When I’m not in my office working with individuals and couples helping them to improve their relationships, I can usually be found on the golf course. Not that I’m a particularly good golfer, mind you, but I do love the game and the myriad challenges it presents. Indeed, I often think of golf as an apt metaphor for life. Contrary to popular opinion, one’s primary objective on the golf course is not to get the ball in the hole. True, that is the end point, but that is tantamount to saying that the point of life is to get to death! What about all that is in between here and there? Such is the stuff that life, and golf, are made of. On the golf course, I see my principal aim as doing the best I can to avoid the obstacles, and when encountering such obstacles, getting beyond them doing as little damage as possible. So too, is my vision for living life well. Couples often find themselves encountering several obstacles in life, and I am constantly seeking new ideas to assist them in steering clear of those impediments, and once encountering them, moving beyond them while doing as little damage to their relationship as possible.
My latest inspiration for couples work came (no surprise!) during my last golf lesson. As mentioned above, my golf game is at best a work in progress, and I will frequently take lessons from the golf pro in order to improve my golf course management, and thus enrich my overall golf experience. I was having a problem with a tendency to sway to the right when taking back my golf club. This pattern was deeply ingrained, and was throwing off my balance when swinging to hit the ball. As a result, my golf shots were often not what I was hoping for. My golf pro, a very insightful guy, said, “Look. This is such a longstanding routine for you. It will take something dramatic to help you break the habit. What I want you to do is several times a day, practice an exaggerated sway to the left.” My first thought was of a Seinfeld episode in which a frustrated George complains to Jerry that every decision he makes is wrong. Jerry’s suggestion…”do the opposite!” However, my golf coach was not just telling me to do the opposite. He was instructing me to exaggerate the opposite. So, ever the compliant student, I began for the next several weeks practicing an exaggerated sway to the left. Of course, my golf shots got worse and worse. At my next lesson, I informed my golf coach of my progress (or lack thereof). He said, “Of course. That is what I expected. Now take your golf swing without attempting to sway at all.” To my great delight, the sway was gone, and my ability to address the ball with stability was apparent in my improved golf swing. It was perfectly clear to me that by exaggerating the opposite, I was able to stop swaying in the direction I had been going, and I was now able to comfortably settle in the middle.
The following week, I was sitting with one of my favorite couples, Joan and Rob (not their real names, of course). Joan and Rob had been struggling with a great deal of marital adversity. They had gotten themselves into an enduring pattern of speaking to each other in an angry, dismissive manner. This mode of communicating had been many years in the making. I thought back to my golf lesson and my golf coach’s suggestion of exaggerating the opposite. I found myself saying to them, “Look. This is such a longstanding routine for you. It will take something dramatic to help you break the habit. (Sounds familiar?!) What I want you to do is several times a day, practice an exaggerated way of speaking to each other with kindness and respect.” Joan and Rob began to laugh, but said they thought that would be a refreshing change. I cautioned them, (much as my golf coach had cautioned me), that this is easier said than done. Breaking old patterns requires a great deal of discipline and practice. The pressing need is to fight the natural inclination because what feels “natural” will only result in more of the same behavior.
Joan and Rob came to their next session in a much better frame of mind. They reported that, while not perfect, they were making great efforts to respond to each other differently. Even in just a week, they had felt a difference in the way they related to each other. Granted, speaking to each other in such an exaggerated positive way felt awkward and unnatural, they could see how behaving this way would make it easier to communicate in a much more respectful manner, and could eventually create a “new normal.” I advised them that this was just the beginning, and if they truly wanted change they would have to keep at it. But, at least for now, they were able to “hit out of the bunker.”
Perhaps you and your partner are struggling like Joan and Rob? If so, you might want to try this technique. It is, of course, just one technique so it is unlikely to solve all of your relationship’s problems. However, much like golf, you need to work on each aspect of the “game,” one piece at a time. Eventually, with diligence, intentionality, courage, desire, and practice, practice, practice, your “round” will continue to improve. Fore!