Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work, is a book about relationships by psychiatrist David Burns. As the subtitle implies, Burns claims to have the secret to making troubled relationships work. What is this secret you might ask? In a nutshell: If you want to make a troubled relationship work, one person needs to change. Since it is nearly impossible to change others, you must change yourself.
The theme of the book is a rather Stoic one but contains some ridiculous ideas as well. For example, Burns seems to be obsessed with finding “secrets” to everything. He has found the secret to making troubled relationships work, and the “five secrets” to effective communication, etc.
Anyone who has been in a relationship with another human being will recognize that there are no secrets to making it work. It requires dedication, hard work, kindness, love, and a willingness to see things from another person’s point of view.
The methods that Burns provides for improving relationships may work, but they would take a robotic person to use them consistently. In fact, throughout the book, Burns shares how he fails to use his own methods, to his peril.
The main message I found useful was the “disarming technique”. Like any self-important psychiatrist, Burns renames helpful ways of relating to another person using psychobabble. For example, the “disarming technique” is simply a way of trying to see things from another person perspective.
I appreciated how Burns spends a great deal of time at the beginning of the book explaining good reasons for not changing yourself in a troubled relationship. First, it is very difficult to change oneself, and the effort may not be worth it to you. Second, there are many gains to be had by not changing yourself. Some of the potential personal gains that Burns mentions are: holding onto jealousy, hostility, moral superiority, anger, and revenge. For some, these feeling have obvious value. If we desire to have a good relationship, we must first understand what we gain by maintaining a bad relationship.
For some, it may be more important to maintain a sense of moral superiority, than to work on changing oneself and allowing oneself to enter into a relationship with another person. Burns advises that we examine the cost to change and decide if the change is worth it. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that change will come easily, or that it will not cost us anything.
Burns’ methods do not contain any secrets, yet the book does contain some helpful advice. It is useful to be reminded of helpful ways of relating to others.
As for using Burns’ “methods”; they sometimes feel gimmicky and inauthentic. We typically don’t speak of a “method” for relating to another person. We do, however, speak of manipulation. Any kind of method in relationships is a sort of manipulation (depending on whether you approve of the method or not), and hence not a good way to relate to another human. Use this book as a reminder to emphasize love, kindness, and authenticity, but get rid of the “methods”. Methods are for inhuman tasks, not a way of relating to another person.
If you are looking to improve your relationships with another person, Feeling Good Together, may be of some value. You can get the basic ideas and “methods” from the book’s website. You can also listen to an interview on the podcast, Relationship Alive, with David Burns about his book; or listen to Burns’ podcast which includes live therapy sessions with people who are attempting to use his methods.