I find couples therapy to be one of the most rewarding and challenging types of therapy I do. It is hard enough to manage one personality in individual psychotherapy but when you add in the unique and differing views, expectations, and character traits of a second person, the intensity ramps to another level entirely.
There are some common threads among couples I have worked with that have had success. These same themes also ring true with those who I know personally and are happily married or together for a very long time. When working with couples, I try to help them foster the following ten traits during treatment:
1. Trust - This one is a no-brainer. When couples trust one another they share a deeper sense of commitment. When one or both partners are insecure in the relationship they will often make efforts to alleviate their mistrust by controlling or manipulating, which will invariably ruin the relationship. The irony is that, by trying to save the relationship, they are inadvertently ending it. This is where infidelity becomes a problem. When one person does not trust they try to control and when the other partner feels controlled they reach out to others which validates the mistrust that started the cycle. Trust has to be there or the other nine are irrelevant.
2. Individuality - This is when partners are still capable of having their own lives without one another. Enmeshment is a term used in both family and couples therapy that illustrates, in the couples context, when the lives of both become so intertwined that one cannot function without the other and all other relationships get lost. This may seem great at first as we envision two star crossed lovers gazing into each other's eyes without a care in the world.....the problem occurs when that person is suddenly not around and we are left to obsess after alienating the supports we once had. When couples are capable of alone time whether it be through activities, hobbies, spending time with the individual's core friend group, etc. it is healthy and nurturing for the relationship as a whole. For obvious reasons, number one must be met first.
3. Empathy - It is critical that couples be able to understand thoughts and feelings their partner is experiencing from their partner's perspective. This is why people with narcissistic tendencies have such a difficult time in relationships; the only point of view that matters is their own. When couples are able to see things from their partner's perspective and feel for them when they do, it makes change more likely and this tends to reciprocate back and forth in a positive cycle. If we are able to feel what our partners feel, we are more apt to make positive changes to appease those feelings. Lastly, it allows us to focus more on making our partner happy, not our partner making us happy.
4. Communication - When couples communicate well they are also more capable of solving problems in the relationship. This is more than just asking about each other's day or planning the next day's events with the kids. This is real, heartfelt discussions of each partners emotions and how they may relate to the status of the relationship, When a partner feels heard and his/her concerns are not dismissed, it opens up all sorts of channels of communication. But when a partner routinely feels not heard, the effort simply stops and this is a cancer to any relationship. Lastly, simply hearing your partner and validating their concerns is not enough. Follow up action indicating you care must follow or, again, the effort to communicate feelings will stop.
5. Forgiveness - Our culture simply does not value forgiveness. We have tricked ourselves into believing that forgiving someone gives them permission to hurt us again or that we are somehow letting our partner off the hook. Grudges DO NOT change behavior in any positive way. It may, in the short-term, fix the immediate problem but will only create oppositional resentment later on. One of my favorite quotes is "holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." This is true in relationships as well except in this case it hurts both you and your relationship and is a major hindrance to any form of effective communication. Forgiveness cleanses the soul and removes the bitterness that comes with anger.
6. Humility - Approaching the relationship like you really have to keep winning your partner over is a great way to keep things fresh and exciting. Part of being humble in a relationship is also being willing to admit when you are wrong (which our culture as a whole struggles with). It may not seem like it at first, but having this ability de-escalates negative situations very quickly. This also opens the door to a more effective problem solving approach as your partner will immediately feel less on the defensive. Humility also forces us to focus on the self.....the only person in the relationship we truly have control over.
7. Passion - It is important for there to be passion in any relationship. This doesn't just mean the sexual kind of passion where the bed sheets catch fire (though this can certainly throw a spark into things.) This also entails being passionate about each other's lives; the successes, the failures, supporting one another, meeting our goals, raising our children, etc. Being passionate about numerous aspects of your relationship develops a deeper bond that goes beyond the superficial and creates a lasting and more meaningful love. Even better is when you can become passionate about something your partner is already involved in when you wouldn't have otherwise.
8. Accountability - I love teaching clients "I" statements and forcing them to role play these in session. The first few times it feels so awkward that clients struggle with just starting a sentence with the word "I" because they became so ingrained with using "you" as a means of deflecting accountability for their half of the issues in the relationship. Defensive posturing only serves to sabotage communication. If your partner starts off a discussion on a contentious topic with the word "you" the rest of the message is likely lost and the defensive, aggressive posturing begins. By using "I" you are accepting accountability for your feelings, expectations, behaviors, etc. and offers a more open, solution focused approach.
9. Vulnerability - This is very difficult. Being vulnerable is an uncomfortable feeling and requires a great deal of practice to become more comfortable with. This entails accountability but also a willingness to discuss our true emotions underneath our anger and frustration. Discussing feelings like hurt, sadness, disappointment, failure are all uncomfortable and expose our ego's to the possibility of an attack by our partner. What typically will happen, however, is increased vulnerability from our partners as well. This too opens up more effective and positive communication.
10. Appreciation - There are few substitutes for feeling appreciated in a relationship. This doesn't mean appreciating a prepared candle lit dinner, bubble bath or rose pedals all over the bed. Those things are nice but are an unrealistic expectation for day to day living. Acknowledgement and appreciation of the little things, like washing the dishes, doing the laundry, taking the kids for a day, etc. are all things we tend to take for granted. Just like anything else in life, if rewarded, these behaviors are likely to increase even if that reward is a simple "thank you!"
In summary, you've likely noticed I left out things like activities or the generic term "love". I think if the above ten traits are fostered you will certainly want to do things together and they pretty much sum up what love is to me. All relationships have turmoil at times as well, my own included, but knowing better ways to respond will certainly minimize the severity, duration and frequency and may even be seen as an opportunity to grow!
Derik S. Berkebile, LCSW
Comments are welcome below!