The men in my practice often think of therapy for couples as a last resort for a relationship that’s on life support. While that is certainly a time to explore treatment as a couple, I also advise checking out this option well before you’re considering pulling the plug. I had treated couples for years and have since stopped to focus solely on men’s health. Nevertheless, I’d like to share some thoughts given that this is such a pertinent issue for the men I treat. Here are some thoughts about how couple’s therapy might help you:
In my first session with a couple, without fail, one or both partners will ask some version of: “Just how bad off are we, doc?” It seems to be an all too human trait to not only compare ourselves with other individuals – but other couples, as well! Though there are pitfalls to making comparisons (another couple is always going to appear happier, more down to earth, more in love, etc.) in reality our natural curiosity about how others live and experience life is a highly adaptive trait. When channeled effectively these comparisons allow us to experience not just superficial feelings of envy or dislike for others, but also provide an opportunity for us to envision and implement new, richer directions in our marriages and partnerships.
Though some marriages and relationships may appear more harmonious than our own, we all marry very human individuals who have different sets of experiences, challenges, preferences and family backgrounds. Meshing together any two such “cultures” is by its very nature an imperfect business. Long the domain of “Dear Abby,” self-help books and advice from friends and family, the ingredients for a successful, supportive marriage have been the focus of intensive research for over a generation. A leading relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, of the University of Washington, has been particularly adept at separating fact from fiction when it comes to what works in marriages.
One important aspect of marriage that often goes unrecognized is the dimension of friendship. Dr. Gottman’s research has found that friendship lies at the foundation of what he calls the “sound marital house.” A sound marital house, in his estimation, has several “floors” built upon a base of friendship. A base of friendship in turn supports and facilitates the next level, the expression of positive feeling. These expressions of positive feelings highly influence the next level which is comprised of effective problem solving and a dialogue with perpetual problems. With these building blocks in place, the couple is more effective in creating a sense of shared meaning and more adept at pursuing dreams and aspirations.
One surprising finding Gottman identified is that many couples who do not often argue or disagree may appear from the outside contented, but may in reality be suffering from “marital drift.” This drift typically occurs after several years together, when many of us lull ourselves into the belief that we have learned everything there is to know about our partners. In reality, many spouses have “given up” on asserting their needs and have relegated themselves to living their lives in parallel, emotionally disengaged lives. Given this disengagement, respectful disagreement can actually be viewed as an antidote for marital drift and an impetus for learning more about your partner’s beliefs and desires.
Gottman’s research also found that couples with a strong friendship component in their relationships take an active role in inter-personally “turning toward” their partner’s “bids” (open-ended comments) for connection. This means, more often than not, we simply respond to everyday comments in the here and now. For example, if your partner comments on the weather, a new make of car or your daughter’s ongoing job stress, do you respond with interest or brush off the comment?
Be aware, this is not simply a strategy to “improve communication” through “active listening.” Active listening is a tactic familiar to many (and often parodied) in which you listen and repeat back what your partner has just told you, by saying, “I heard you say…” In contrast, couples who have been shown to effectively respond to their partner’s conversational bids make an attempt to show they are actively responding and tracking comments. This is done not only with verbal responses, but also non-verbally via facial expression, nodding and making eye contact. Sometimes a bigger conversation develops, sometimes it doesn’t. We can’t all be 100% attentive to our partners at all times. I believe the key is that more often than not, you are outwardly demonstrating your active interest and underlying emotional regard for your partner.
When responses to conversational bids are effectively managed, Gottman found that couples can develop what he calls an “emotional bank account” to draw on when the going gets tough. These small and sometimes seemingly unimportant exchanges build up reserves of goodwill in your shared account over time. Building capital or reserves of goodwill helps to facilitate flexibility and decreases the overall level of defensiveness when serious differences do arise. You may never reach agreement on some issues, but high reserves of goodwill place couples in a position to better manage high stress conflicts or serious setbacks. Repeatedly turning away from conversational bids over time can have a corrosive affect that has been found to lead to a sense of loneliness and general resentment of your partner.
Opportunities for conversational bids can be found anywhere. Think about such routine events as how you handle your reunion at the end of the day. Do you process the events of the day? What about riding in the car or watching television together? Is all of your time spent in silence or do you sometimes process thoughts or responses? When engaged in conversations are there attempts to use humor, support and validation? Each of these times spent together can be seen as an opportunity to grow your emotional bank account.
No matter how long we’ve been together, our marriages need to remain an open path to bringing into reality our deepest held hopes and dreams. Out of this union springs the potential for the most meaningful and trans-formative relationships and experiences in life such as children, personal discovery, professional accomplishment and romance.