela (again, pseudonyms) came in yesterday in crisis. As is so often the case nowadays, by looking on the computer the wife had discovered some secret illicit online activities in which her husband was engaged. It turns out that neither partner had been very happy in the marriage for quite some time, but neither had fully acknowledged their level of disatisfaction. In the ensuing session, after a thorough airing of the transgression (and a less than ideal acceptance of responsibility by the transgressor, which unfortunately is also often the case in these situations) I asked the "innocent" party what she might be able to do to improve the marriage. To paraphrase her response: "It's not up to me to change. He's the one who's actions are wrong, and he's the one who has to make up for the hurt he's inflicted. I shouldn't have to."
There can be many reasons why a relationship goes off track. The most frequent causes are money, sex, differences in parenting styles, a perceived or actual imbalance of power, in-laws and other extended family issues, loss of trust, the tension between a partner who wants closeness and one who wants autonomy, and unreasonable jealousy. (Why, you may ask, isn't communication on the list? Because in my experience it's foundational to all of the previous issues, and so too broad a category to be very useful). If both people in the relationship want it to survive, the concept of "I shouldn't have to (because I'm not the one who's the primary problem, the other half of the couple is) needs to be thrown out the window. Trying to assess which person is more responsible for relationship problems, and therefore who is the one who needs to change the most, is termpting but ultimately impossible. Relationship dynamics are far too complex for an accurate determination of causality, and thus blame. Blame is at the root of "I shouldn't have to," because if I'm not to blame why should I have to do anything? There's a simple reason: expecting / waiting for someone else to change is an inherently powerless and therefore frustrating position to be in. We can only change ourselves. And chances are that if we make some kind of positive change there will be a shift in the dynamic of the relationship towards the positive.
Of course, blame and the resulting "I shouldn't have to" is not an easy construct to avoid. That's why I recommend overlaying it with the idea of investing in your relationship. Whether or not you are responsible for a relationship going off track, if you want to fix it it's clearly something worth investing in*. So even if the investment feels like it should be coming from your partner, that doesn't mean it's foolish for you to invest. After all, you'll get to enjoy the payoff at least as much as the one who's REALLY to blame!
*There does come a point at which it's time to stop investing. This is particularly true in any kind of abusive or substance-distorted relationship, where investment becomes simply another term for enabling. The line between the two will be the subject of a future post.
Taking this week off, but the new (November) issue of Washingtonian magazine contains a lengthy interview of me and a colleague in which we talk about issues ranging from our approaches to helping our clients to the most common issues we encounter to the intersection of psychotherapy and coaching. It is not yet online ( available only in printed form ), but with any luck it will be by next weekend and I will create a link to it.
Last week, a surgeon named Atul Gawande wrote an article for the "Annals of Medicine" section of the New Yorker magazine titled "Personal Best". It dealt with his positive experience with a coach, and went on to describe the long-standing and widespread use of coaching among people at the top of their game, ranging from Yitzhak Perlman to Tiger Woods to Ernest Hemingway to Renée Fleming. The article observes that "Hiring a coach requires the painful acknowledgment that we're not as good as we'd like to be - or failed at achieving something. Yet all kinds of pros use them".
"The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you're falling short".
Gawande quotes a "formula" that describes the process of acquiring expertise through coaching: going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. (Please re-read the previous sentence - it feels convoluted, but it's dead on in my view).
That is indeed the orientation of coaches who work mostly with top professionals. It is, however, somewhat different that the primary stance I take in relationship to many of the clients coming to me for life, career, or relationship cocahing. Even when a client comes to me specifically complaining about "falling short" in an area of life, I will not focus exclusively on finding and correcting weaknesses, although this will of course be part of the process. I will also spend some time on other areas: exploring the "reality" of the shortfall (is performance truly subpar, or is it being characterized as such through the client's lens of perfectionism?); the importance of the shortfall (is procrastination, for example, genuinely problematic, and if so is it problematic from an end-result point-of-view or from an emotional one?*) and, most importantly, I will often guide my clients to ways of discovering, exploring and cultivating compensatory strengths.
A very common example is clients who come to me stating that they are interested in a wide variety of things, making it difficult to concentrate or get sufficient satisfaction from a unidimensional kind of job. They feel that there's something wrong with craving a lot of variety: I often hear those clients wonder if they have A.D.D. Frequently I will suggest that they stop trying to stifle their natural curiosity, and instead look for avenues in which to channel it. As we explore this approach we are often able to identify opportunities to do that at work, and not just extra-curricularly.
Another example: I recently worked with a client who frequently had to make presentations to a relatively small group of top people in national security. She was very comfortable discussing the topics one-on-one, or even three-on-one, but froze up when the group size hit more than a half dozen. I suggested that she spend a little more time "laying the groundwork" for the presentation by having brief one-on-one chats (even during a chance encounter in the hallway) about the subject prior to the presentation. She utilized her excellent one-on-one skills to compensate for her deficiency at group presentations, and wound up feeling a lot more comfortable in the larger settings.
In order to strike the proper balance between effectively correcting weaknesses and deepening strengths a coach needs a wide variety of skills. Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project (a coaching organization dedicated to working with teachers) decribed some of the qualities he felt were essential in good coaches. "(They)...speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. They listen (far) more than they talk. They are one hundred per cent present in the conversation. They also parcel out their observations carefully". He went on to say: "It's not a normal way of communicating, watching what your words are doing. (Coaches sometimes have)....discomifiting information to convey, but they do it directly yet respectfully".
* Often clients can get anxious or lose confidence because they learned certain axioms early in life that dictate the "proper" way to perform - for example, "Don't toot your own horn". Taken to an extreme, this axiom can lead clients to practically bury their contributions, and so they don't receive appropriate recognition and then begin to believe that they are undervalued or unworthy.