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By: Barbi Pecenco, MFT-Intern

As a therapist, I am often asking clients what things mean to them. For example, when a client describes an event that happened, it's important to ask what that meant to them, because people assign various meanings to the same exact events in their lives.

Nowhere is this more clear than in couples counseling. One recent example that comes to mind is a client who told me that his wife became furious when he asked her if the chicken they had at home was boneless or not. To him it was a simple question with very little meaning attached.

To his wife, it was a much different story. "He KNOWS I only keep boneless chicken in the house. That's why I got so angry," she said as if that explained everything. He protested that this wasn't a dumb question and said that there was a good possibility that there could be other chicken in the house besides boneless chicken."

This argument started to take off again in my office, but I finally interrupted and told them this was so NOT about the chicken. They were stumped. What else could it possibly be about then?

I asked the wife what it meant to her that her husband asked her about the chicken. She was confused about the question so I asked her again. (It's sometimes hard for us to look deeper when it can so easily seem like it really is about chicken).

Once she looked inside and asked herself what this all meant, she came up with it. "It's like he doesn't even know me if he could ask a question like that. I only eat boneless chicken." Once the client comes up with the meaning, it's important for me to keep them there and help them explore their meanings and to help the other partner hear them too. It turns out the "He doesn't know me," meaning was a common theme behind most of their fights along with similar themes such as, "He only thinks of himself," and "I'm not important to him."

Once the husband understood the meaning his wife was ascribing to some of his seemingly mundane questions or actions, he was instantly able to empathize with her. He was not able to do that earlier, when all he saw coming from her was anger over what he thought was an innocent question about chicken.

If they had a better connection, he could get away with asking questions like these. But because the couple is already distressed, his wife is less tolerant of any hint of one of those themes coming up.

When we don't stop to ask our partner what our question, comment, or behavior means to them, then what we see on the surface (usually anger or withdrawl) becomes the focus of the argument and not what's going on emotionally for each other underneath it all. We lose an opportunity to really get to know each other when we don't understand our partner's meaning.

The next time your partner is mad at you or withdrawing from you or engaging in some other behavior that doesn't make sense to you, ask a variation of the following:

"What did it mean to you that I…asked about the chicken?"
"What happened for you when I told you…(add yours here)?"
"Help me understand what it means to you that I…(add yours here)."

This article was written by Barbi Pecenco, Marriage & Family Therapist Intern. She specializes in relationship counseling in San Diego, CA. See her website for more information at www.sdcouplestherapy.com

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