I often start a couple’s therapy session by asking, “What have you done to help your relationship this week?” This is a very powerful question because it changes the couple’s mindset. Instead of pathologizing the problems in their marriage, it turns the focus to what they have done well. It also sets up the image of them working as a team to help rescue their relationship.
After I ask this question, there is often a pause as each member of the couple reflects back upon their successes the previous week. They each have the opportunity to share a behavior that makes them feel proud. This experience also helps them reframe small gains as essential contributions to the health of a relationship.
After listening to the couple share the positive behaviors that they have contributed, and providing supportive feedback and reassurance, I ask them my second question, “What have you done to hurt your relationship this week?” This question normalizes the fact that we all do things that harm our relationships. It implies that despite our best intentions, we all engage in behaviors that are not ideal.
For individuals who are coping with illusions of perfection, this question is freeing. It can be a springboard to address deeper patterns in their relationship, or it can simply provide an opportunity to examine a situation where they “blew it.”
As we look at what each partner did that did not go well, we are able to practice working through shameful feelings in order to help each person listen to one another. There is also an opportunity for accountability, apologizing, and forgiveness.
My hope in implementing these questions is that the couples I treat will begin to reframe their small positive interactions as successes, and will look at their struggles as not being the end of the world. My longer-term hope is that after several sessions in couples therapy, they will be able to check in with each other on a weekly basis and ask themselves these questions without a therapist present.