Category Archives: Couples Therapy

Couples Therapy: Why Arguing Might Help Your Relationship…

Why Couples May Not Argue Enough…

At first glance it might seem that one of the major reasons couples decide to pursue couples counseling is that they fight too much. Ironically, however, the fights couples engage in are often the result of a determination by both partners not to fight. In fact, many couples do not feel completely safe to express their complaints, and feel rather timid, guilty, or ashamed about stating their own needs and desires. Rather than voicing their complaints to each other, they therefore instead try to suppress them.

When both partners have held in their private desires and wishes for too long, however, a fight eventually erupts, but these kinds of fights are the “symptoms” and not the “problem”. In fact, we might say that couples need to fight more – not less – or that they need to develop greater comfort expressing their complaints to each other on an on-going basis.

The Double Bind of the Unhappy Couple…

Let’s look at an example of a typical couples interaction to illustrate the point:

Jane dislikes her neediness and tries to curtail her natural desire to spend more time with Tom. She really wants to ask Tom to take her out more often and spend more time talking with her. However, knowing that Tom feels threatened by such demands, and questioning her own right to feel this way, Jane tries her best to give Tom his alone time. Yet the more Jane suppresses her feelings, the more resentful she starts to feel, and she now instead picks fights with Tom about not doing his part of the household chores, or makes belittling remarks about his work projects.

In the mean time, Jane gets absolutely no credit for her effort to give Tom his space. Because of her periodic outbursts and her subtle criticisms, Tom knows her encouragement of his alone time is really just pretense, and so all her good efforts are ultimately in vain.

Tom on the other hand feels guilty for his desire to spend time alone so he forces himself to spend more time with Jane. Jane, however, notices the forced nature of Tom’s half-hearted invitations to go out for dinner, or the rote manner in which he brings her flowers, so Tom gets no credit for this either. Instead, he ends up feeling that he is “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t”. This impossible bind is bound to lead to anxiety and ultimately result in an angry demand for more alone time. However, Jane now feels pushed away and has confirmation of her greatest fear which is that “Tom really doesn’t care…”

Compromising is Not the Solution…

In the name of compromise, and in order to please each other, both Tom and Jane are stuck in a lose-lose cycle. They settle for less than what they really want. And yet in exchange for their plea deal, they do not really get the peace they bargained for. Instead they end up feeling both unsatisfied and unappreciated.

The problem is not Jane’s desire to spend more time with Tom or Tom’s desire for more time alone. The problem is that both Jane and Tom are too timid and too inhibited to express their immediate desires to each other and to examine what is really underneath them.

Instead of arguing about roses that are two days too late, or acceptance of independence that is always only temporary, Tom and Jane need to be able to have a talk about what they really want. They need to develop a relationship where there is room for all their feelings, also the one’s that at first glance seem irrational, childish, shameful, or vulnerable. If they are able to talk about their differences in such a mutually accepting way, both Tom and Jane can feel more secure with each other, and more known for who they really are.

And then, as it so often happens in the absurd theatre of life, they may discover that the conflict between them loses its stronghold. Tom, now free to be himself and to express his true feelings, discovers that he actually likes to spend more time with Jane, and Jane, now feeling understood at a deeper level, discovers that she no longer needs to cling to Tom in order to feel connected.

And so it is that when we stop trying to force a solution to our problems, and instead focus on understanding what the problem is really about, the problem is free to morph into something else and to bring about its own resolution…

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like to read more about this topic, I warmly recommend this classic couples therapy book by Dan Wile. You can also visit my own website for more information about the couples therapy process. 

Things We Can Learn from Happy Couples

Happy couple in couples therapy

It’s all supposed to be very rosy: Two people meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. That’s what the fairy tale states…

And yet underneath the hood of every romantic relationship, we find one thing that all relationships have in common: they are all a lot of work.

The Perpetual Issues of Couples

As famous couples therapist, John Gottman, frequently says: To pick a partner is to pick a set of problems…

This does not mean that there are not plenty of moments of joy and closeness in every relationship. What it means is that we should expect that we will also be different from our partner on a number of key issues that are important to us.

Gottman calls these differences our perpetual conflicts, and every couple has them. One partner, for example, likes to travel the world and experience new things, whereas the other prefers the comforts of the known and would like to stay home more. Such an issue is not easily resolved because it is rooted in very deeply held values and personality preferences. It cannot be solved as easily as simply asking someone to take out the trash more often… To compromise on a perpetual issue often feels like giving up a valued piece of oneself…

From Gridlock to Dialogue

What is different between the couples who stay together versus the couples who eventually split up is that they accept this about their relationship. Instead of engaging in a perpetual warfare to change the other person, the successful couple finds ways to acknowledge their differences, to laugh about them, and to engage in a dialogue, not so much about the issues themselves, as about the underlying experiences that have created these personal preferences to begin with.

The perpetual difference now becomes an opportunity to understand something about your partner… The partner who does not like to travel, may be able to share the real reason behind wanting to be home-bound, and that may involve the ability to share some of the underlying fears that he or she has about the unknown and the unfamiliar. The partner who feels bored and restless when not on the go, may be able to identify what is so important about always experiencing something new, and perhaps even more so, why it is so unsettling to find interest and comfort in the familiar.

If a couple can engage each other in a conversation not just about the surface issues, but about their underlying feelings, fears, and desires, they have managed to move out of an initial gridlock on the issue and into an open a dialogue that is therapeutic for both. Maybe, with the safety of knowing that my partner understands me and cares about my position, I can feel free to venture out of my comfort zone, whatever that may be. I no longer have to feel like we are in a tug of war or that I am being asked to become another person.

The Not-so-Happy Couple

In not-so-happy couples, however, warfare on these perpetual issues has frequently resulted in the erosion of the mutual trust and safety that would allow such discussions of underlying meanings to take place.

As partners grow increasingly frustrated with each other’s differences, the consequence is often an escalation of the frequency of fights, and a tendency to fight “dirty”. Relationships may increasingly evolve into “power struggles”, where each partner fights for their own way, even if this means crushing the other person’s dreams in the process.

John Gottman’s research on couples shows that as couples grow increasingly dissatisfied with each other, they begin to attack each other’s personalities instead of addressing their mutual differences in a respectful and caring manner. By doing so, each person retreats into a defensive posture that makes it “dangerous” to share their more vulnerable side. Our partner can now become an “enemy” and “threat” to our sense of dignity and self-preservation, and a culture of contempt can develop that makes us question if we are even good friends anymore.

The Process of Couples Therapy

The first step in couples therapy is therefore often to reestablish safety and trust between partners. This means first of all stopping any additional bleeding, by stopping the vicious spiral of attack-defense. Only then can the process of healing past emotional wounds and restoring mutual trust begin. We must learn to become friends again, so we can once again share our vulnerabilities, fears, and desires without being afraid that such acts of courage will later be used against us.

The bad news is that we were never really taught how to do this. We were not provided with an instruction manual when we initially fell in love, and we never attended a “How to Make Relationships Work” class in high school. We therefore often stumble and fumble through our relationships, and unwittingly find ourselves repeating failed patterns over and over…

The good news is that an increasing body of literature on couples and couples therapy is beginning to pinpoint the skills and processes needed for couples to successfully make their relationships work. With the right knowledge in hand, couples can learn what to do and what not to do, and can begin to become more skillful at this most challenging of human tasks…

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: Rune Moelbak is an ICEEFT-certified couples therapist in Houston Texas. He has completed level-2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy and is a fully certified emotionally-focused couples therapist. He regularly works with couples who are looking to rebuild trust, friendship, and passion in their relationships. To read more about his approach to couples therapy: visit www.bettertherapy.com

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