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 couples who seek therapy, 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…
About me: Rune Moelbak is a therapist in Houston Texas. He has completed Level 2 training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy and 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