At this time I would like to thank all my blog readers who have chosen to subscribe to my psychotherapy blog:
Insight: A Blog for the Critical Consumer of Psychotherapy
What started about a year ago as a therapist’s dream to write about therapy and psychology from a human-centered and philosophical perspective, has grown more popular than I would have ever thought.
Over the past several months, however, I have found myself writing for several different audiences who might not necessarily be interested in the same things.
Every other blog post was directed at couples and was more practical and solution-oriented in focus. The others were directed at general reflections on psychotherapy and specific mental health issues, and aimed at other therapists as well as people interested in individual psychotherapy.
This is why I have decided to create an entirely new blog:
Readers who are interested in more general, critical, and philosophical articles about therapy, life, and mental health, can still find those articles here on the regular ol’ blog.
Those, however, who have more of an interest in relationships and couples concerns, may wish to to subscribe to “Couples Insight” instead (or in addition to this blog). Those blog posts will no longer be posted here on Insight.
On Couples Insight, I will continue the tradition of bringing you practical articles on how to thrive better in romantic relationships. The idea is to share some of the practical advice and insight gained from my work as a couples therapist and my exposure to the most current ideas in the couples therapy field.
Thank you all for continuing to read my blog posts. I hope to continue to dialogue with you either here on Insight, or on the new blog: Couples Insight.
Romantic relationships tend to run a quite predictable course. Initially your partner can do nothing wrong. You are wearing rose-colored glasses. But over time, differences become annoyances and the novelty of your relationship wears off.
Most couples hit an impasse at the 2 or 3 year mark, when many couples end up breaking up or divorcing. Even those partners who stay together, may end up living emotionally disengaged lives and struggling to maintain their love connection.
This raises the question: Can couples really sustain love over time?
The Science of Love:
Couples researcher, Sue Johnson, brings us an optimistic message. She believes that we now understand why love and affection is so difficult to maintain over time, and that we now have the answers that can help us restore love when love begins to wane.
Love she says, is not some mystical feeling that we either feel or don’t feel, and we are not simply at the mercy of serendipity. Instead there is a science behind love and a predictable way to cultivate it.
This science is not new but goes all the way back to the 1950s when a man named John Bowlby began to study the interactions between mother and child.
Its name: attachment theory.
The Lesson from Attachment Theory:
The science of adult attachment originated in Bowlby’s observations of what happens to children when their primary caregiver leaves them.
Based on these experiments, Bowlby made several observations that have relevance to understanding human motivation and adult relationship distress.
The first conclusion is that it is extremely distressing for a child to lose connection with a caregiver. The child needs the connection to feel safe, and when they lose it, they work hard to get the connection back. Bowlby, in other words, stumbled across a human need to feel connected that is so powerful that any threat to it is a real threat to our survival.
The second conclusion is that babies go through a series of predictable stages when trying to reconnect with a loved one: First they amp up their engagement level and fight for the connection. If this doesn’t work they actively protest by crying or screaming. Finally, if no response is forthcoming, they give up and numb themselves.
Have a look at this more recent experiment called “Still Face”:
Attachment Theory and Your Relationship:
So what does attachment theory help us understand about adult relationships?
Committed relationships are strong attachment bonds. We become interdependent to an extent that mimics the love between caregiver and child.
We need safety in order to risk commitment, and that safety comes from knowing that our partner is going to be there for us if or when we need them.
We need what Bowlby calls a secure attachment: a sense that we matter to our partner, that our partner thinks about us, or that we occupy a special role for our partner.
Only with this felt security, can we feel safe to be ourselves completely, to disagree, to express our needs, to let our guards down, and to show our partner our most tender feelings.
Why Couples Lose their Love Connection:
What happens in most adult relationships is that one or both partners begin to feel insecure about whether or not they really matter to each other. In this fearful state, they begin to react based on wired-in survival mechanisms.
Just like the child fearful of losing a connection with a caregiver, partners first try to fight for the connection, then protest against their partner’s lack of care or concern, and finally begin to withdraw emotionally.
Over time this corrodes the love in the relationship and replaces it with a fear-based struggle for survival.
Instead of risking vulnerability and sharing their more tender sides, partners now begin to see their partner as withholding, emotionally uninterested, demanding, or critical. The relationship becomes filled with dissatisfaction and the risk of being vulnerable becomes too dangerous.
Partners start doing a dance with each other, where one partner’s insecurities fuels the other partners insecurities in a never-ending cycle:
If you protest by complaining that I don’t care enough to do the dishes, I might withdraw emotionally to protect myself from feeling criticized in the relationship. This then fuels more of your angry protests, which makes me withdraw even more. And round and round we go…
How to Restore Love in Your Relationship:
When couples come to couples therapy, they often don’t know that fears have taken hold of their relationship. They are not aware of the underlying feelings of insecurity and lack of safety that are causing them to disengage or feel dissatisfied with their partner.
Couples therapy can help couples get in touch with their underlying vulnerabilities and longings that they have shut out in order to be strong and protect themselves.
It can help them reestablish safety in the relationship so that needs and feelings can be expressed directly without a fear of being “left hanging” or being “shot down”.
Building a Safe Attachment:
Only when safety is restored can love begin to flourish and grow.
As Sue Johnson, would say, we now know the steps needed to build a safer attachment between partners. And with this knowledge we know the recipe for restoring and maintaining a strong love relationship.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I have received training in some of the most effective methods of couples therapy, including Gottman Method and EFT.
Couples therapist John Gottman has identified 4 behaviors that are so destructive to relationships that they will almost certainly lead a married couple to divorce.
Due to their ominous nature, he calls them the “4 horsemen of the apocalypse” and because of their destructive nature, they must be stopped at all cost.
Although we almost inevitable end up engaging in these behaviors, it is important to be vigilant about their presence and make conscious efforts to reduce or minimize their impact on your marriage.
Want to know what the four horsemen are? Let’s go through them one at a time:
Couples who divorce often have an unfavorable ratio between complaints and appreciations. John Gottman has argued that about 2/3 issues that married couples fight about have to do with personality differences that are ultimately unresolvable. In strong marriages, couples find ways to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of these differences. They realize that we don’t marry a partner simply to be with a carbon copy of ourselves. In married couples who end up divorcing, however, differences instead turn into annoyances, and annoyances into fights. Instead of asking for constructive changes from one’s partner, or taking the time to understand each partner’s perspective, couples headed for divorce instead engage in a barrage of complaints. In many marriages that are close to the point of divorce, partners often feel that they are always being criticized or are never doing things right. After a while such a marriage becomes tiresome, and each partner begins to retreat in order to self-protect.
When you feel attacked and criticized, you defend. Defensiveness is one of the hallmarks of a failing marriage. Instead of having conversations and being curious about each other, couples who are on their way to a divorce, tend to simply stick to their guns and play the blame game. Instead of listening for their partner’s feeling and showing that they care, they instead focus on telling their partner why their complaint is unreasonable or wrong. Over time, each partner becomes an island onto themselves, focused simply on proving their own point at the expense of their partner. In this kind of atmosphere, each partner ends up feeling not understood and this of course leads to emotional disconnection. When you are at war, you retreat behind a wall and stop making yourself vulnerable and receptive to your partner. With so much effort dedicated to defending, love dwindles, and both partners often end up feeling deprived and unhappy.
Being in an intimate relationship with a partner is not only a source of joy and love. We often also experience intense anger and even hatred. When our partner disappoints us, when we feel afraid of losing them, or when we don’t feel unconditionally cared for, intense anger is often evoked in us. Although the adult part of us realizes that love is never unconditional, the child within often has a fantasy that it is. When our inner child feels deprived, strong feelings can be evoked that can lead us call our partner names and make comments that undercut our partners’ self-esteem. However, it pays to think twice before saying such things. John Gottman found that couples who end up divorcing, tend to have a high rate of contempt and hostility toward each other. Whereas strong marriages are slanted toward interactions that serve to build each other up, couples who end up divorcing oftentimes end up in negative cycles of cutting each other down.
Although some couples think simply ignoring their spouse is a pathway toward peace, fact is, the absence of a response, can be like depriving your partner of oxygen. Researchers on human attachment have found a lack of response a much greater sign of danger than an angry response. For this reason, many couples actually pick fights or provoke their partner into feeling angry or jealous. At least, with this response, they know their partner “sees” them and that they more than likely care. When our partner simply ignores us, it is easy to feel that we don’t even exist. At the level of our “animal” instinct or mammalian brain this often gets interpreted as a danger signal that we are without support and that nobody cares about our existence. Since at our core we are social beings, such absence of love is a threat to our basic survival needs and can send us into panic. In certain partners who had parents who often were absent, any resemblance of this deprivation will evoke fear and anger at their partner for inducing this fear. John Gottman also found that couples who stop acknowledging their partners existence and start to live parallel lives are at the greatest risk for divorce. It is often much easier to restore connection in couples who fight a lot, than it is to restore it, in couples who have simply shut down their emotional response to each other. So the next time you give your spouse the cold shoulder or ignore their bids for connection, know that you are causing harm to your marriage, and try to find at least some way to engage.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples develop better communication skills and restore emotional connection. To read more, visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com
Gottman Method Couples Counseling is one of the most popular and contemporary approaches to couples counseling used by couples therapists today. What makes it so unique in the therapeutic landscape is that it is entirely based on research findings from couples researcher John Gottman’s own studies of married couples.
A Research-Based Approach to Couples Counseling:
John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher who has spent more than 40 years researching couples. Based on his research, he claims to be able to predict which married couples will divorce and which will stay married with 90 % accuracy.
One of the innovations of Gottman’s approach to research was that he observed how couples interacted in a live-in environment just like in the show Big Brother. Through the multiple cameras installed, he was able to see how couples interacted naturally. By studying hundreds of couples this way, he was able to catalogue the behaviors in people who stay married, as well as identify behaviors in those who get divorced.
Based on his research Gottman has constructed a theory of all the behaviors successful couples engage in, which today has become known as “The Sound Relationship House”
The Sound Relationship House:
The Sound Relationship House contains all the elements found to predict relationship success in what is now called the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling.
First we have the pillars of the relationship: Trust and Commitment. These are fundamental to creating the boundaries for there to even be a relationship. They involve being faithful to each other and developing the trust needed to be emotionally vulnerable. According to Gottman, without these pillars in place, you cannot build a sound relationship.
Once the boundaries of the relationship have been established, couples can begin to focus on creating a house in which they want to live.
The foundation of a good relationship is what Gottman Method Couples Counselors refer to as “the Friendship System”. The friendship system contains all the elements that make a marriage worthwhile.
In what Gottman calls “Build Love Maps”, the goal is for couples to develop a clear and accurate knowledge of what makes each other tick. You have to allocate “room” in you brain for the other person and to truly know who they are. You have to have a “map” of your partner’s world, otherwise, who are you really in a relationship with, but yourself?
In the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, couples are also advised to build each other up through creating a culture of sharing their fondness and admiration for each other.
An interesting novelty of Gottman’s research is the idea of “turning towards”, which denotes all the little micro interactions we engage in where we drop what we are doing to respond to something our partner is interested in. They are little moments of connection that seem minor and insignificant, but start to wane when couples grow distant or begin to not like each other much.
Finally, Gottman advocates that partners find ways to laugh at disagreements, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and otherwise adopt a positive and lighthearted perspective.
Together these four elements create a strong friendship filled with love, affection, and intimacy.
Only when couples have a strong friendship as their base is there enough love in the “love tank” to make them endure the more difficult times and the many disagreements in values and preferences that are bound to happen over time.
The upper elements of the sound relationship house include conflict management skills, as well as creating shared meaning in the relationship. Conflict management is about learning to communicate with your partner in ways that do not make them defensive, and yet makes you feel heard. “Creating shared meaning”, refers to creating dialogue around each partner’s dreams and growth ambitions, and having conversations about where the relationship is headed.
How Can Gottman Method Couples Counseling Help Me?
The Gottman Method of Couples Counseling is about teaching couples the skills needed to build their own sound relationship house. The assumption is that couples can learn to emulate ways of interacting and doing things that have been observed in couples that end up staying together.
The Gottman Method is a skills-based approach to creating a strong relationship. By doing more of the right things, and doing less of the relationship-damaging things, you can make your relationship grow in the direction of greater intimacy and satisfaction.
A novelty in the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling is that the therapist acts as a coach or facilitator who helps couples interact with each other by using new rules and guidelines. The goal is for couples to become independent of the therapist and for the therapist to transfer his or her own skills to the couple.
Does the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling Work?
Learning some of the skills of successful couples communication and friendship building can be immensely useful to couples who are often turning to a couples therapist because they just don’t know what to do.
Making a relationship work definitely involves skill, and having some knowledge about what to do, can be very helpful.
One of the limitations of the approach is that it can seem very technical.
In my opinion, couples need more than skills to succeed in their relationships. They also need a deeper understanding of their own needs and desires, and an emotional experience of greater closeness with their partner.
There are simply times when the therapist has to stop being a coach who teaches skills, and has to become the facilitator of greater access to buried emotions and fears in each partner.
In my own couples therapy practice I therefore believe in combining multiple approaches to couples counseling. Although I have training in the Gottman Method and frequently teach my clients new skills, I also have a sound understanding of other more emotion-focused approaches.
Ultimately I believe couples need an emotional experience of change rather than simply a set of techniques.
Learn John Gottman’s 5-step method for resolving arguments after a big blow up has happened…
About Me: I am a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston Texas. I have received training in the Gottman Method as well as other couples therapy approaches. To read more about couples therapy, visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com
A frequent concern couples have is how to express their disagreements without starting a fight.
Learning how to communicate with your partner in a way that minimizes your partner’s defensiveness and makes it possible to have a conversation and not an argument is vital to the success of any relationship.
Having a conversation and having an argument are two very different things…
In an argument, we try to convince our partner that we are right and that they are wrong. Oftentimes this leads to an escalation of conflict, because our partner is unlikely to simply agree that we are right, and is more likely to defend themselves or find convincing arguments why weare wrong. Even if our partner agrees with us, we may discover that it is a rather hollow victory: Our partner may simply have agreed with us to keep the peace, and may gradually end up becoming more distant from us, as they increasingly begin to feel that there is no room in the relationship for them to be who they are.
In a conversation, on the other hand, the focus shifts from convincing your partner that you are right to truly understanding your partner’s perspective. Even if you don’t agree about something, you can still attempt to understand what motivates each of your actions, and what feelings, beliefs, and perceptions underlie each of your complaints. The benefit of this approach, is that each partner can then feel heard and understood, and this typically brings partners closer to each other, and increases both partners tolerance and appreciation for each other’s differences.
How to Communicate without Starting a Fight:
In the Gottman Method of couples therapy, couples are instructed to use the following guidelines in order to learn how to communicate without starting a fight:
Initiate a conversation in a soft rather than accusatory manner
Focus on your own experience, not on your partner
Focus on stating a positive need, instead of complaining about what your partner isn’t doing
Starting a conversation in a soft manner can be done in many ways. It can involve things like acknowledging that “you may or may not be right”, that “it is probably ridiculous to even bring this up, but…”, or that you don’t want to start a fight and you know that your partner is “doing many things right, but…” This is different from a more abrupt start up where you communicate that you feel entitled to your complaint and come across as self-rigtheous and accusatory.
Focusing on your experience means taking the focus off your partner, and sharing your own internal reactions, feelings, and interpretations. Instead of labeling your partner’s actions, or speaking about a situation in absolute terms, you turn the focus inward. Instead of saying things like, “it wasn’t right when you…” or “you were being very inconsiderate when you”, you instead look beneath your self-righteous anger and get in touch with your softer and more vulnerable emotions. Say something like, “I guess when you came home late again tonight (non-judgmental description), I started feeling lonely and started thinking that I wasn’t very important to you” Not something like, “you know you are always late, and I’m getting tired of sitting around waiting for you. It seems like you just don’t care about my feelings”
Focusing on stating a positive need instead of a criticism, means trying to pinpoint what it is you would like the two of you to do more of. In the example of your partner being late, the hidden need might be for the two of you to be closer with each other. Your sense of loneliness and disappointment when your partner is late, might be a clue that you have been feeling distant from your partner for a while. The trick now is to state what you want rather than what you don’t want. Instead of saying, “I’m tired of you being late”, you might instead say, “can we do more things together where we can connect with each other. I have been feeling rather lonely as of late”.
If you learn how to communicate with your partner using the three rules above, likelihood is that your partner will not feel attacked and will be able to actually listen and respond to your concern…
If you are not the person voicing the complaint, but instead the one having to respond to your partner’s criticism, try to apply one of the following skills:
Don’t defend yourself or counter-attack
Validate your partner’s experience
Don’t defend yourself when your partner brings up a concern. Even if your partner may bring up an issue in an accusatory way, realize that underneath the anger, your partner likely feels hurt, rejected, or wounded in some way. Even if you notice yourself getting angry and ready to counter-attack, try to bite your tongue. Make a conscious decision to set your own issues to the side for the time being, and begin to listen for what your partner is really feeling and experiencing.
Validate your partner’s experience. You may not agree with how your partner interprets or sees things, and your partner’s feelings may seem quite irrational to you. This, however, is when you must make an effort to ask clarifying question to understand how your partner has arrived at his or her conclusions. You must try to find the logic in your partner’s perspective, so you can repeat your understanding back to them. Try to acknowledge and validate that if you were in their shoes, made the same kinds of interpretations, and had the same kind of values, you too would feel the way they do. Realize that by validating and saying that you understand, you are not saying that you agree, nor are you saying that your own feelings are invalid. In a relationship there is room for two valid perspectives on the same situation. The important thing is that both of you can feel that your perspectives are heard.
A Small Change Can Have a Large Effect:
Whether you are “the speaker” or “the listener”, it is important to realize that you can change an interaction by doing any of these 5 suggestions at any point in an interaction. Maybe your partner brings up a concern in an accusatory manner, and you decide to not respond in a defensive way, thus breaking the typical cycle of attack-defend. Or maybe you correct yourself in the middle of voicing your own complaint by making an effort to focus more on your own feelings than on labeling your partner’s. Each time you stop reacting to your partner and make a conscious decision to take control of the interaction, you increase the likelihood of turning an argument into a conversation. The benefits of learning how to communicate with your partner can be profound, so the next time you find yourself itching to let something off your chest, try using one of the five rules.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I use a variety of proven methods to help couples get their relationships back on track. Visit my website to read more about my approach to couples therapy or to schedule an appointment.
A sign of a strong relationship is not that you never fight or argue. Disagreements and arguments are inevitable when we are emotionally invested in someone. Contrary to popular wisdom, however, fights do not have to tear us apart, but can actually serve as pathways to greater intimacy…
Couples who don’t fight can only avoid doing so by suppressing their feelings and withdrawing emotionally, and this is not a sign of a healthy relationship.
The secret to a fulfilling relationship is therefore not to avoid saying or doing things that will lead to a fight, but to be able to recover from fights when they DO happen and to learn from them.
Unfortunately some couples never revisit each person’s complaints after the fight is over. Happy to be done with the disagreement, they table their concerns, not wanting to start another argument. The result is that the issues leading to the fight never really get resolved. Instead they will simmer in the background and become the cause of new fights in the future…
The Cause of Most Fights
Most couples think that what causes them to fight is the expression of their needs and feelings (saying what they really think and feel). In most cases, however, this is not true. Fights usually happen because needs and feelings have NOT been expressed. The fight often erupts because one partner has finally had it and can’t stuff their emotions anymore.
What many couples fail to see is that having an argument is not the same as having a conversation.
When we argue we hurl out accusations. We are tired and fed up. We want our partner to feel sorry. We say things out of anger.
Of course this rarely works to our advantage, because our partner now feels attacked and stops listening to what we are saying.
Having a conversation, on the other hand, is about expressing yourself in a non-accusatory manner that will allow your partner to listen, and for both of you to feel understood.
Most couples fear revisiting the fight they had yesterday because they are afraid that it will simply restart the fight. They don’t know HOW to have a conversation about their issues that doesn’t turn into a fight.
But issues don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them. This is why it is important for any couple to have the skills to have the conversation that never took place.
The Aftermath of a Fight:
Couples therapist and researcher John Gottman has developed a step-by-step exercise couples can use to revisit their fight when they are calm and address the real issues that fuelled the fight. When these conversations happen they can strengthen a relationship and even be a source of greater intimacy between partners. They also tend to decrease the build-up of frustrations that will otherwise lead to fights in the future.
5 Steps to How to Make Up After a Fight:
Here is my own modified version of Gottman’s method for how to make up after a fight and use disagreements as a source of greater connection: Sit down when you have both calmed down and are not busy or distracted and agree to revisit what happened the day before. Each person will take turn expressing their side of the story and will follow each of the 5 steps below:
1. Identify and Share How You Felt
Yesterday you were angry, but did you really stop to think what emotions fuelled the anger or why you reacted so strongly to certain things your partner did or said? It is often the case that softer and more uncomfortable emotions are hidden underneath our self-righteous anger. Have a look at the following list of feelings, to see if any of them might have been true for you:
not listened to
feelings got hurt
took a complaint personally
like you didn’t even like me
not cared about
I was right and you were wrong
Both of us were partly right
Out of control
Unfairly picked on
Taken for granted
Like staying and talking things through
I was overwhelmed with emotion
I had no influence
I wanted to win this one
My opinion didn’t even matter
There was a lot of give and take
I had no feelings at all
I had no idea what I was feeling
2. Describe the series of events that led you to feel this way
Help your partner understand how you perceived the events unfolding the day before (what led up to the fight? what made you react? and how did the fight unfold?). It is important in this step to speak from your own point of view: Describe yourself and your perceptions from an objective and detached perspective, like a witness giving an account of what they observed on a crime scene. Don’t guess your partner’s intentions and don’t assign blame. Simply focus on your interactions and how you perceived or interpreted what you heard or what your partner did. Instead of saying “when you didn’t care how I felt”, say “when you walked out during our fight, it made me think you didn’t care”. In other words, focus on how YOU made sense of the events, acknowledging that another person might not have interpreted events the way you did or assigned the same meaning to them.
3. Identify and talk about sensitivities that might have been evoked and where these sensitivities might come from
This is your chance to reflect a little bit about why you might be particularly sensitive to certain feelings, fears, or beliefs. Did feeling unloved remind you of something in your childhood? Did your fear of your partner leaving, remind you of how lonely you felt as a child? Are there times in the past when you have felt similarly to how you felt in the fight? If so, why do think you react so strongly to this particular feeling? What memories do you have involving that feeling? Is there a particular story you can you tell of a time in the past when you felt that way? Help your partner understand the underlying meaning or importance of a particular thought or feeling that you are very sensitive to.
4. Validate you partner’s perspective
When one partner goes through these 3-steps, the other partner’s job is to listen, ask open-ended questions, and clarify to make sure they understand. The listener should not defend themselves, or argue against the other person, but simply try to “get” why the other person reacted how they did. Validating means conveying to your partner that you understand why they reacted the way they did. To validate your partner is not to agree that your partner is right, and you are wrong. It is simply to convey that given a similar set of circumstances, and a similar way of interpreting events, you too would feel the way your partner does. It is important for your partner to hear that you get them, even if you don’t see things their way.
5. What can You do to be Sensitive to Your partner’s Needs and Feelings in the Future?
A final step, which isn’t always necessary, is to have a conversation about what each of you might be able to do differently so as to take each other’s sensitivities and needs into account. I say it is not always necessary because when you truly understand your partner’s reactions and experiences, it naturally follows that you will be more caring towards your partner and more sensitive to their needs.
Next time you have a fight, try to follow this 5-step model of how to make up after a fight. You might discover that disagreements do not have to threaten your relationship, but can actually be a source of greater intimacy and connection.
Do you sometimes feel you have very little in common with your partner or spouse? Do you often feel lonely in your relationship or marriage? Do you silently ask yourself if you and your partner are slowly growing apart?
If so, you are not alone. Many couples struggle to maintain intimacy and stay emotionally connected over time. The good news is, connection and intimacy in your marriage or relationship is something you can build. Here are five ways to improve intimacy in your marriage or relationship:
1. Empathize – Don’t Problem-Solve:
When your partner opens up to you about a concern they are having at work or elsewhere, don’t try to solve their problem. Instead, try to connect with their feelings. Show that you understand what your partner must be going through, how difficult it must be to be in their shoes. Encourage your partner to tell you more about what bothers them; show interest. Have your partner tell you enough about their feelings, opinions, and thoughts so that if your friend asked you to tell them why your partner is upset, you would be able to give them an accurate summary. Sometimes, all we want from each other is someone who will hear us out without being judgmental, without siding with “the enemy”, and without giving us advise based on their own perspective. Feeling understood rather than evaluated, can greatly increase our sense of intimacy and connection with our partner.
2. Create Rituals of Connection:
Do you really know what is going on with your partner at work? Do you know what worries are on their mind? Instead of leaving these kinds of questions unanswered, why not build in a ritual of sitting down for dinner or for late evening tea, to check in about each other’s day? Turn off the TV and cell phone and make this your daily together-time. Maybe set aside 15 minutes for each person to share about their day. When focus is on your partner, make it all about them, and don’t redirect the conversation to yourself. The goal is not to bring up concerns about each other, but to discuss all the external stressors and successes that are going on at work or with other people. The goal is to strengthen the conviction that you have an ally in each other and are facing the world together. This sense of togetherness and support is one of the best ways to improve intimacy in your marriage over time.
3. Share Your Spontaneous Reactions:
Famous couples researcher, John Gottman, discovered that healthy couples share many more of their spontaneous reactions with each other than couples who are disconnected. Couples who complain that they just don’t have anything to talk to each other about anymore, forget that connection is not always about depth of conversation. Get in the habit of sharing your reactions to even mundane things. Did you like your cup of coffee this morning? Share it. Did you laugh at a Facebook post? Let your partner know. These little invitations to connect are important to the health and intimacy of your relationship. In relationships where partners feel disconnected, Gottman found that not only are these little “bids for connection” few and far between, they are also often met with lack of interest from the partner. If your partner makes a bid for connection, be sure not to turn them down or ignore them. If you routinely do, they will soon stop sharing and your level of intimacy will slowly wither away.
4. Invite Deeper Conversations:
Sometimes when couples get into the doldrum of things, they may interact with each other in routine-like ways that can become deadening or boring and can decrease the sense of intimacy. Couples may start to feel like they are out of things to talk about or that they already know their partners position on different topics. In such cases, it usually pays to ask more philosophical or personal questions, to get at your partner’s deeper underlying thoughts and feelings. Your partner likes to travel: Why is this so important to them? How might this relate to their background or childhood history in some way? It’s important to your partner to be on time: Why do they attach importance to punctuality? Where does that value stem from? What feelings do they have about this issue? Learn to become interested in the deeper motivations, desires, and values of your partner. It is one of the best ways to improve intimacy in your marriage and have more meaningful conversations with your partner.
5. Get Away from the Everyday:
Sometimes what couples really need to rediscover their connection and improve their intimacy is to create new experiences and memories together. It often pays to plan a trip or take time away from the everyday routine. If you always go for dinner and a movie on Fridays, shake it up a little. Try something new. Stay overnight at a hotel in a different city. Take turns planning an outing, by looking up events in the local newspaper. Agree to be open-minded about your partner’s suggestions and try out an event your partner is interested in without judging or dragging your feet. A relationship is a living thing, and new experiences can help give new life to your shared existence and improve intimacy in your marriage.
What is it that makes some couples have more successful and rewarding relationships, and others teeter on the brink of relationship disaster?
The Secret of Successful Relationships:
If you ask me, the secret to a successful relationship or marriage lies in the capacity to be vulnerable. Most relationship conflicts are the result of people’s distaste for admitting to themselves and to their partner that they depend on each other, that they worry that the other person doesn’t love them, that they feel disappointed or hurt, or that they miss the other person and wish they could be closer or spend more time together.
What is communicated, however, is often not these things. Instead of the softer, more vulnerable emotions, we instead communicate our frustrations and our anger, our jealousy and our self-righteousness. Instead of asking for what we really want, we blame our partner for being faulty, inconsiderate, or wrong.
The Prescription for Successful Relationships:
It doesn’t really matter what couples therapist you ask, the prescription for successful relationships will almost always be the same: To have successful relationships, you must learn to communicate from a more vulnerable and more genuine place. Rather than pick fights about peripheral concerns or substitute emotions, you must be able to address the real issue.
Instead of focusing on your anger, for example, your couples therapist will help you redirect the focus to that underlying vulnerability which precipitated the anger, and will help you communicate that emotion instead.
If your spouse is out having a good time with his work colleagues, for example, the immediate reaction might be one of anger at him for never being home to help with the household chores. If we dig a little deeper, however, we might discover that the real reason for the anger is one of jealousy about sitting home alone while your husband is out having a good time. Further digging, might even reveal that the jealousy is but a veil for an underlying fear that you are not really very fun to be around and a wish you have that your husband would choose to spend his time with YOU.
Anger as a Veil for Other Emotions:
Instead of communicating the longing, the fears, and the doubts, however, it is often safer and less painful to communicate your anger.
Psychologists refer to emotions that are reactions to other emotions as secondary emotions. Although anger at someone, can sometimes serve as the original response to an event, it is more often a way of protecting yourself from a more vulnerable emotion.
To say to your wife that you feel like she may not be as attracted to you anymore and that you are worried of losing her, is a lot more difficult than giving her the silent treatment when she speaks at length and with great excitement about activities at work that don’t include you.
What Prevents Us from Being Vulnerable?
Exposing and communicating the more vulnerable emotion is what most couples therapist recommend to create and maintain successful relationships. But why is it so difficult?
The first reason for this difficulty is that you might judge yourself for having your vulnerable emotions. A voice inside of you might be telling you that you are weak for feeling jealous, or that you should be stronger than having a need for more closeness or more affection.
The second reason, might be that you are not certain that your partner will treat these vulnerable emotions delicately and respectfully. You may be worried that your partner will stomp on you when you are already down, or that your partner will use your admissions against you at a later time.
Finally, a third reason might be that your vulnerable emotions are not always rational and can seem immature. You may therefore be too ashamed to even admit to them, not to mention, to speak of them out loud.
The result of all these prohibitions, judgments, and dangers is that instead of communicating our longings, our fears, our doubts, and our needs, we end up attacking our partner and creating distance between us instead.
Why Couples Therapy Can Help:
Couples therapy is therefore both about facilitating greater insight into our vulnerabilities, and about facilitating a safe, respectful, and trusting relationship where these emotions and needs can be communicated.
When done right, the end result is often less conflict and more closeness.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., an experienced couples therapist in Houston, Texas. Read more about my approach to couples therapy and learn how you can schedule an appointment.
Most couples arguments are like rituals. Every now and then when each partner has bottled things up long enough, a fight will erupt and fury will be unleashed. These kinds of fights can often be cathartic, but they rarely if ever solve anything.
Why? Because when one partner is dishing out, the other is busy preparing a come-back. The result is that aggression by the one, leads to aggression by the other. Insult gets rebutted with insult, and no real constructive change comes out of it.
Wouldn’t it be great, however, if the things you complain about could actually get resolved? And wouldn’t it be nice if your partner would feel understood to the point where he or she no longer keeps criticizing you about the same old issues?
Here are my 5 easy to implement communication skills that will help you get your point across and improve your relationship…
1. Stick with the Facts
One of the surest ways to get your partner’s anger boiling is to label their actions using your own choice phrases. Nouns and adjectives used to describe the other person will often make them feel judged and ready to rebuff. Calling someone “inconsiderate” is different from pointing out what the other person did that felt inconsiderate to YOU. You will usually obtain a much better response from your loved one, if you simply describe the situation at hand. Recount the other person’s actions without attributing evil motivations or categorizing these actions as good or bad. “When you took 30 minutes to get ready this morning, it made us late for work” is quite different from saying “You are always late in the morning and it’s very inconsiderate”.
2. Use “I feel…”
It is common nowadays to make fun of the therapist who helps couples communicate better by having each partner rephrase their criticism with the opening statement: “I feel…” Nevertheless, when done right, it is exceedingly difficult to argue against another person’s feelings. Rephrasing your criticism in terms of how something made you feel, removes the focus from the wrong-doings of your partner, and puts focus instead on your own perceptions and experiences. For example, saying “When you entered the house without saying hello to me, I felt disappointed and started to think that you don’t really care about me”, invites a quite different response than: “Why did you not say hello when you came home today; you obviously don’t care!” The focus here is really not so much on using the phrase “I feel”, as it is about qualifying your annoyance as a result of how you viewed the situation rather than the objective wrongness of the other person.
3. Ask for what you want – not for what you don’t want
One thing that is exceedingly difficult for people in relationships is to express what they want rather than what they don’t want. It is quite easy to notice what we don’t want. Our feelings often alert us when someone has overstepped a boundary or acted in a way that we consider unacceptable. However, underneath every complaint lies an unexpressed wish. Instead of saying, “I don’t want you to stay out late with your friends all the time: When are you ever going to spend time with me?”, it might be better to say: “I really wish we could spend more time together. What do you say we arrange a date night?” In the first example, it is easy for your partner to think they are being criticized and being told what to do. In the second example, it is a lot more difficult to feel defensive. Here what you are really expressing is that you value something about your partner, and who can really get annoyed about that?
4. Be Fair in Your Assessment
When you get angry or upset, it is easy to build a case in your mind for why you are justified in being angry or upset. Oftentimes this can lead you to make totalitarian statements that are almost always wrong. Saying things like “you ALWAYS go and watch TV without helping me with dinner”, is probably not entirely accurate. Because terms like ALWAYS and NEVER are almost always NOT true, your partner is likely to feel misjudged when you use them. Now instead of addressing the real issue, the conversation will more than likely become about the fairness of your judgment. “Don’t you remember that I cooked dinner for you the other day?!” So BE fair. It is the best way to make sure your partner will be able to hear your issue.
5. Become a Good Listener
When your partner brings up a concern they have about you, it is easy to become defensive. Instead of hearing what your partner’s concern is, it is tempting to instead think of a reason why your partner is wrong, or to return the insult by blaming your partner for something as well. Instead of doing this, try to really understand what your partner is feeling unhappy about. Set aside your own complaints for a moment and become curious about how your partner really views the world. Why is going out more often important to him? Why does spending money on frivolous things annoy her? Do you really know what meaning he or she attributes to these events? Try to ask questions until you can repeat back to your partner exactly why it is they feel dissatisfied. If you model this behavior, likelihood is that your partner will feel really understood, and will return the favor next time…
About me: I am a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. For more information about couples therapy, please visit my website.