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Building Better Bridges/Creating
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Chapter 3
By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Support and Accountability -

Do not use a hatchet to remove
a fly from your friend’s forehead.
-Chinese Proverb

I’m about to discuss with you the most crucial ingredients of any relationship. Without these elements, the relationship will become undefined and chaotic. I’ve learned many lessons aboutrelationships. No lesson has been any more important than the one I am going to discuss now.

Support is the most important nutrient that allows any relationship to grow and thrive. Support is to a relationship what water and air are to you and me.

I have worked with so many couples on this one skill and have seen their lives change dramatically. Most people react the same way when I share the lesson with them. “I can see how support is critical, but how do I give support any differently than I am giving it now?”

I’m going to share with you what I believe part of the confusion about support is, and then demonstrate for you a simple four-step process. When you master these four simple steps, you will have mastered the essence of  Relationship Bridge-Building.

Support is a very simple thing to give, but I constantly see people trip over themselves when trying to give support. Some people confuse fixing or care-taking with support.

In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Support is the communication of understanding, caring, and concern for your partner. Support is the communication of the fundamental belief in the capabilities of your partner. Support is acknowledging that your partner’s thoughts and feelings are valid and O.K. Support is the communication of your belief in and your commitment to the relationship.

I was on a train one time for a ride to the country. A couple was seated next to me. It was fall and the trees had just exploded into full color, but it was obvious these two would not notice the beautiful scenery. They were on the verge of shouting at each other. The argument went something like this.

He said, “I would love to stop fighting if you would only show me what we are fighting about. I don’t see what we are supposed to fix by arguing like this.”

“I don’t want to fix anything,” she said. “I wish you would slow down and listen to me. I feel so separated from you.”

“Then we should do stuff together,” he said. “Maybe we could hit a ball game or go shopping. You like shopping.”

“No, just listen to me,” she said.

“What do you want?” he said.

"Nothing, just listen ...”

“O.K. what?” he said.

“You don’t have to do anything. I need your support,” she finally explained. But I did not get the feeling that he really understood.

Often times people believe they are providing support by creating solutions for a certain troubling circumstance. These well-intended people are often confused when their partner responds negatively to their attempts at being supportive by trying to solve the problem.

Solutions are not support. They are disguised attempts at talking your partner out of their feelings in order to enhance your own level of personal comfort.

I observed another couple who’s conversation went something like this.

“Let’s go to a movie, O.K.?” he said.

"I don’t really feel up to a movie,” she said. “Can’t we go tomorrow?”

“Is it something I said?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Just because. I just want to sit home tonight.”

“You don’t feel like a movie because you just want to sit and feel tired. Why can’t we just get over these little setback kind of feelings and go to the movie? It will make you feel better.” 

“I don’t want to.”  

“You never want to,” he pushed. “Can’t you just get over it? I know this may seem tough, but, it’s for your own good.”

I see support-giving go wrong time after time. People’s attempts at support-giving often disintegrate into a dissection of explanations and justifications. One partner is looking for support, the other partner is looking for vindication. Denying your intentions is not support. Explaining yourself is not support.  

Your partner is never seeking a justification of your behavior. Your partner is seeking acknowledgment that your behavior affects them--not an explanation of your good intentions. 

Your partner is seeking confirmation that you understand them--not that you can analyze and explain your partner to themselves. Your partner is seeking the comfort of realizing they are worth taking the time to be listened to--not the covert message which fixing communicates, “You are hopeless, helpless, and worthless.”

I know two fine people who have been together for many years. One day I asked what secret kept them both talking to each other after so many conversations for so long.

“Well, he doesn’t spend much time talking about my reasoning or my ability to think in a straight line,” she said smiling. “You know, our days are filled with wonderful smells from the flowers in the garden and tastes from our kitchen and colors from the sky, and emotions. That’s what we talk about.”

Her husband leaned over and said something I thought was amazing. “Life is a lot more fun son, when you can feel it instead of just think about it.”

He thought for a second before he continued, “And conversations about thinking get old after about three or four years. If we didn’t move on, we’d have been stuck in a rut for the past thirty years. Who wants to talk shop that long?”

O.K., I hope I’ve sold you on what support is. Now let me take care of the second half of the challenge. How to provide support. Here it is in all of its simplistic wonder.

Talk to your partner's feelings--not to your partner's logic and beliefs.

This is one of my all-time favorites. The sheer elegance of this statement is in its simplicity--the sheer majesty is how powerful it is.

Very simply, never, ever argue with your partner’s feelings. You may not realize that’s what you are doing. You may not have intended to do it. You may want only the very best for your partner. But by violating this very simple principle, you are causing more harm than creating good. Let me show you what I mean.

I know a doting mother who loves her daughter to death, and with very good reason. This little girl is an angel.

One day I ran into the mother and I asked her about the joy of her life. She looked at me with great hurt in her face and said, “I feel broken-hearted. She is so sad and I don’t know what to do.”

She went on to explain her daughter had entered that special time of her life when boys had become her only interest. The fly in the ointment was her daughter had expressed her belief that she was unattractive and would never be able to have a boyfriend.

The mother went on to explain how she tried telling her daughter how wrong she was about her attractiveness. Mom kept saying, “You are wrong, you’re very attractive and you’ll have plenty of boyfriends.”

It was then the mother looked at me with a confused look and said, “Steve, the more I kept trying to reassure her, the angrier she got.”

The daughter finally stormed out of the room shouting at her mother, “You don't understand me and you don’t understand what I’m going through.”

The mother looked sadly at me and said, “All I was trying to do was help by making her feel better.”

I said to her, “I don’t doubt your good intentions, but wouldn’t you like to be well intended and effective at the same time.” She said, “yes”--so I gave her a few pointers.

  STEP #1:

Do not talk to your daughter’s beliefs. Father Martin once said, “Beliefs and attitudes die about six months after you do.” People will defend their beliefs to the very end.

STEP #2:

Figure out what emotional experience your daughter may be having. Is she scared she won’t fit in with the right crowd? Is she ashamed she doesn’t dress the way everybody else does? Is she terrified the boy she likes will not like her back? Is she confused by the whole new scene of dating?

STEP #3:

Talk to whatever emotion you believe your daughter is experiencing. “It must be scary to like somebody and not be sure if he will like you back,” or “It must feel awkward for you to try and fit in,” or “It must feel overwhelming to figure out all the things you have to sort out about dating for the first time.”

STEP #4:

Give your daughter permission and time to figure her feelings out. Let her use you as a sounding board--not as somebody to invalidate whatever she is going through by trying to talk her out of her beliefs.

This is the ultimate formula for support. When this formula is implemented, any relationship will be less conflictual and more open. You will both feel more validated and less misunderstood. These are the important seeds that create the growth of more trust and support in the relationship.

Another time I was driving in a car with some close friends as their young daughter talked about how much she disliked her new family. You see, her mother had recently remarried and along with a step-father, came two step-brothers.

The mother reacted to this complaining by constantly correcting her and telling her it wasn’t true  that she disliked her new family. In fact, the mother gave her several reasons why she should be happy for this new family.

I watched sadly as the little girl gave-up and withdrew--knowing no one would understand how she was feeling. No one would give her permission to have those feelings--let alone talk about them. The mother wanted to hold onto the appearance of happiness rather than risk rocking the boat and validating this little girl’s feelings.

How would you have handled such a situation?


Tell the little girl how wrong she is? Or

... Provide support by listening instead of arguing with the little girl’s beliefs.


Give 10 reasons why the little girl must be wrong? Or ... Try to understand what feelings the little girl must be experiencing to have these beliefs. Maybe she is frightened her mother won’t love her anymore. Maybe she is feeling jealous of the attention she will have to share with three new people. Maybe she is feeling uprooted and not trusting the world is safe and predictable.


Tell the little girl, “If you don’t stop your complaining, I am going to ground you for a week.” Or ... “It must be scary to have all this change happening and you not knowing if you are still going to be loved the same by your Mom.”


Say to the little girl, “I don’t want to talk about this any more.” Or ... “Whenever you want to talk about what is troubling you, I want to be there for you.”

O.K. that’s support. Let’s move on to limit setting and accountability. These two ingredients are what provide strength and integrity to the relationship-bridge. Without these two ingredients, any relationship bridge will be structurally unsound and likely crumble.

Imagine a bridge constructed with crooked steel. Or a bridge constructed with the kind of materials you don’t know from day-to-day whether the bridge will be rigid and brittle, mushy and collapsible, or flexible and adaptable.      

Would you trust your life to such a structure or find another route to travel? Limit setting and accountability are the materials that ensure a relationship bridge remains flexible and adaptable rather than becoming rigid and brittle or soft and collapsible.

Limit setting and accountability permeate all aspects of the work that takes place in our Bridge-Building groups. Many times the group members are confronted with the job of limit-setting and creating accountability. It can be one of the more frightening things for the group members to tackle. I have also seen it be one of the most rewarding things group members have experienced when it is done effectively.

First-things-first. What is limit-setting and accountability? People in a relationship must define what is in and out-of-bounds. People define this in the following manner. The couple declare what is appropriate and what is not appropriate behavior. This is done for the various facets of the relationship.

You pick the point of discussion. Is it a monogamous relationship? Is it a relationship where you call each other three times a day? Is it a relationship where people will be on time? Is it a relationship where people will humiliate each other? These are all worked out through discussion. Remember, no question is silly. Everything counts.

The other way to define the out-of -bounds line is for one or both partners to test each other with behavior. People are always looking to redefine the line or make the line crooked. We may have agreed to be punctual with each other, but I continually show-up 10 minutes late. We may have agreed that I would no longer drink, but I keep going over to my buddy’s house for a beer. We may have agreed that I won’t belittle you, but I continue to tease you and poke fun at you.

That is where accountability comes in. If you don’t create accountability for your behavior, the relationship will become distorted and less defined. No one will know what to count on each other for. The sense of appropriateness becomes distorted and less important.

I knew three roommates in college who got along better than any three people living on campus. They shared a small apartment. One day I saw one of them taking out the garbage, and I realized he had been taking it out every day that week.

When I asked why, he said, “In our group, if you miss your turn to do the dishes twice in a row, you have to take the garbage out all week. I missed my turn twice, so I take the garbage out. It’s kind of tough, but the system makes sure we don’t make each other miserable with filthy dishes.”

I asked him what happens if he was completely irresponsible and  forgot to take out the trash as well.

“I think they would empty it themselves, right on my bed.”


You may be asking yourself, if support, limit setting, and accountability are so important, why is it so difficult to create and maintain?

In our Relationship Bridge-Building groups, we have a basic contract that everybody has agreed to follow. However, many times someone’s behavior will be different than what they agreed to in the contract. For example, anybody joining the group agrees to attend meetings every week. Every so often, a group member will repeatedly violate this agreed upon condition of the group. I always ask the group members what they want to do about the situation.

Invariably, their first reaction is shock and surprise that they have any kind of power to affect change in the way the relationship contract is being honored. They are more accustomed  to people’s behavior not being congruent with their words and even more accustomed to the resultant feelings of powerlessness that goes with such a situation.

The second shock comes when they realize their many fears about creating accountability in their relationships. Once I challenge them to do something about the lack of accountability, they become overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt. What can we possibly do? What right do we have to impose our will on somebody else? Wouldn’t it be better not to say anything at all and hope that it will change?

The group members’ real fear was if they create accountability in the relationship, the person will quit the group, or get angry and tell them where they can get off. After the people in the group better understand how frightened they are and what their fear means, they are more ready to do something different.

After the group members understand how their fears have eroded their own personal empowerment, they are more ready to reclaim the power they have given away. After the group members understand limit setting is an act of love and respect, not an act of coercion and power, they are ready to implement the following basic steps to creating limits and accountability in their relationships.

STEP #1:

Initiate a discussion about what is happening in the relationship.

 STEP #2:

Articulate three specific points: 1) the specific behavior that has created the concern; 2) the specific agreement that the concern has violated; 3) the specific ways in which you are affected by the behavior of your partner.

STEP #3:

Initiate a discussion that focuses on: 1) reconfirming the initial agreement; 2) making any adjustment as needed to the original agreement; 3) agreeing on consequences if the agreement is broken again.

 STEP #4:

Have the courage to be consistent when the agreement is broken again.

These four steps are the components of the formula for predictability and accountability. I am going to apply the formula to the example I discussed about a group member not attending weekly sessions.

STEP #1: Acknowledging the Problem

The members of the group must first initiate a conversation with the group member who has been missing several group sessions. It must be specific and to the point.

 STEP #2:  Addressing the Problem

The message from the group might sound something like this. “Your attendance has been irregular. We agreed we could expect each other to attend weekly meetings. When I see you come irregularly, it makes me not able to trust you. It makes me feel that I’m not worthwhile. It makes me doubt your commitment to the well-being of our relationship.”

STEP #3: Solving the Problem

The process of solving the problem might go as follows. “It is important that we jointly come together on some sort of agreement whereby we all can agree on what the solution to the problem is and what the consequences will be if the misbehavior continues.”

STEP   #4 Enforcing the Agreement

Enforce the agreement as the need arises each time a problem occurs.

Let me emphasize one critical point. The process just described should be undertaken in a spirit of mutuality and cooperation. This is a process of negotiation--not imposition. This is a process of give-and-take--not take-it-or-leave-it. This is a process that leaves everyone with their dignity--not a process that strips somebody of their own right to make whatever choice is best for them despite the consequences of their choice.

This allows everyone in a relationship to know what the dimensions of the playing field are. It allows each other to know what is in-bounds. This formula communicates love and respect for you and for your partner. And it allows any relationship-bridge to maintain its integrity.

Years ago, I knew a couple who worked hard at this process. They learned to give and they learned to take. It was really beautiful to see two people whose life had dramatically changed by learning a skill. One night we were talking and I said, “Both of you are so obviously happy, what is the lesson you got out of learning to do all of this Bridge-Building work?”

One of them smiled back at me and said something that has stayed with me since, “Sometimes the biggest problem is trying to play the game without knowing all of the rules.”



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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