How do we view the problems in relationships and how to manage them? Often we view relationships as individual times two. In other words, we really look at it as the individual’s responsibility to be ok, to be healthy and independent, and then to relate to their partner from this place. The partner should also be doing this and hopefully as a result these two individuals will be able to live in close proximity to each other in spite of each other. We throw around $20 words to describe the process, words like individuation, codependency, and functional boundaries.

Let’s look closer. Since the approach is essentially an individualistic look at how two people interact with each other, this way of viewing relationships looks at all relational problems as being caused by the failure of one or both of the partners in relating to themselves and the other. As a counselor, whenever we go about trying to understand a problem with the assumption that one or the other is at fault, we end up putting ourself in the role of having to decide who is at fault. Then we can decide how the problem should be remedied to work better. How do the individuals need to change so that the relationship works better?

This naturally assumes then that one or both of the members of a relationship are “wrong” in some way. They are either expecting too much from their partner, or maybe not giving enough. State needs and expectations, then offer consequences to behaviors. We expect that one or the other is acting selfishly, in their own self-interest, and that they must change in order to improve the relationship dynamics. We would be convinced of this, and then try to convince our clients of this. They might even believe us, one often triumphantly (“See, I was right. You ARE the problem.”) and one resentfully (“The counselor was on your side. Not fair!”). Some may see this as a “win – lose” scenario. I see it as “lose – lose”. The only possible situation that “wins” is a win/win scenario when it comes to relationships. This means we have to take a totally different view on the relationship and the causes of problems in it. Hint: the problem isn’t the other person, but the way both of us are relating to each other.So who is to blame?  It’s the pattern, not the person.

Let me be honest; although the individual perspective sounds reasonable, it really is inadequate in understanding committed relationships. As a matter of fact, I would say it misses the point entirely in understanding relationship problems. You can’t fix what’s going on between two people unless you look at what the relationship means to each of you. Does the way you act help you reach these expectations and needs together? Is the way you are trying to get these needs met leading to conflict and disappointment? These are the questions that need to be asked.