Taking Responsibility in Couples Therapy

Taking Responsibility in Couples Therapy


Many couples come to therapy hoping that therapy will fix their partner. They secretly (or not so secretly) believe their partner is the problem and if their partner would just step it up everything would be easier.

This doesn’t work. If you come to therapy just waiting for your partner to get their act together, you may have to wait a long time. A more effective attitude is to ask yourself how you contribute to relationship problems, and what it will take for YOU to make things better. 

You can’t control your partner, but the actions you take can have a positive effect on them and the relationship over time. While accepting this may be difficult, it will ultimately cut down on your angst and frustration. You have the power to change your relationship for the better.

Here’s a common scenario. Partner A thinks: If Partner B would just be less defensive, we could actually solve problems instead of getting into shouting matches that lead nowhere. Why does Person B always have to play the victim or counter-attack? It’s annoying and immature. They need to grow up.

What Partner A doesn’t realize is that defensiveness  is often triggered by…criticism. When Partner A verbally attacks Partner B with negative criticisms such as, “You always leave the dishes in the sink! You’re such a slob!” Partner B naturally flares up with a defensive response. If Partner A actually just focused on the one person they can control – themselves – they might work on communicating in a gentler way. They might learn to say, “I feel so frustrated by the dishes piling up. I need your help to get them done.” With this statement, a better outcome is not guaranteed, but it’s certainly more likely. 

Worst case scenario: Partner B may still respond defensively. They might still say, “Well, what about all the laundry you leave all over our bedroom? You’re the slob.”

At this point, Partner A will need to watch out for “nice guy backlash.” This is the phenomenon that happens when you are the “bigger person” and communicate in a kinder way, only to receive the same rude response. Feeling extra resentful, you lose motivation to continue working on your communication. But it’s important to keep working on your communication no matter how your partner responds. It may take awhile for them to get used to – and trust – that you’re no longer so harsh and critical.

Also, communicating with generosity and compassion is actually good for you, not just your partner. You’re more likely to feel happy if you live up to your own values, and my guess is you value being loving more than you value being a jerk. 

The more you communicate effectively, the more natural it will feel, and that will benefit your other relationships too – like your relationship with your kids.

It’s clear how it works. By focusing on what your partner is doing wrong, you will stay stuck.

By focusing on what YOU can do to improve the relationship: you will make progress.

The Assumption of Similarity

For couples struggling to take responsibility, it can also be helpful to keep in mind a concept called the Assumption of Similarity. Basically, assume that you and your partner have more in common than not. If you notice something negative in your partner, try to notice that trait in yourself as well. You think Partner B is such a slob? Have you ever left messes around the house? What times in your own life have you struggled to  stay organized?

If you notice something positive in yourself, try to notice that in your partner as well. Perhaps you like to think you’re a generous person who helps others whenever you can. Can you think of a time your partner also showed their generous spirit? What do you like and appreciate about your partner?

My Favorite Couples

My favorite couples to work with – and the couples with the best prognosis – are the ones who very quickly figure out it’s best to stop blaming their partners, and get on with the work of improving their own communication and working on themselves. They’re interested in what they can do better, and they’re invested in learning and growing in the process.

Couples who continue to feel like their partner needs to do the heavy lifting – who refuse to take responsibility but continue to blame the other person for relationship problems – often remain on the struggle bus for much longer than necessary. Sometimes, they give up on each other. It’s tough to make progress when neither one of you will take that first move toward responsibility and ownership of problems. 

If you’re both motivated to learn and grow, and willing to take responsibility in order to heal the relationship, feel free to reach out about working together. You can book a free consult using this link.