So often couples come to see me in great frustration because each partner thinks the other is trying to fix them or control them. This behavior comes out in a variety of ways… often intended to be helpful or focused on making the relationship better. However, it often results in anger and disconnect. Partners report feeling misunderstood and begin to feel justified when their helping ways are questioned. They say things like “If you would only listen to me…” and “I told you so…” and “Don’t feel that way baby….”
In my couples’ work, I see couples trying to “help” one another. The helping comes in many forms. It may be the attempt to constantly do for the other or be present for the other. It may be seen in trying to take away one’s difficult or challenging feelings. It may even happen in one’s own head in the form of restricting conversation because it may be too challenging for the other person. One of the first rules I try to get everyone to agree to in the couples therapy process is the “No Helping” rule. There is no more helping. Period.
When we “help” each other there are many inherent assumptions, such as: I know better than you do, You can’t handle this without me, You are weak and need my support to get through this, I am more capable than you are, You are so stuck. Additionally, this form of helping prohibits our partner from growing and learning through the opportunity to manage something challenging. In reality, we take away their autonomy to problem solve. We often learn best when we struggle with a difficult concept or problem. Having the ability to do that often means that we need some time and space to work at it without interference.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. With this rule there two: If help is offered and accepted or if help is requested and agreed to be provided. These exceptions must be very clearly stated. Once help is initiated, it is not carte blanche to start “helping” all over the place. Help is specific. It is agreed upon. It is not open-ended. For example, “Can you help me by taking the groceries from the car into the kitchen?” This request does not invite anyone to start meal planning, salting the stew or other forms of “helping”.
If you find yourself helping, or being the recipient of “help” and want to know more about how and when helping can be beneficial rather than challenging, contact Elliott at [email protected]