This question leads to the heart of Sharon's approach to helping partners break out of the painful groove of ongoing conflict. Her method grew out of personal desperation. "I was in my own very stuck relationship," she says, "and I was frustrated that despite all my professional training, nothing seemed to help. Then I had a breakthrough." Sharon's discovery rang true not only for her but, over the years, for scores of her clients: Whatever the current conflict, its root lies in the first argument a couple ever had. In other words, most of us recycle the same argument again and again. Though the surface issues vary, the dynamic remains unchanged.

So after letting Clare and Jeremy fume for a while, Sharon asked, "Do you remember the first disagreement you two ever had?" They did. It was at a party, before they were married, and Clare noticed that another woman was paying a lot of attention to Jeremy. He not only seemed to be enjoying this, but was oblivious to Clare's discomfort. On the way home, when Clare erupted, Jeremy told her that he was just being friendly and that she was "making something out of nothing."

"Does that sound at all familiar?" Sharon asked. "Here's what I'd like you to do for next week's homework. Without getting caught in who-did-what, try to recover the feelings these two arguments—the party and the cookies—stirred up. Then tell me, from your gut, if there's anything similar about those feelings."

Next: At the next visit, Clare makes a breakthrough.


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