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He Said, She Said

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Summer 2000
He Said, She Said
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In Reconcilable Differences, UCLA psychologist Andrew Christensen offers a prescription for building better relationships
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Illustration by Stephen Savage

Men and women, says Professor of Psychology Andrew Christensen, are continually frustrated by their attempts to wring change from their partners. He ought to know; as director of the Couples Therapy Project at UCLA, an ongoing research study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, Christensen has been witness to hundreds of rocky relationships. In Reconcilable Differences (Guilford Press), Christensen and coauthor Neil S. Jacobson, a psychology professor at the University of Washington until his death in 1999, guide couples through their approach to therapy based on the idea that acceptance, rather than the expectation of change, can lead to greater intimacy and a healthy, long-lasting relationship. He spoke with UCLA Magazine Senior Editor Wendy Soderburg.

Q: Why do couples have the same fights over and over?

A: No matter how carefully people select their partner, they're inevitably going to select someone who's different from them, and different in a very important way. For example, let's say my wife is more outspoken than I am. If I'm really sensitive or thin-skinned, that difference is a real problem for me. So then we fight because that difference touches some kind of vulnerability in one or both of us. Maybe I start criticizing her for being critical and she criticizes me for being overly sensitive. Now we're no longer fighting over the fact that she's outspoken; we're battling because I'm too sensitive and she's too critical. The way we fight about it may maintain or even exacerbate the difference.

We have a concept in the book called "toxic cures," where the cures are worse than the disease. One such cure might be withdrawal. For example, I am upset at what my partner says and so I withdraw, making my partner even more upset. My withdrawal serves only as a very temporary solution.

Q: When you and Neil Jacobson met 23 years ago, you were both proponents of the more traditional, behavioral approach to couple therapy. But now you have developed a new approach.

A: The approach we've developed, called integrative couple therapy, starts with acceptance first. When partners are more accepting of each other - when they understand the basis for each other's differences - they have more of an emotional appreciation for the vulnerabilities in their partner. That may facilitate change. Integrative couple therapy is different from behavioral couple therapy in that it starts first with acceptance, and then moves into change. At this point in our research, we don't know which approach is better for which kind of couple.

Q: How would you describe "acceptance"?

A: By acceptance, we don't mean submission. We don't mean surrender. We don't mean just taking it from your partner. Acceptance is a more active process. In the ideal form, you love your partner, not just in spite of the differences but almost because of them. In the less exalted form, you realize that your partner's a package deal; the strengths come along with the weaknesses.

Let's say I marry a very ambitious partner. That's a wonderful strength: She has a good job, she makes good money, I'm very proud of her. But because of that ambition, she has less time or less interest in catering to me or doing "wifely" things. So I've got an ambitious woman, but I didn't get a stay-at-home, traditional wife, like my mother was.

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