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What the Experts Say
We all want friendly, rewarding relationships with other people, but we often end up with the exact opposite—hostility, bitterness, and distrust. Why is this? Why can’t we all just get along?
There are two competing theories. Most experts endorse the deficit theory. According to this theory, we can’t get along because we don’t know how. In other words, we fight because we lack the skills we need to solve the problems in our relationships. When we were growing up, we learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, but there weren’t any classes on how to communicate or solve relationship problems.
Other experts believe that we can’t get along because we don’t really want to. This is called the motivational theory. In other words, we fight because we lack the motivation to get close to the people we’re at odds with. We end up embroiled in hostility and conflict because the battle is rewarding.
The Deficit Theory
Most mental health professionals, including clinicians and researchers, endorse the deficit theory. They’re convinced that we wage war simply because we don’t know how to make love. We desperately want loving, satisfying relationships but lack the skills we need to develop them.
Of course, different experts have different ideas about what the most important interpersonal skill deficits are. Behavior therapists, for example, believe that our problems with getting along result from a lack of communication and problem--solving skills. So when someone criticizes us, we may get defensive when we should be listening. We may pout and put the other person down instead of sharing our feelings openly, or we may resort to nagging and coercion in order to get our way. We don’t use systematic negotiation or problem--solving skills, so the tensions escalate.
A related theory attributes relationship conflict to the idea that men and women are inherently different. This theory was popularized by Deborah Tannen in her best--selling book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and by John Gray in his best--selling book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. These authors argue that men and women can’t get along because they use language so differently. The idea is that women use language to express feelings, whereas men use language to solve problems. So when a woman tells her husband that she’s upset, he may automatically try to help her with the problem that’s bugging her because that’s how his brain is wired. But she simply wants him to listen and acknowledge how she feels, so she gets more upset when he tries to “help” her. They both end up feeling frustrated and misunderstood. You may have observed this pattern in yourself and someone you’re not getting along with, such as your spouse.
Cognitive therapists have a different idea about the deficits that lead to relationship problems. They emphasize that all of our feelings result from our thoughts and attitudes, or cognitions. In other words, the things other people do—like being critical or rudely cutting in front of us in traffic—don’t actually upset us. Instead, we get upset because of the way we think about these events.
This theory may resonate with your personal experience. When you’re mad at someone, you may have noticed that your mind is flooded with negative thoughts. You tell yourself, “He’s such a jerk! He only cares about himself. He -shouldn’t be like that. What a loser!” When you feel upset, these negative thoughts seem overwhelmingly valid, but they actually contain a variety of thinking errors, or cognitive distortions, listed on pages 6–7.
One of the most interesting things about the cognitive theory is the idea that anger and interpersonal conflict ultimately result from a mental con. In other words, you’re telling yourself things that aren’t entirely true when you’re fighting with someone. However, you don’t notice that you’re fooling yourself because the distorted thoughts act as self--fulfilling prophecies, so they seem completely valid. For example, if you tell yourself that the person you’re annoyed with is a jerk, you’ll treat him like a jerk. As a result, he’ll get angry and start acting like a jerk. Then you’ll tell yourself that you were right all along and that he really is a jerk.
Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that when you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel and behave. In other words, if we can learn to think about other people in a more positive and realistic way, it will be far easier to resolve conflicts and develop rewarding personal and professional relationships.
This theory sounds great on paper, but it’s not that easy to change the thinking patterns that trigger anger and conflict. That’s because there’s a side of us that clings to these distortions. It can feel good to look down on someone we’re angry or annoyed with. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority. We just don’t want to see that we’re distorting our view of that person.
Some experts claim that the most important deficit that leads to relationship problems is a lack of self--esteem. In other words, if you don’t love and respect yourself, you’ll have a hard time loving anyone else because you’ll always be trying to get something from the other person that you can only give yourself. This theory has been popular in our schools. The idea is that if we help children develop greater self--esteem when they’re growing up, they’ll be able to develop warm, trusting relationships with others and won’t be so attracted to violence, crime, and gang membership as they get older.
Other experts believe that relationship distress results from a different kind of deficit called relationship burnout. You may have noticed that when you aren’t getting along with someone, the negativity nearly always escalates over time. You and your spouse may criticize each other more and more and stop doing all the fun things you did when you first met and began to date. Pretty soon, your marriage becomes a source of constant stress, frustration, and loneliness, and all the joy and caring you once experienced has disappeared. At this point, separation and divorce begin to seem like highly desirable alternatives.
Therapists who endorse the burnout theory will encourage you and your partner to accentuate the positive. For example, you could schedule more fun, rewarding activities together so you can begin to enjoy each other’s company again. You might also do several loving, thoughtful things for each other every day, such as calling your partner from work just to say hello, or bringing your partner a cup of coffee in the morning to show you really care.
Many therapists believe that relationship problems ultimately result from a lack of trust and the fear of vulnerability. Let’s say that you’re ticked off because of something that a colleague or family member said to you. On the surface, you’re angry, but underneath the anger, you feel hurt and put down. You’re reluctant to let the other person know that you feel hurt because you’re afraid of looking weak or foolish. Instead, you lash out, get defensive, and try to put the other person down. Although the tension escalates, your anger protects you because you don’t have to make yourself vulnerable or risk rejection. In other words, the basic deficit is a lack of trust— we fight because of our fears of intimacy. Therapists who endorse this theory will encourage you to accept and share the hurt and tender feelings that are hiding underneath all the anger, hostility, and tension.
Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapists believe that all of these interpersonal deficits and problems with loving each other ultimately stem from painful experiences and wounds we endured when we were growing up. The idea is that if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may subconsciously re--create the same painful patterns over and over as an adult. For example, if your father constantly criticized you and put you down, you may have felt like you were never quite good enough to earn his love. As an adult, you may be attracted to men who are equally critical of you because you feel like your role in a loving relationship is to be put down by someone who’s powerful and judgmental, and you may still be desperately trying to get the love you never got from your father.
When I first began treating people with relationship problems, I believed all of these deficit theories, so I naturally tried to help my patients correct the deficits that were causing their conflicts. I enthusiastically taught troubled couples how to communicate more skillfully, how to solve their problems more systematically, and how to treat each other in a more loving way. I also taught them how to boost their self--esteem and modify the distorted thoughts and self-- defeating behavior patterns that triggered all the anger and resentment. Sometimes we analyzed the past to try to trace the origins of these patterns.
I was surprised to discover that none of these techniques worked very well. It -wasn’t that they weren’t ever effective—individuals who learned to listen, shared their feelings more openly, and treated others with greater love and respect often experienced immediate and dramatic improvements in their relationships with other people. But these individuals were few and far between. Most of the people who complained about their relationships with other people -didn’t actually seem motivated to use any of these techniques. In fact, many of them -didn’t seem interested in doing anything whatsoever to develop more loving, satisfying relationships with the people they were at odds with. They claimed that they sincerely wanted a more loving and satisfying relationship, but what they really meant was, “I want you to agree that my wife (or husband) is a loser.”
These experiences were quite different from my experiences treating people who were suffering from depression and anxiety. They were also plagued by distorted negative thoughts that constantly flowed across their minds, such as, “I’m no good. I’m such a loser. What’s wrong with me? I’ll never get better.” When I showed them how to challenge and dispute their self--critical thoughts, the feelings of depression and anxiety disappeared and they were thrilled. But when I tried to help individuals who were angry and having trouble getting along with others, it was a different kettle of fish entirely. They -didn’t seem interested in changing the way they thought about, communicated with, or treated the person they weren’t getting along with. They seemed far more interested in bashing each other’s heads in! At first, this came as a shock, and I was confused. Before long, I began to question the so--called deficit theories, and my understanding of the causes of conflict took a sudden turn in an unexpected direction.
“Why Should I Have to Change?!”
The following is typical of the cases that began to shift my thinking. Mickey was a forty--five--year--old San Francisco businessman who was referred to me by a colleague for the treatment of depression. Mickey had been treated with every known antidepressant, but none of them had made a dent in his mood. I took Mickey off his medications, because they obviously weren’t working, and used cognitive therapy techniques instead. Within a few weeks, his depression disappeared. I thought that he might be done with therapy, because he seemed to be free of symptoms. To my surprise, Mickey asked if he could keep coming to see me “for growth purposes.” I said I’d be happy to continue working with him, but I needed to know what else he wanted help with.
Mickey explained that he was dissatisfied with his marriage and had a long list of complaints about his wife, Margie. He said that he’d lost all respect for her because:
•She -wasn’t his equal intellectually and never had anything interesting to say.
•She never read anything challenging. Instead, she wasted time reading fashion magazines and trashy newspapers like the National Enquirer.
•She -wasn’t affectionate and was never in the mood for sex.
•She -didn’t seem to appreciate all his hard work to earn a good living for their family.
•She constantly nagged and criticized him.
•She never seemed happy to see him when he came home from the office.
•She rarely cooked his favorite foods for dinner.
•When she was upset, she got back at him indirectly by charging overpriced jewelry and clothing behind his back. Then he’d get socked with a huge credit card bill at the end of the month.
•They constantly argued about their twin daughters, who were in the sixth grade.
Mickey was so annoyed that he’d kept a journal documenting all of Margie’s faults for the past fifteen years. Each day, he’d record all the things she’d said or done that had frustrated him. He started bringing the journal to his therapy sessions so he could read lengthy excerpts out loud, giving me blow--by--blow accounts of this or that argument. For example, eleven years earlier, while he and Margie were driving to Big Sur, they’d had an argument about whether to keep the car windows open or use the air-conditioning. While he was reading his account of the argument, Mickey would look up from his journal every now and then and mutter, “Isn’t that terrible?” or “Don’t I deserve better?” or “Can you believe she’d say something as ridiculous as that?”
During our sessions, Mickey seemed perfectly content just to read from his journal and tell me about all of Margie’s shortcomings, but after several weeks of listening, I began to wonder where the therapy was going. What were we trying to accomplish? I pointed out that Mickey had three options:
•If he was unhappy about his marriage, and felt that things were hopeless, he might want to consider a trial separation or even file for divorce.
•If he still loved Margie and wanted to make his marriage better, we could try couples therapy.
•He could maintain the status quo and make sure that nothing changed.
Mickey definitely -wasn’t interested in the first option. Separation was out of the question. He explained that he felt obligated to live at home until their daughters had graduated from high school. He - didn’t trust Margie’s mothering skills and felt that the girls needed to have their father at home until they were safely off to college.
Mickey also rejected the second option. He said that he definitely - wasn’t interested in marital therapy because he was convinced that Margie could never change. In addition, he -didn’t see any reason why he should have to change, given how poorly she’d treated him over the years.
Mickey seemed committed to the third option—maintaining the status quo. It struck me as odd that someone would complain so bitterly about his marriage and still choose to maintain the status quo. However, this choice is common. In fact, of the three options I described—leaving the relationship, working to make the relationship better, or making sure that nothing changes—the third option is by far the most popular.