Ken and Doris are an athletic, attractive couple in their fifties, coming into my office for their fifteenth session. In the eighth year of a tumultuous relationship, both are active in the Santa Barbara running/hiking/biking culture, very social, and committed to healing from a recent relationship catastrophe. They’ve had a lot of highs in their marriage, but this year delivered an all time low when Ken discovered Doris had cheated on him and lied about it for months. The subsequent tsunami drove them into treatment with me, and they’ve made wonderful progress. Both are smart, insight minded, and eager to grow, which makes them fun clients who are likely to make positive changes fast. Often, a relationship has turned a corner when a couple has two or three cooperative, fun sessions in a row. Issues and conflicts still arise, but the partners have that warm sense of improving as lovers and friends. The norm for more distressed couples in the first months of therapy is an occasional smooth—more loving—session, followed by a bitter, angry, or depressed session. This is Ken and Doris’ third straight smooth session. Doris comes in particularly happy because Ken trusts her more, and seems to finally believe she’s passionately resolved to never cheat again. I ask them, “You guys seem up today. What do you want to talk about? Ken smiles over at Doris, “We were just discussing that in the waiting room. Are there any exercises you could suggest? We’re going on a trip soon and it helps to have something to focus on.” Looking at them, I think to myself, “There’s a million exercises, but what would be best for you? What would help your love expand?” Since Ken and Doris struggle discussing gripes and disapprovals, I decide to teach them one of my old favorite couples’ chestnuts, the resentment/appreciation exercise. I chuckle remembering how I learned resentment/appreciations, and Doris catches it. “What so funny?” I turn to her, “I’m going to show you the resentment/appreciation exercise. I learned it when Becky and I did Sex Therapy training at the San Francisco Medical Center in 1976. The instructors were wonderful practitioner/teachers—Claudia Black and Lonnie Barbach were two of them. Those guys were at the cutting edge of couples’ work at the time and San Francisco seemed the epitome of sexual liberation and humanistic sophistication. The AIDS nightmare had yet to explode onto the scene, and all kinds of social/sexual liberation felt possible. The UC San Francisco Med center used to screen sex education porn in their cafeteria at lunch, and everywhere people seemed to be pushing limits.” I look out the window, remembering San Francisco in the seventies. “I have no idea how watching gay and straight combinations of explicit sex affected people’s dining experience, but it doesn’t appeal to me.” Ken and Doris laugh at this. “ Anyway, Claudia and the others discovered—and subsequent research confirmed—that couples who safely share minor resentments and everyday appreciations do much better, often improving their sex lives. They showed us this cool exercise that I’m going to teach you.” Doris’ gets enthused—it’s hard for her to hear resentments and she knows it. “Oh boy! This sounds like what we need.” I see Ken nodding also. Couples become more courageous and experimental when they feel securely connected. I take a deep breath. “Part of your problem is that neither of you much enjoys expressing resentments. It feels wrong to you. And so you became isolated rather than risk possible injury with irritations and complaints. Resentments expressed safely actually enhance love.” Both nod at this. In previous sessions we’ve explored in depth how keeping negative stories to themselves contributed to the affair. I go on, “First I’ll describe the exercise, and then you can do it:
- Pick a time of day where you’re reasonably relaxed and not burned out. Ken, I think you should be the one to initiate—you know, say some version of, “Let’s do resentments and appreciations now.”
- One of you starts by telling the other some minor resentments you felt during the last day or so. The more time specific and behavior specific the better, and you don’t elaborate. You just say something like; ‘It bugged me you were ten minutes late to dinner last night.’ Don’t go on about, ‘This is just like you. You’re always late,’ or over-apologize like, ‘I know you hate being late, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings and…’ Just express the resentment and move on to the next one.
- The other person just listens and acknowledges, without explaining, defending, or saying ‘Sorry.’
- After you’ve expressed one, two, three or whatever resentments, then express at least the same number of appreciations plus one. Same guidelines, time and behavior specific and don’t over-explain.
- When you’re done, the other person says, ‘Thanks,’ and then they take their turn.
- When you’re finished, you can’t talk about the resentments for at least four hours.”