Marriage: What’s Working?

In his book, Choice Theory, A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, Dr. Glasser reflects on his forty years of psychiatric practice by saying, “It has become apparent to me that all unhappy people have the same problem: They are unable to get along well with the people they want to get along well with.”

 This article is one in a series on marriage.
You can find the first article in the series here.

What is a couple seeking help for an unhappy relationship? Two unhappy people who aren’t getting along well and who want that to change. To help the couple move toward their goal, the structured Reality Therapy approach to marriage counseling asks, “What is working well in the relationship right now?”

Let’s look again at Patricia and Paul: a couple with conflicts centered on Paul’s seeming inability to make it home for dinner at a set time. Each has said that they want the marriage to work. What will we learn if we ask, “What’s working well in this relationship?”

Patricia easily identifies the qualities of Paul that first appealed to her, and that she continues to value today. “I’m tremendously proud of Paul. He works hard, he takes pride in providing well for the family, and there is no question that he is 100% loyal to me. He just won’t promise to be on time. Ever!”

What’s working in this relationship for Paul? “Patricia is warm, loving, and so much fun when she’s happy with me (which, recently, isn’t very often.) There’s no one I’d rather spend time with, and I miss her when I can’t be home. But she doesn’t want to understand that for me to do my job, I can’t work regular hours, and I won’t make promises that I can’t keep. So I don’t promise.”

What’s the point of asking what’s working well in a relationship if it seems full of problems?

For a relationship in difficulty, it’s important to remember that all is not bad. People have a tendency to concentrate on what’s not working or not perfect. We look at a freshly painted wall and immediately focus on the tiny smudge rather than its pristine beauty. It’s easy to concentrate only on the negative and forget that anything is working. When that happens, you may throw the baby out with the bathwater (not literally, please.) A focus on what’s working changes perspective.

If either of the parties can find nothing good about the marriage, then counselling is over; there’s no point in continuing. Interestingly, if both parties really want help for the marriage, the implied threat of no help may provide a bond for the couple. The individuals need to focus on something different than where they’ve been focusing.

“What’s working?” is worth asking of many relationships: parent-child, work-colleagues, instructor-student, or friends.

Where does “What’s working?” lead? To action—toward doing more of those things that work well.  Do you think that helps?

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