Book Review: Couple Skills: Making Your Relationship Work

The authors of Couple Skills: Making Your Relationship Work neither want nor expect their audience to read their entire book. Dr. Matthew McKay, PhD., Dr. Kim Paleg, PhD., and professional writer Patrick Fanning designed their book so each chapter “stands alone.” Rather than promoting or championing “any particular theory” or “any particular school of therapy,” the authors offer a menu from which couples can select and work on whatever issue or issues trouble them. This is not just a diagnostic guide, this is a repair manual, and one that instructs couples on how to fix a broken or troubled relationship – provided, of course, that both are willing to put in the work required.

“Love Takes Work”

“Since our goal is to teach skills,” explain the authors, “the focus of the book is on action and challenges, rather than concepts and theory.” Couple Skills is a workbook – and “this means you can't just passively sit and read,” instructs Doctors McKay and Paleg and co-author Fanning. “You'll need to get involved: do the exercises, keep logs and journals, try new behavior, risk new responses to your partner.” One of the first of these exercises may be the hardest, as it presents a “Problem Chart” of 20 issues ranging from “Lack of intimacy” and “Disenchantment” to feelings of “Anger” and expressions of abuse, including “Name-calling, Sniping, Belittling” and other ways people verbally lash out to hurt their partners. Couples are told to be honest about identifying those problem areas, the possible solutions to which are found by cross-referencing the problems with the skills on which the authors suggest the couple work. Some of those 18 skills are as simple as “Listening” to your partner or taking a “Time Out,” while others, like “Identifying and Changing Cognitive Distortions,” require a lot more time, effort and investment.

Help From Two Doctors and a Professional Writer

The trio who put together Couples Skills have a lot of experience and education to draw upon. Dr. Matthew McKay, PhD., is the founder and clinical director of the Haight Ashbury Psychological Services low-fee clinic for 25 years. Dr. McKay also maintains a private practice and is a professor who teaches at the graduate level. He has authored or co-authored more than two dozen self-help, psychology and therapy books, and is also a published novelist and poet. Dr. Kim Paleg is a clincal psychologist with a private practice in San Francisco. A specialist in family and couples therapy, she has co-authored or co-edited numerous books, including When Anger Hurts and Focal Group Psychotherapy. Patrick Fanning is a professional writer with eight self-help titles to his credit as either author or co-author. He specializes in writing about mental health and is the founder of a support group.

Basic Skills – Three Steps on the Path to Making a Relationship Work

Couple Skills is divided into four parts. The first is appropriately named “Basic Skills,” and covers what the authors feel are three things every couple needs to do. The first skill is simply to listen to what their partner is saying. The second is more complicated, as it involves expressing feelings and what the writers describe as “scripting needs.” The third basic skill, that of reciprocal reinforcement, is a fairly obvious skill, but one that many couples fail to use or hone. Getting these three right is the trifecta, the hat trick that can make all the difference on where – or if – a couple moves next.

Advanced Skills – Where the Real Work Begin 

The second part of Couple Skills is where both parties in a relationship really have to roll up their sleeves, be honest with each other and commit to working together. While the chapter on “Identifying and Changing Cognitive Distortions” sounds very clinical and confusing, it really isn't either. The other three chapters in this section are move obvious, as they focus on communication, negotiation and problem-solving exercises. These go beyond the fundamentals of the first section, but again are not particularly complicated or difficult to understand. Again, as in the basic skills section, these are things both people have to work at together.

Anger and Conflict – The Toughest Part of Any Relationship

Anger can destroy any relationship. It eats away what brought a couple together, undermines what keeps them together and pushes them apart. It also leads to conflict – and, too often, to destructive, hurtful and even violent confrontations. Doctors McKay and Paleg and their co-author Mr. Fanning devote a quarter of their book to helping people assess and cope with their own anger and that of their partner. Sometimes only one half of a couple is angry, and how the other addresses and responds to that anger is critical to keeping a partnership together. The authors also devote a chapter to just knowing when and how to step back and take a “Time Out” to let things cool down.

The Big Fix: Understanding and Changing What Goes Wrong

The fourth and final section of Couple Skills is much like going into therapy.The four chapters address very specific needs and problems, including advice on “Separating Your Partner From Your Parents.” This section is where many couples fall down, for it requires them to find and fix what the authors call “negative patterns” that have developed over the course of their relationship. The fixes the authors propose here are more complicated and require a lot of commitment by both parties. The authors understand that this section in particular may be hard on couples, and that they may fail the first or second time out. That is why they caution their readers to “cultivate patience, and keep trying different approaches if your first attempt doesn't work out.” That, perhaps, is the most important lesson and the best skill that any couple can learn.

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