I find in my practice that often times, men are resistant in going to therapy. One of the biggest reasons that I have been given by those that eventually enter my office, is that they have trouble relating the content from sessions into their relationships. However, I have found that most of the men that come to see me both play and understand the game of Texas Hold’em poker. Since I also love to play Texas Hold’em, and the complexities of the game that come with figuring out if I should call, raise, or fold, I decided that I would use poker to start framing relationships in a way that men could understand. In doing so, I could both assist my male clients in improving their relationships with their spouses, and their poker game at the same time.

When I first started playing poker, I really had no clue what I was doing. I would look at my cards, and randomly bet, raise or fold. I soon realized that this approach didn’t work very well as I found myself losing a lot of pots. I did not understanding when I was way behind in a hand, or drawing dead. I was so consumed with my own hand, that I was unaware of what others were doing at the table, and didn’t account for what possible hands that they could be playing. This was a very frustrating experience as I was often the first one sitting at the table that became the permanent dealer. So, I started reading poker theory books, and went to Full Tilt to watch the videos made by the pros to help amateur players improve the quality of their play. In both the books and videos, there is a key fundamental principle for improving one’s poker game: Know the holes in your game. By understanding, and following this principle, I was able to radically change the way I played poker. I found my game improving, and I often times found myself in the money, instead of dealing the cards.

As a therapist, applying the principle “Know the Holes in Your Game” to relationships, I have been able to teach people to radically change the functioning of their relationships. My couples therapy participants often tell me that they have made changes that they never thought were possible. By constantly looking at what they can do to improve their relationship, they have found the power to make their relationships what they always wanted them to be.

So, here is the poker theory: “Every mistake, every losing tendency, every ‘why not, it’s only money’ rationalization is a small hole in your basket that lets those hard earned chips fall right out of the bottom.  Some of us have more leaks than others, but we all have them.  The key is discovering and plugging those leaks as quickly as possible.  Over time, if we plug away faithfully, the wins will be greater than the leaks and we will indeed be shopping for that bigger basket.” – taken from Pokerstragegy.org

We are creatures of habit, and by not recognizing where we went wrong, we will ultimately make the same mistake down the line. By not learning from our mistakes, it causes us to lose chips, and over time, the entire bankroll (relationship). Some of the more common mistakes are playing too many hands, calling when you are way behind, drawing to the second best hand, not paying attention to the game, and folding to the river for one bet when the pot is large.

Let’s take a closer look at the second example in more detail “drawing to the second best hand” and see how this could affect a player. Many players feel it is okay to draw to a straight, even when there is also a flush draw on board.  This mistake is just as much a loser as calling with bottom pair.  If he improves and you do not, you lose.  If you both improve, you lose.  The only way you can win is if you make your draw and he misses his. So, over time you lose twice as much as you win. The best play in this type of situation is to fold the hand, or check it through.

If this is something that you do, then you have a hole in your game. Against the same players, you will be constantly raised, and as a result, will go home with less money than you came to play with. By taking a critical look at how you approach your poker game, and by being intentional about changing and fixing your mistakes, it is possible to eliminate these types of losses while maximizing gains.

For me, my biggest mistake was pushing “all in” without thinking about the hands that others in the game could be playing. I would often find myself with my tournament life at stake and behind a huge hand that I hadn’t accounted for as a possibility. By allowing myself to fold in situations where I am not absolutely sure that I have the best hand, I have been able to significantly increase the likelihood that I’ll be around at the end of tournaments.

So how does this apply to relationships you might ask? Relationships are just like poker. The first step is to recognize the “holes” in your relationship. Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What am I doing that makes my partner’s life more difficult?
  • How am I responsible for the difficulties in our relationship?
  • What can I do differently that would radically change my relationship?

After you have spent some time thinking about the answers to these questions, identify what is keeping you from making changes. Then decide what you are going to do in order to plug the holes in your relationship. Commit yourself to making these changes. With each opportunity that you are presented, be intentional about doing something differently. Here are some ideas:

  • Say nothing negative to your partner today.
  • Resolve yourself not to raise your voice during an argument.
  • Establish “sacred” time each week to spend together.
  • Give your cell phone to your partner so that it no longer becomes a distraction at home.

The possibilities are endless. Be creative in your approach, and evaluate how well it worked. Then, reevaluate the holes in your relationship, and continue to make adjustments until you are satisfied (and your partner is satisfied) with your relationship.

By making these changes, and being intentional about it, you allow yourself to better understand your partner. You can better understand the values in your relationship, and the needs of your partner. When events and circumstance change within your relationship, you’ll be able to adapt and change with them, increasing your enjoyment and happiness in return.

Copyright, 2011, Benjamin Wolf. Blog entries and other materials available on Hope & Healing For Life’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations.  If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a psychotherapist. For further information about this blog, or Hope & Healing For Life, contact Ben Wolf at 612-643-1920 or ben@hopeandhealingforlife.com.