Skills Before Tools

When I meet couples for the first appointment, one partner often describes his or her therapeutic goals like this: “We just need some tools to help us with our communication”.

Couples Use Tools To Practice Skills

I’ve asked many couples clients what they mean by a “tool.” However it’s described, they are referring to something outside of themselves, something reliable or proven that they can pick up and use. I believe there are suggested activities that can help people relate more happily or effectively.

But unlike tools, which are “on the shelf”, skills come very much from inside of us. Or at least they can be, if we work together to carefully define what the skill is, and when & how to practice it. (in practice, we might use or learn several skills together.)

The skill that’s needed is always embedded in the description of the “problem.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

I don’t think it’s wise for me to hand tools to people whose skill level I am not familiar with. At early stages of therapy, no one quite knows how any tool will be handled, or what the effect will be. Handing out tools is not therapy, since it lacks consideration for who might be using them, and skips over personal development. Ultimately, skills will get you through a period where you don’t have tools far better than the other way around.

Tools help develop skills, and skill development and practice is a real goal. They allow people to practice both basic and higher level relational skills. However, a tool which requires a skill level beyond what one has achieved only creates frustration, and possibly despair.

Commitment Develops Skills

I first took a professional education course with Dr. Marty Klein a few years ago, and loved the simple but customized way he talked about skills and abilities in committed relationship. We bring some good ones from our family of origin, but also some that hold back adult relationships. These relational skills get better developed over time, in response to specific relational situations. They represent developments of personal mastery, pushed by the predictable challenges of commitment.

The word ‘skill’ suggests to me a flexible, improvable resource, one that can adapt to very specific situations and problems. It has a hopeful aspect: we are capable of learning new things and developing who we are. We are not stuck with the rigid notion that people are “types” (and if you are into multiple partners, that the third person’s type is “all wrong” for the primary partners.)

Anger Management

Some skills are more challenging, such as Dr. Schnarch’s “holding onto yourself while in close connection to your partner”. Another example comes from Dr. Klein –  the skill of staying calm and clear headed when angry. I know – it sounds counter-intuitive and “unnatural”. But it’s entirely possible, and as a relational skill goes – quite important.

In fact, there’s a nearly infinite variety of such skills. I believe that the need to develop them never ends. We can rebuild or rehabilitate certain skills, even if their foundations are old or shaky. Being in the habit of blowing up and making a big dramatic scene can be difficult to improve if we have been doing that drama for a while. But it’s still quite possible.

It doesn’t hurt to have your partner believe in him/herself that way too, but that’s not a requirement for things to improve. But my experience tells me that it usually happens one partner at a time, not simultaneously.

What’s required is to dig deep into our most capable selves and simultaneously face our deepest fears – including the ones that say, “we’ll never resolve these differences” or “we are not right for each other.” Those are skills of the highest order, and they have literally nothing to do with tools.

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