Couple kissing
Illustration: Luba Lukova
David Burns, MD, has developed a method called cognitive interpersonal therapy that uses specific tools for different trouble spots. Try them; if you're still at an impasse, Burns says, "it may be time to seek professional help."

1. Your partner gives you the silent treatment.

Burns suggests a technique he calls multiple-choice empathy. This involves saying something like "I notice you don't want to talk to me. Is there something you're upset about? Are you angry with me? Perhaps I haven't been a very good listener, and when you've tried to talk, I've just bossed you around. I'm really sad to realize I've probably been doing this to you." Nine times out of 10, Burns says, the other person will open up because you've taken the blame and let him or her off the hook.

2. Your partner criticizes you.

Burns recommends responding to an attack by turning the criticism on its head, a method called positive reframing. For example, if your husband says you're a control freak, instead of taking the bait, respond with a comment like "You're right; I may have a tendency to be overly controlling" and use it as an opening for discussion. "We seem to be having a conflict right now," you might say, "but as awful as it feels, I'm thinking this could be an opportunity for us to explore a deeper relationship. I love you; with that in mind, tell me more about how you're experiencing this."

3. You both want more intimacy.

Try the one-minute drill. One person starts as the Talker; the other is the Listener. The Talker (your husband, let's say) expresses anything that's on his mind for 30 seconds while you give him your full attention, without interrupting, agreeing, or disagreeing. The idea is to sharpen your listening skills, so after 30 seconds you summarize what he said and he grades your response, from 0 to 100 percent, based on how accurate it is. If the grade is below 95, he points out what you missed or got wrong and you repeat the exercise until he gives you at least a 95. Now switch roles. Almost immediately, says Burns, communication between you will improve.

Next: Dr. Burns' guide to escape the blame game

When you stop blaming the other person for what's wrong in a relationship, it's easy to start pointing the finger at yourself. But the key to success is to find a third position, where you take responsibility for your share of the problems in a constructive and caring way. Here's a guide:

the other
Blaming yourselfTaking personal responsibility
What you tell yourself
"He's such a jerk." "It's all his fault." "She's got no right to feel that way."

"It's all my fault. I'm no good. Things are hopeless."

"I'll try to identify the errors I've made so I can learn from them and take steps to help resolve the conflict."
How you

Angry, resentful, irritated, frustrated, hurt

Guilty, ashamed, inferior, anxious, hopeless

Conscientious, curious (mixed with a healthy sadness and concern), and, if appropriate, remorseful
How you communicate 
You argue, insisting he or she is wrong.

You withdraw and refuse to engage your partner.

You listen and try to find some truth in your partner's point of view. You share your feelings with tact and respect.
What this leads to
Endless fighting, bitterness

Isolation, depression, loneliness

Resolution of conflict, greater intimacy, trust, satisfaction

Adapted from Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work, by David D. Burns, MD. Copyright © David D. Burns, 2008. Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Dr. Burns shares the one secret that will bring you closer to your spouse


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