Popular Posts

Agreeing to Stop - Part 1

The will and ability to stop, to pause, or to take a break, stands out for me as one of the best achievements made by the couples I work with in therapy. This is Part 1 of a two-part piece on one couple’s work to interrupt a destructive pattern and opt, instead, for a preferred story of their relationship.


I was working recently with a married couple who were frequently stuck in a downward spiral of painful accusations, criticism, counter-criticism, frustration, and anger. At the end of such spirals the couple would feel overcome by a sense of themselves as being “incompatible,” “just too different,” or “not a good fit from the start.” At the bottom of the spiral they would be completely saturated by “our relationship is bad” stories, and by that point they would have a lot of evidence to support their conclusions. Thoughts of divorce would soon follow, as would feelings of loss, fear, and powerlessness.

Through the years, with every new occurrence of this painful cycle, the couple would become more convinced that the downward spiral, with its defensiveness and recriminations was the “true” story of their relationship. More and more the good times were dismissed as uncharacteristic and irrelevant, and were even used against one another in the couple’s arguments.

Initially, our work in therapy helped the couple to get a clearer picture of how the spiral worked and how it undermined what they wanted in their relationship. But the progress they sought was still slow in coming. Along with a better understanding of the downward spiral we were able to document the many good qualities in their relationship that made it worth trying to find a way to break out of their destructive dance. And yet the harmful patterns remained entrenched.

One day, however, the couple arrived in therapy talking about how much things had improved between them over the past month or so. I was eager to learn more about the steps they had taken to bring about the changes they desired, and our conversation provided a context for them to name and describe what they had accomplished, and how. The short version is: They stopped. They developed their capacity to pause and interrupt the downward spiral before it could, once again, suck them into its vortex. Here’s some of what they did to stop:

1. They recognized a “point of no return.” They both came to see that there was a point in their disagreements where the agitation and frustration, fueled by their increasingly negative thoughts about each other, were becoming so intense that to continue the conversation was almost guaranteed to make things worse.

The signals of growing agitation and frustration included: pacing the room; her voice getting louder while his would become more measured, deliberate, and quiet; he would start telling her to “please stop yelling,” and she would tell him “I’m not being loud! Talk to me like an adult, not like I’m a four-year-old!”

Their thoughts about one another were like these:

  • “He never accepts responsibility!”
  • “She always thinks she’s right!”
  • “She’s losing it again!”
  • “He’s so controlling!”
  • “She doesn’t want to listen to the truth!”
  • “He’s completely out of touch!”

At their calmer times the couple came to the conclusion that once a difficult conversation passed a certain point, the conversation became an argument and took on a life of its own. They likened it to a forest fire that becomes so intense that it creates its own weather pattern, with driving winds that pull in everything nearby as it grows in heat and intensity and destructiveness. They also agreed that they were fed up and ready to stop.

2. Saying “Stop.” As their destructive interactions grew in intensity, it became more and more difficult for the couple to interrupt the process. Yet they found a way. After recognizing that there was a “point of no return,” the couple did the tricky work of finding a way to signal to one another that they needed a break.

I say it was “tricky” because it’s easy for partners to feel “controlled” or “blamed” or “belittled” when the other communicates the need for a break; like this:

Her: “I need a break from this. I can’t take it anymore.” Him: “Oh, so you think I’m out of control! Yeah, walk away! Just when we’re finally starting to talk!”
Him: “Can we just keep our voices down a little?” Her: “I … am … not …being … loud. Stop trying to control me. YOU’RE NOT MY FATHER!!!”
Her: “Can we NOT do this again?” Him: “You’re blaming ME for this!? I can’t believe it.”

This couple became so tired of the destructive pattern that they reached a point where just the words “I need to stop” or “let’s take a break” were enough to signal the imminent point of no return and the need to take a break: to physically separate for a little while and then to come back together and talk, more calmly, about whether they were ready to continue their previous conversation in a more productive way.

[To honor and give a more complete picture of this couple’s hard work to get to the point where they could say “stop” and have it turn out well, in my next blog entry I describe some of the work they did to build and strengthen the capacities of their relationship.]

3. A willingness to trust the preferred story. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that the problems of our relationships are more real than the good or preferred qualities of our relationships. But by saying “stop” and trying to interrupt the downward spiral, I see this couple as having cast their votes for their preferred story of their relationship. By agreeing to wait until a better time and place, and a better way to talk about their difficulties, the couple was saying that those better qualities were just as real as their problems. They were trusting, and risking, that if they took steps to stop the downward spiral (by resisting accusations and confrontations), and instead, to respectfully offer one another the time to regroup and refocus, they would be building a better relationship, one that was real and that was a better fit with their values than was their destructive downward spiral. In other words, they said:

“The good aspects of this relationship are real and are important to nurture. We nurture them best when we talk about our challenges and differences in a calm and friendly manner. We undermine those good qualities when we allow ourselves to be sucked into tension, suspicion, and hostility.”

They were choosing to construct or build their relationship around their preferences. They chose to prioritize those qualities that brought life, energy, respect, and love to their relationship, rather than relegating them to the “less real” or “less important” or “less honest.”

Building Preferences – Being Less Grumpy

As promised in my last entry on Building Preferences, here’s an example of building a preference. The preference is for Dave, who has been struggling for several months with what he’s come to call his “grumpiness” at home. We’ll walk with Dave through the process of building a preference. Although Dave is fictitious, the dialogue that follows is based on many therapy conversations.

1. Naming your preference. Dave is clear only about what he doesn’t want – the problem that is causing such a negative feeling for him and a disheartening spirit at home with his wife and two kids: grumpiness. At first he states his preference as:
  • “I’d prefer to be less grumpy.”

We’re on our way to developing some useful alternatives for Dave, but first it will be helpful to get a better understanding of at least two things:

1. Dave has identified what he does NOT prefer (i.e. being grumpy), but I wonder what he DOES prefer, instead of grumpiness; or, since he prefers to be LESS grumpy, what would he say he wants MORE of?

2. Where does the preference matter most? Where is it most an issue? Is Dave grumpy “all the time,” or mostly around certain issues, or particular times of day, or around certain activities, or perhaps with some of his family members rather than others?

In response to the inquiry about what Dave DOES prefer, he’s not entirely clear, but he offers his best understanding:

  • “I’d prefer to be happy, to be more pleasant around my family; to be upbeat and have more fun around them.”

This is helpful to our process of building a preference as it gives us a sense of direction: away from grumpy, toward happy, pleasant, upbeat and fun.

In response to the second inquiry, Dave says that grumpiness is mostly an issue in the evening, from the time he gets home from work until the kids’ bedtime, some two to three hours later. He’s not always grumpy during these times, and he can recall many experiences of lightheartedness and warm connections with his wife and kids in the evenings. But grumpiness has made more and more of an appearance, so to speak, and he doesn’t like its effects on himself, his wife, or his kids. In the course of this conversation Dave clarifies that grumpiness is far more of an issue during the week than on the weekend. In light of this, we update his preference as follows:

  • “I’d prefer to be happy, to be more pleasant around my family; to be upbeat and have more fun around them – especially in the evening, on weekdays.”

2. Describing what your preference looks like. Dave has identified important concepts or ideas to express his desires – being happier, more pleasant, upbeat, and fun around his family. And Dave may experience real benefits just by having clarified something that’s been bothering him, and clarifying what he’d prefer instead. But concepts like happiness and being upbeat or fun can easily remain abstract or vague, and therefore, not as useful, unless we take the time to explore what they actually look like when they show up in Dave’s life. So, we explore these questions:

  • When you picture yourself being happy, pleasant, upbeat, or fun, what are you actually doing with your family?
  • What “feelings” or “emotions” capture your sense of being happier, more pleasant, upbeat, or fun? What’s happening with you, your kids, and your wife that would evoke those feelings or emotions?

At first, questions about what Dave would be doing with his family are difficult for him to answer. All he can really identify is that whatever he’d be doing, he’d have a warm sense of contentment.

I ask him to imagine himself feeling such contentment and to describe what he’s experiencing. He first describes what he sees: his daughter and son being energetic, but not rude or out of control, they’re not anxious or worked up. As he thinks about himself in this scenario, he imagines a variety of situations. He could be working on his own project from work, or sitting beside his kids helping with their homework. He could be cleaning up after dinner. He might be talking with his wife about the upcoming week, or just catching each other up on the day’s events. Or he might be by himself, reading or watching TV, but with a prevailing sense of calm or peace, even with the hum of activity going on around him.

I start to ask Dave about why this matters to him, but before I can move in this direction, Dave says that he’s gaining a new insight about what his preference looks like. He states it this way:

  • “No matter if we’re having fun as a family or working on really challenging projects, or homework, or facing our finances; and no matter whether we’re all together or off in our separate places in the house, there’s a positive energy, and a sense of calm, and a sense of focus. Bottom line, tension and frustration with one another are not getting in the way of what we’re doing. It’s like this fog, this thick, gray fog that so often hangs in our house, is gone. The air is clear. And if my son is struggling with his homework and I need to help, that’s all it is: my son is struggling with his homework and I need to help. I’m not thinking, ‘why does he always put it off until the last minute?’ And I’m not thinking, ‘if I have to help him now, when am I going to get back to my work? I can’t afford to stay up late.’ I’m not worked up about helping him and he’s not worked up about needing help. I’m just helping my son. And he’s just struggling with homework.”

3. Understanding why the preference matters to you. I ask Dave why it matters to him that the fog lifts and that homework is just homework.

He says it matters to him because he believes tension is corrosive. The fog of tension gets in the way of working together clearly and cleanly, and creates a sense of unrest and uneasiness for everyone. He says that he can actually feel his body relax and breathe easier when he’s able to help his son with his homework without getting worked up about how late it is. He’s certain that it must be better for his health when the fog lifts and his family’s relationships with one another are calmer. And he thinks they all benefit by not carrying around with them the tensions of a frustrated, fog-shrouded evening together.

I ask him if there are other ways he thinks the carrying out of this preference might matter to his kids’ lives. Dave talks about his hope that he and his wife pass along a different legacy of family than either of them had growing up.
At this point Dave’s updated preference might be described more creatively as:

  • “I’d prefer that the fog has lifted and the air is clear: that I’m helping to create a focused, connected, playful, and tension-free evening with my family.”

4. Exploring how your experience has informed you about this preference. I hold an assumption about Dave, as I do when I work with people in therapy, that he is able to describe what his preference looks like because he’s experienced it. He’s either experienced it in his own life, or he’s witnessed others enacting this preference, or perhaps he’s witnessed it only in his imagination. Our conversation turns to his experiences to see what they’ve taught Dave about his preference.

  • Where have you seen or experienced the fog lifting and the air being clear? Where and when has it shown up in your life?
  • Have you seen others interacting without the fog? What was it about what you observed that captured your interest and attention?
  • Have you imagined what it would be like to be with your family without the fog? Have you read of such an experience, or seen it in a movie?
  • What have these experiences taught you about what the preference looks like? What have they taught you about the effects of clear air, of relating without the fog? And what have you learned about why this matters?
  • What have those experiences taught you about how to do it?

Dave was already in this territory when he talked about helping his son with his homework. He described an experience from just the past week in which he was particularly stressed from a confluence of events – bills that required online payment that evening, his wife’s making a late run to the store, his sense that he was catching a cold, and his daughter’s pouting at dinnertime. When bedtime approached and his son still had a history assignment to complete, Dave could feel that grumpiness was turning into something worse: intolerance and frustration toward his son. The fog was descending.

Because he had been focusing on this pattern where grumpiness quickly becomes something colder, more distant, and mean-spirited, Dave was able, at least, to catch himself from saying something critical to his son (from past experience Dave had concluded that such in-the-moment criticism tended to escalate the situation in a negative way and compound everyone’s frustration).

When his son announced that he needed help with his homework, a panic-wave rippled through Dave's body. But he said, “give me a moment. Get out your assignment and I’ll be there in a couple minutes.” He stepped outside and looked to the night sky. He began to calm and said to himself, “my son needs my help now. We can talk tomorrow about his study habits.” After a few moments, and a few deep breaths, Dave walked back in and sat with his son, and let his son’s homework be homework.

In describing the effects of his actions that evening, Dave said he was surprised by how simple things became once he paused. Instead of being shrouded in the fog of the demands on his time and his frustration with his son, it was simply Dave and his son taking one question at a time: thirty minutes of a comfortable, focused connection.

5. Identifying your own skills that support this preference. From this brief description of just one event we gain an understanding of several skills Dave was able to utilize to work toward his preference. (“Skills” is used here broadly, to include thinking skills, the ability to manage one’s emotions, actions or behaviors, skills involved in communicating, and one’s knowledge that can be brought to bear on a situation.) As Dave I reviewed his experience of that evening, these were the skills that stood out to him:

  • The skill of recognizing a bad pattern – Dave was able to recognize, when it was actually happening, his well-worn emotional pattern of moving from grumpiness to intolerance, criticism, and frustrated distance. This recognition, though it may seem simple, requires a complex set of skills, such as noticing subtle changes in emotion, gestures, words, tones of voice, ways of thinking, and even changes in breathing that signal the pattern.

  • The skill of making a choice to interrupt the pattern – When he recognized the bad pattern, It wasn’t clear to Dave exactly what he should do differently, but he knew he did not want to do the critical-intolerant thing he often does. So he took a break to interrupt the pattern and allow for another possibility.

  • The skill of calming himself down – Dave enacted several skills to calm his agitation. He physically moved, put his body in motion; he removed himself from the stressful situation; he focused on maintaining a steady, calm breathing pattern; and he gave himself a bigger perspective by taking in the night sky.

  • The skill of focusing on what matters – Of all the things clamoring for Dave’s attention, he was able to prioritize his son’s immediate need for help. He also prioritized an attitude (of care and interest) and an “emotional stance” (being calm and positive) that would be beneficial, both to his son and to himself.

  • The skill of being guided by a preferred story or picture – Dave showed the ability to identify a picture of how he wanted to be with his son (or a “preferred story” of how to do homework together), and then to allow that picture to guide his comments, his questions, his thinking, and his overall spirit, attitude, and emotions during his 30 minutes with his son.

By naming the skills required by his preference, Dave could see that some of these skills were already part of his repertoire, and he could identify others that he wanted to develop more fully.

A Richly Described Preferred Story

In my earlier entry I talked about how the steps outlined here aid us in the “thickening” of the preference into a richly described story or identity. What began for Dave as almost a whim or an improbable wish – that he could be less grumpy – has now taken on body, detail, and depth. It has become three-dimensional and alive. At this end of the discussion Dave has helped prepare himself for future situations when he starts to experience grumpiness taking on a life of its own. He’s likely to be much quicker in recognizing the patterns before they get a real grip on him. He’ll have a much clearer picture of his preferences for his own behavior, thought patterns, and ways of communicating with those around him. And he’ll have a detailed understanding of himself, his identity, and the resources he already has at his disposal that can be put to use to bring about the preferred ways of being and outcomes that matter most to him. From a narrative therapy perspective, we can summarize this by saying that Dave has richly described his preferred story: which makes it much more accessible on those potentially fog-shrouded evenings with his family. Here’s Dave’s preference, or preferred story, at this end of our conversation – still a work-in-progress:

  • “I’d prefer to use my skills for being calm and connected, to keep the fog at bay and help to create a focused, playful, and tension-free evening with my family.”

Building Preferences

Like water that gushes forth when the floodgates are opened, the thing I find most exciting about the naming of a preference is the energy the name can unleash.

Sometimes, though, in my therapy work, my excitement is not shared by the people I work with – at least not initially. I’m moving downstream and they’re stuck behind the dam.

  • They may still be held in the problem’s grip and skeptical that the naming of a preference could make much difference in their lives.
  • They may have “settled in” or “come to terms” with the problem and decided to “make the most” of their situation.
  • They may dismiss preferences as mere fantasies, wishes, or unrealistic dreams.
  • They may feel daunted by the many factors that make the problem seem like an irresistible force.
  • Maybe they’ve already been working at this for so long that they’re sure they’ve tried everything.
  • And they may feel stuck because they don’t know where the path can go after a preference is named.

But the naming of a preference is only an initial step. There’s much more to add, to round out and give life and detail to the named preference so that it becomes “richly described” and more available to the person. So in my work with people I sometimes need to slow down my own thinking and excitement to make sure we’re moving together down a shared path – working together to build a preference or preferred story. Generally speaking, the questions below describe the territory we’ll explore as we travel down that path.

1. Naming your preference. This is the brief description, or title, of what you prefer or desire as an alternative to the problem that has been so dominant in your life. It’s a beginning point and likely to change as you think about and discuss the other steps in this process.

Here are some examples of preferences:

  • “I’d prefer to have a clearer sense of direction in my career.”
  • “I’d prefer to be calmer and be clearer about how I want to respond when my kids act up.”
  • “I’d prefer not to have my life be so influenced by doubts and worries.”

2. Describing what your preference looks like. Usually, when we name a preference, the name itself is only shorthand for a rich, detailed picture of what the preference looks like or how it would show up in our lives. If you were to say “I want to be more involved in my son’s life,” you’re probably not making a generic statement; you’re probably not talking about just a generic kind of involvement. Instead your statement probably carries with it images and ideas, activities and conversations, and places and situations that make it more than just a fantasy or dream. In this step we try to capture in conversation, words, or pictures (and perhaps even in music or colors or movement) a rich and detailed description of “how you know it when you see it.” So, we might ask:

  • When you picture yourself being involved in your son’s life, what are you actually doing with him?
  • Is there a “feeling” or “emotion” that captures that sense of involvement? How would you describe it? What do you picture yourself doing with your son that would evoke that feeling or emotion?
  • Does the involvement you’re picturing include conversations? Are there certain topics or ideas or experiences you might be talking about that would support the kind of involvement you want to have?
3. Understanding why the preference matters to you. The preference becomes more real as you understand the difference it makes in your life. So we ask:

  • How does this preference affect the way you think, feel, or act?
  • How does it affect the way you relate with others?
  • How does it affect the way you see your future?
  • How does the preference capture or reflect your hopes and dreams?
  • What does the preference make possible that isn’t possible, or as likely, when the problem is dominating your life?

4. Exploring how your experience has informed you about this preference. One of the reasons you can describe what a preference looks like is that you’ve usually had some (or a lot of) experience with it. In this step you deliberately focus on your own experiences to see how they’ve taught you about your preference. So, as a therapist, I might ask the person I’m working with:

  • Where have you seen this preference in action?
  • Where and when has it shown up in your life?
  • Where and when have you seen others enacting it? And what was it about what you observed that captured your interest and attention?
  • What have those experiences taught you about what the preference looks like? About its effects? About why it matters?
  • And what have those experiences taught you about how to live it out?

5. Identifying your own skills, abilities, qualities, and knowledge that support this preference. Your detailed descriptions, and your experiences help us understand the qualities, skills, and knowledge that are required by the preference. Sometimes these are obvious in the vivid pictures you paint of the preference or in the experiences you recall. At other times you can see those qualities and skills by speculating or imagining. Or you might playfully consider how you would advise someone else who wanted to live out this preference. Or you might imagine directing someone in a play or movie role, if they youre trying to act out this preference. By naming the qualities and abilities required by the preference, you’re able to consider how these are already part of your repertoire, or how you can build on the things you’re already good at, and more fully develop these skills that support your preferences.

From a theoretical perspective these questions aid in the “thickening” of the preference into a richly described story or identity. What began as almost a whim or an improbable wish, now takes on body and depth. It becomes three-dimensional and alive. It changes, so to speak, from an outline to a story; from a bright idea to an action plan. It starts to move from the vague and ephemeral to the detailed and full-bodied, and thereby becomes much more accessible to us in your lives.

(In my next entry I work through this same set of questions with an example focusing on a grumpy dad)