| || || | Introduction to Relationship Problems
This topic center concerns marriage and marriage-like relationship problems. Our aim here is to educate the reader about the nature of such problems and to illuminate what can be done to solve them when that is possible. We're going to use the term 'marriage' here for the most part, but it should be understood that what we have to say applies more or less as readily to domestic unions and most other types of cohabiting committed 'romantic' relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual in orientation. The state may define marriage rather narrowly, but we take it as a given that relationship problems do not discriminate.
Most people enter into marriage with the best of intentions, assuming that they will remain in a permanent and happy union. Unfortunately, it is not always the case that relationships work out as planned. Many marriages degrade in quality over time and end up in a conflicted state. In recent years, something like 50% of formal marriages made in the United States have ended in divorce. This figure does not include the breakdown of other non-married but otherwise committed unions. Many people discover that it is, in fact, difficult to keep a marriage relationship alive and well. It takes work and mental flexibility that not everyone is willing or able to offer. Relationship Problems
While thinking about the divorce rate is often depressing, there are developments that are more happy to contemplate. Scientists have been hard at work for years now studying the ways that marriages can come apart and much has been learned. As it turns out, most relationships fail in predictable ways. Reasonably effective therapy strategies based on the knowledge that has been learned are now available for partners who recognize they are in trouble and want help. The various sections of this document will provide an overview of what is now known about how relationships fail, and a brief survey of some of the techniques that one might encounter in a state-of-the-art marital therapy situation. Not all troubled marriages can be saved, but perhaps with what is now known, more have a chance to survive than before.
If your relationship is in trouble, we want you to know two things: one, that help for your marriage is available to you and your partner if you seek it out, and two, that you can survive whatever the outcome of your marital difficulties. Relationships are organic living things that grow up between individuals over time. Like any living things, relationships can be healthy and live a long life, or they can get sickly and die. If your relationship dies, this doesn't mean that you too will experience the end of your life. When a relationship between two people becomes unworkable, each person may be crushed, but they are not necessarily defeated. It is important to keep in mind that in crisis, there is also opportunity for new growth. If a given relationship ends, it is possible and even probable that new satisfying relationships can be born in the future. It is also possible that, if there is still a mutual spark between you and your partner, that spark can be fanned back into a healthy flame; that your relationship can be repaired if you are both willing to compromise, seek help, and work hard to make your relationship work. What makes for a happy marriage?
In order to best understand how a marriage can come apart, it is helpful first to understand some of the ways that healthy marriages are structured, and how they function.
Healthy marriage partners are compatible partners
In a marriage that is to stand the test of time, romance is important, but compatibility is critical. By and large, partners in healthy marriages come to agree upon common agendas regarding the directions their marriage will take, and the way each partner will behave. These common agreements may never have been discussed, but they will be present implicitly in how each partner chooses to act.
Areas of agreement that partners will have dealt with will generally include:
- Friendship. Successful partners develop a significant friendship at the core of their relationship. They genuinely like one another, amuse and comfort one another, and prefer to spend time with each other. This friendship and mutual liking is somewhat separate from other aspects of the relationship (sexuality, for instance), and can survive the loss of these other aspects of the relationship. A strong friendship and mutual liking is often the basis for repair of troubled relationships.
- Role expectations. The partners reach agreement with regard to how household responsibilities are divided and how they will behave towards each other. Traditionally, and still dominantly, the male or masculine-identified partner will take on the majority of financial obligations, while the female or feminine-identified partner will take on nurturing roles. Tradition has broken down significantly in the industrialized west over the last century, however, and it is not at all uncommon to find 'women' who take on financial obligations, 'men' who take on nurturing roles, or to find both partners sharing these roles to one degree or another. Failure to reach agreement with regard to roles can be a major source of conflict.
- Emotional intimacy. Successful partners learn to trust each other, to be vulnerable with each other, to laugh together, and to support one another in times of need.
- Sexual expectations. Partners come to basic agreements as to how they will be sexual with each other. Frequently (traditionally) this means that they will be sexual with one another, and not with other people, but this is not necessarily the case. Sexual expectations may further dictate the kinds and patterns of sexual activities that each partner will and will not engage in. Coming to agreement with regard to sexuality can increase trust that couples feel for each other, and failure to reach agreement can be cause for conflict. As sexual activity is strongly rewarding and bonding for couples, it is best for marriages when partners agree upon sexual expectations and are both satisfied with their lovemaking.
- Vision/Goals. Successful partners agree that they want to pursue the same life paths, values and goals and mutually commit to those paths, values and goals. Examples might include decisions to have children or not, to attend or not attend religious services, to raise a child in a particular faith, to save or spend money, or to live frugally or extravagantly, etc.
Successful marriages tend to be populated by partners who come to their marriage with pre-existing significant compatibilities (of personality, temperament, goals, etc.) that make it easier for them to reach agreement because they frequently end up wanting the same thing. They may share commonalities with regard to personality, temperament, or preferences for volatile or conflict-avoiding interactions, as well as goals, religious and ethical ideals, etc.
While these areas of agreement do tend to be present in healthy marriages, we should note that no marriage is perfect, and that many perfectly good marriages harbor disagreements with regard to some of the domains we've discussed. In general, however, the more domains you and your partner are in agreement on, the better are your chances for a healthy marriage.
Background factors play a minor role in determining marriage success.
Personality, temperament and goal compatibility is very important in determining whether a marriage will be strong. Other background factors are also important, however. Better marriages are reported by people who chose to marry later in life as opposed to younger, by people who recall being very intensely in love with their partners prior to getting married, and by people who maintain close family relationships and whose parents' approved of their marriage. Also, people identified with more traditional sex-role and religious values tend to report having higher quality marriages overall (although it isn't clear that such people aren't just reporting positive outcomes based on their desire to present themselves in a positive light). When all factors relating to marital adjustment are considered together, personality and life-goal compatibility seems to be of paramount importance, and background factors such as whether partners come from similar family, religious or economic backgrounds or whether they have similar dating histories appear to be of lessor importance.
Healthy marriages have healthy boundaries
Healthy marriages are characterized by healthy boundaries. A boundary is something that separates one thing from another. When two people are in an intimate relationship (like a marriage) we can think about that relationship as being bounded. The two relationship partners share secrets and experiences with one another that are not shared with other people as though there is a literal boundary or barrier that keeps these secrets and experiences within their mutual private domain.
The boundary around a healthy marriage is a flexible thing; it needs to be able to bend but it should never break. Although there may be strain that develops within a marriage, a healthy couple ultimately continues to act as a unit (or at least to act in concert with one another's desires) despite the best efforts of the world and others around them to pull them in different directions. For example, a healthy couple doesn't allow parents who are critical of their union to break that union in two, nor will they allow their child to play them against each other. A healthy couple will not break confidences or promises they have made with and to each other. Maintaining the boundary around the marriage means making the welfare of the marriage first priority, even in the face of other 'first priority' activities such as parenting.
At the same time that healthy married partners keep their marriage as their number one priority, they are also not enmeshed; not joined at the hip. Each partner participates in relationships outside the marriage (family, friends, employment, etc.) and allows themselves to be influenced by those other relationships. The healthy marriage boundary can stretch to accommodate this activity. However, if push comes to shove, healthy married partners close ranks and act as a unit independent of outsiders (In-laws and even children are considered outsiders in this context!).
Healthy marriage partners act positively towards each other
Marital satisfaction is affected by how frequently partners get into conflicts, but not by whether they get into conflicts at all. Marriages vary widely in terms of how much conflict the partners tolerate. Partners in a volatile marriage are highly expressive and willing to give and take a fairly large amount of conflict, whereas partners in a conflict-avoiding marriage, by definition, try to minimize clashes and downplay displays of emotionality. What distinguishes these two groups most starkly is the vigor with which partners attempt to change their partner's minds. The varying tolerances for displays of emotionality, expressive persuasions and outright conflicts observed across different marriages derive from the constituent partner's personalities and temperaments. These differences in willingness to bicker and fight appear to be normal variations in how partners communicate and are not particularly significant in themselves. It is only when bickering and fighting between spouses results in lasting contempt or hurt feelings that it suggests anything about the health of the relationship.
If the extent to which partners are willing to conflict with one another doesn't tell you much about the health of their relationship, the relative amount of time they spend in conflict with one another vs. having more positive interactions does. Healthy stable couples are observed to produce about five positive (happy, pleasant) interchanges for each negative (angry, hostile, upset) one. Couples whose marriages are in trouble are substantially less positive towards each other than couples with healthier marriages. These findings suggest that it is not how willing one partner is to attack the other that indicates problems within the marriage; it is the frequency of those attacking episodes that is associated with marital problems.
Marriages wax and wane with regard to closeness
Marital satisfaction is never completely constant, even in healthy marriages. All marriages tend to be experienced as becoming less satisfying as time passes. As one would expect, marital happiness and satisfaction are highest during the first several 'honeymoon' years of togetherness, and tend to drop to lower but still satisfying levels as time passes. The initial drop in marital satisfaction that is so commonly experienced appears to occur as each partner develops a more realistic appreciation of what they can expect and not expect from their spouse, and also as young children are introduced into the marriage. Major family changes and disruptions such as the birth of children and transitions of children into and out of school are particularly stressful times for most marriages, as reflected by partners' decreased satisfaction ratings.
The generalized lowering of marital satisfaction level over time notwithstanding, mild waxing and waning affection and attentiveness levels spouses may have for each other appear to be a normal part of married life and nothing to overly worry about. Cause for concern only occurs when partners' periods of detachment extend for very long periods of time.
How marriages get into trouble
The question of why some marriages fail while others stay healthy is not the mystery it once was. Through careful observation and research, social scientists have come to appreciate the stages through which the majority of marriages pass, the types of life events that tend to be associated with relationship problems, and the predictable patterns that tend to emerge when marriages do begin to fail. "Forewarned is forearmed", or so the saying goes. Learning about these predictable stages and patterns can perhaps help couples to better understand when a relationship problem is cause for alarm and help should be sought and when what appears to be problematic is nothing to be concerned about. With this in mind, we offer the following summation of what is known about how relationships get into trouble.
Expectable marriage patterns
In the large majority of cases, the early years of a marriage are the happiest. Marriage happiness ratings tend to be highest during the first one or two years of marriage, and then drop to lower levels. A variety of factors, most prominently the introduction of children to the family, place considerable demand on the marriage which are difficult to negotiate. Parenting takes a toll on the ways that partners tend to experience each other. Marriage satisfaction levels off as children leave the home, but frequently the partners never recover the intensity of feeling they originally had for each other. Thereafter, the marriage may function quite well and both partners may be quite content, but some portion of the passion that was originally present has burned off.
It certainly isn't fair that passion tends to die down over time, but it is an observable fact. It has been suggested that we have perhaps evolved to only stay passionate with a partner for a time-limited period (just long enough to get pregnant and raise a child through the most sensitive parts of early childhood), but this remains speculation. Whatever the cause, among the many challenges that spouses face in keeping their marriage strong is finding ways to keep some passion alive, and adjusting to the fact that as familiarity increases, some passion will likely leave the marriage and that this is a normal process. Partners who seriously fail at these tasks can drift apart emotionally and/or fall pray to temptations such as extramarital affairs.
If a picture of marriage satisfaction over time looks like a downward sloping curve, a picture of how marriage problems look through time resembles an arch. Few problems are recognized in the early stages of marriage. Marriage problems tend to rise in the middle years of marriage, probably in response to family obligations including raising children, caring for elderly parents and the like. Finally, reports of marriage problems drop off as care giving responsibilities decline.
While long term patterns of satisfaction and complaint tend to occur as described above, what is happening at any given moment for any given couple is far more variable. Family, friends, employment and country make continual demands on married people. There is a certain normal waxing and waning of closeness that usually occurs between the partners as they negotiate these varying demands. At some times the relationship will be most important; at other times, work or military service, or parenting will seem more important. Normal relationships, (unlike the fantasy ones featured in movies) do move between intimacy and detachment. This is important to keep in mind so as not to panic when evaluating your feelings for your own spouse. Ocassionally feeling distant or detached from your spouse doesn't mean that a real marriage problem exists, so long as your detachment doesn't persist and so long that on average your marriage remains your first priority.
Some marriages fail. Given the long-term predictable declines in marriage satisfaction and the predictable rise in marriage complaints that tends to occur in the average marriage, today's high divorce rates are perhaps not shocking. In recent years in America, approximately 50% of all marriages have tended to end in divorce. Many divorced people remarry, but the statistics for divorces among remarried people are even worse, with over 50% of those marriages failing. Conservative critics get upset about the high divorce rate and look nostalgically backwards to earlier times when the divorce rates were lower. What such critics don't tend to focus on, however, is that while divorce rates were lower in past decades, divorces were also much harder to obtain. There is no reason to believe that just because prior century couples stayed together more often that their marriages were any more functional or happy than are those of today's divorcing couples.
Divorce is a highly public and obvious formal sign of marriage failure. Depending on how you understand and define marriage, however, there are other ways that marriages can die. Modern marriage is both a legal and social arrangement as well as an intimate and emotional partnership. A formal marriage can persist for years after the emotional and intimate parts of it have perished. This sort of arrangement might be a fine agreement if both partners wish it, but an unfortunate fate if one partner does not but for whatever reason won't or can't muster the will to leave.
Predictable Patterns of Marriage Breakdown
There is no single reason why a relationship begins to break down. However, once a relationship does start to break down, there is a predictable sequence of events that tends to occur. Highly regarded psychologist and researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. suggests that there are four stages to this sequence which he has labeled, "The Four Horsemen Of the Apocalypse".
The first stage of the breakdown process involves intractable conflict and complaints. All couples have conflicts from time to time, but some couples are able to resolve those conflicts successfully or 'agree to disagree', while others find that they are not. As we observed earlier, it is not the number or intensity of arguments that is problematic but rather whether or not resolution of those arguments is likely or possible. Couples that get into trouble find themselves in conflicts that they cannot resolve or compromise upon to both party's satisfaction. Such disagreements can be caused by any number of reasons, but might involve a clash of spousal values on core topics such as whether to have children, or how to handle money.
Frequently, couples assume that misunderstandings are at the root of their conflicts. "If my spouse really understood why I act as I do, he or she would agree with me and go along with what I want", is a commonly overheard refrain. Acting on this belief, spouses often try to resolve their conflicts by repeatedly stating and restating their respective rationals during disagreements. This strategy of repetition usually doesn't work because most of the time couple conflicts are not based on misunderstandings, but rather on real differences in values. When this is the case, stating and restating one's position is based on a mistaken premise and can only cause further upset.
In the second stage of the breakdown process, one or both spouses starts to feel contempt for the other, and each spouse's attitudes about their partner change for the worse. For example, initially each spouse may have mostly positive regard for their partner and be willing to write off any 'bad' or 'stupid' behavior their partner acts out as a transient, uncommon stress-related event. However, as 'bad' or 'stupid' behavior is observed again and again, spouses get frustrated, start to regard their partner as actually being a 'bad' or 'stupid' person, and begin to treat their partner accordingly. Importantly, the 'bad' behavior that the spouse demonstrates doesn't have to be something he or she actually does. Instead, it could be something that he or she doesn't do, that the spouse expects them to do (such as rembering to put the toilet seat down after use).
Conflict by itself doesn't predict marriage problems. Some couples fight a lot but somehow never manage to lose respect for each other. Once contempt sets in, however, the marriage is on shaky ground. Feelings of contempt for one's spouse are a powerful predictor of relationship breakdown, no matter how subtlety they are displayed. In a famous study, Gottman was able to predict with over 80% accuracy the future divorces of multiple couples he and his team observed based on subtle body language cues suggesting contemptuous feelings (such as dismissive eye-rolling). Contempt doesn't have to be expressed openly for it to be hard at work rotting the foundations of one's relationship.
Most people find conflict and contempt to be stressful and react to such conditions by entering the third stage of breakdown, characterized by partner's increasingly defensive behavior. Men in particular (but women too) become hardened by the chronicity of the ongoing conflict, and may react even more acutely during moments when conflict is most heated by becoming overwhelmed and "flooded"; a condition which is psychologically and emotionally quite painful. Over time, partners learn to expect that they are 'gridlocked'; that they cannot resolve their differences, and that any attempts at resolution will result in further overwhelm, hurt or disappointment. Rather than face the pain and overwhelm they expect to experience, partners who have reached this third 'defensive' stage, may progress to the forth and final stage of breakdown, characterized by a breakdown of basic trust between the partners, and increasing disengagement in the name of self-protection. Like a steam-valve in a pressure cooker, the partners start avoiding one another so as to minimize their conflicts. Gottman calls this final stage, "Stonewalling", perhaps after the image of a partner hiding behind a stone wall designed to protect him or her from further assault. Unfortunately, there is no way to love your partner when you are hiding behind a wall to protect yourself from him or her.
The "four horsemen" breakdown sequence plays out amongst the backdrop of partner compatibility. Basically compatible partners may demonstrate a whole lot of conflict, but they don't often become contemptuous and angry with their partners, because there are by definition few things that they will disagree upon. In contrast, partners who start out with incompatible goals, values or dreams are far more likely to get into seemingly irresolvable conflicts. Also, once the process of contempt, defensiveness and avoidance begins, small incompatibilities can become magnified as spouses pursue other interests as an alternative to conflict.
Relationship Problems: Affairs
Large events seldom break marriages. Rather it is the little everyday stuff that makes or breaks relationships. Failing to communicate effectively (to listen and to compromise), too much self-righteous posturing or bullying attempts at control, unilateral decision making, failing to keep promises, and withdrawal from emotional and sexual intimacy are all that is needed to cause a marriage to disintegrate. Despite this being true, there are also 'large' events that can play a significant role in furthering the process of marriage breakdown. Abuse of any sort is one of these large events, and having affairs is another.
The common definition of what constitutes an affair seems to be sexual relations outside of marriage. This is perhaps a mistakenly narrow definition however, because it fails to recognize that marriages can be threatened by any relationship, sexual or otherwise, that threatens to break the bonds of intimacy and trust between spouses. A purely platonic friendship developed with someone outside the marriage can very definitely cause problems inside the marriage if that friendship becomes more intense and intimate than the marriage relationship. In an important sense, any outside relationship that drains one spouse's ability to attend emotionally, sexually and/or intimately with/to his or her spouse is a potentially damaging affair. In this sense, online-chatting and cybersex can be real affairs capable of damaging marriages.
Affairs can happen at any time, although they are particularly likely to occur during the middle years of marriage. The popular conception is that affairs start after marriage problems already exist, and this does of course occur. Having an affair is, after all, a particularly dramatic means of disengaging from one's partner. However, affairs can also start in the context of healthy marriages as platonic extra-marital friendships that becomes passionate and sexual. It can be easy to mistake a new passionate infatuation for evidence that the older marriage relationship has died, but this is not necessarily the case. Rather, that an affair relationship feels more passionate than a marriage relationship generally only indicates that it is far newer than the marriage relationship. The passion of an affair will almost certainly cool if it is pursued to its logical extension. Someone who leaves their spouse for another man or woman may find themselves essentially back in the same situation they started in or worse when this cooling occurs. In most cases, if married partners understand themselves to be more or less compatible with their original spouse, they will not gain anything by pursuing another and may lose a lot. In any event, affairs don't always signal the end of a marriage, but they surely point to marital disengagement that must be addressed if the marriage is to survive an affair and become healthy again.
Relationship Problems: Ambivalence
Marriages don't fall apart overnight; people go through a process in order to arrive at their desire to divorce. In some minority of cases, the decision to divorce is made quickly, perhaps as the result of an affair, or an instance of abuse. More often, however, people contemplating divorce endure a period of ambivalence during which the pros and cons of staying or leaving the relationship are debated.
The process of being ambivalent as to whether to leave or stay in a marriage is not necessarily orderly or linear, and there is no set timetable for how long it will last. In fact, ambivalence towards marriage can last indefinitely. Spouses with conflicting goals or values might initially contemplate divorce only to later back away from that idea and attempt to make a compromise work so as to preserve their union. If compromise proves sustainable and successful and both spouses feel good about it, the marriage peace can last. Alternatively, if attempts at compromise are not sustainable (if compromise would lead one or the other partner to compromise too much of what is precious to them) then conflict (and ambivalence towards the marriage) will surely emerge again. Ambivalence indicates a problem in the marriage and is a good indication that marital counseling is in order but it does not necessarily indicate whether that problem can be overcome or not.
Core value conflicts between partners may develop over time as partners mature, or they may have been present in hidden form from the beginning of the relationship. Whatever their origin, mismatched values and beliefs can become an intractable problem for married partners; There are things that partners can compromise on and things they can't yield on without compromising themselves. When partners are unable to arrive at an acceptable mutual compromise, they must either split or figure out how to feel okay in spite of not being able to get what they want. As neither of these 'solutions' are enjoyable, it is fairly common that people retreat from them psychologically and remain ambivalent instead.
People often experience ambivalence as a pressing problem that they cannot solve, and as a painful sense of stuckness. While there are all too many cases where ambivalence ends up being a negative experience from which people have difficulty exiting, ambivalence can sometimes be a good thing as well. Ambivalence might be all that keeps one partner from quickly separating from his or her spouse and ending a perfectly good relationship when he or she is under the influence of an infatuating affair. The laws governing divorce in most states seem geared to support this type of 'take-your-time' ambivalence when they require a period of time to pass between when a couple files for divorce and when that divorce is granted. Sometimes the impulse to flee a relationship is founded, and sometimes it isn't. In its positive aspect, ambivalence slows down the decision making process so that better decisions can be reached.
The downward cascade of increasingly negative and disengaged interactions that characterizes Gottman's "Four Horsemen" are set in motion when for whatever reason, married partners are not able to compromise and accept one another's behavior. Sometimes this can happen when one or more of the partners are unskilled communicators, or are self-centered. Such conflicts are potentially fixable given time and expert help. At other times, couple's intractable conflicts exist because partners need fundamentally different things, for example, when one partner wants to have a child and the other does not. While it would be possible for someone who did not want a child to agree to parent one, there might not be any way that this person would be happy living with that outcome. When partners have fundamentally different needs and cannot compromise without compromising themselves, it is quite possible that they might be better off separated than together.
From a rational and ideal perspective, it is wise to learn what you want to accomplish in life and what makes you happy before getting involved with someone else, and to thoroughly interview prospective partners for compatibility with your own needs prior to committing to a marriage with them. Partners don't always have this level of self-knowledge and foresight when they get involved with each other, however. Frequently, partners only begin to understand what they can and cannot compromise on after they have married. In this sense then, although conflict may not be avoidable or solvable in some marriages, it may not have been possible to anticipate that it would occur either. Keeping this in mind may help some people who are angry and disappointed by what their partners cannot offer them to also experience a little compassion for their painful situation and the two fragile humans who occupy it.
The great danger of being ambivalent towards whether to remain married is that someone might never resolve their ambivalence but rather live in it for years and years. Feelings of ambivalence towards your marriage that don't resolve over time and efforts to work them through may indicate compatibility problems in the marriage. Spouses in this sort of situation would be wise to seek out marital therapy so as to better clarify whether things can be changed for the positive, or at least made livable. A therapist (discussed in detail in the next section) is an objective third party helper who can serve as a traffic cop to enable previously gridlocked communication to flow better, and who can serve as a teacher who can assist partners in learning more effective ways to sooth themselves and each other, to have better perspective, and to communicate more effectively with one another.
Aside from therapy, we heartily recommend the book, "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-By-Step Guide to Helping You Decide Whether to Stay in or Get Out of Your Relationship", by therapist Mira Kirshenbaum for those people who feel they are unable to resolve their ambivalence towards their marriage. Where most people attempt to break out of ambivalence by weighing pros and cons for staying in a marriage -- a difficult and not very objective process, Ms. Kirshenbaum takes the perspective of a physician diagnosing illness, and offers specific recommendations for staying or leaving a marriage based on whether particular 'symptoms' are present in that marriage. Some symptoms in a marriage, such as abuse, are almost always associated with negative marriage outcomes, for instance, and it is almost always a good idea to leave such marriages even when it is painful to do so. The book is clearly written, compassionate, and provides sensible direction in a situation that can seem hopeless
Marital therapy concepts
Keeping a marriage healthy and happy over time takes work, and is sometimes quite a difficult task. It is wonderful when a couple in a troubled relationship is able to recognize and jointly work out their differences. This process is seldom easy, however. Once problems have started to become chronic, each partner feels betrayed by the other and compromise feels unsafe. In such cases, the safe and protected haven offered by a marital or couples therapist can make the difference between a marriage that fails and one that recovers itself.
Marital therapy is probably the best single thing that people in troubled marriages can do to help heal their marriages. A skilled marriage therapist offers support and intervention that can help distrusting disengaged partners to safely address their difficulties and begin the process of problem solving and healing:
- Safety. First and foremost, therapists work to provide a trustworthy and safe environment which can contain and manage couples' anger, frustration and contempt. Therapists remain neutral and do not take sides. They maintain confidentiality and privacy. They limit angry and hysterical emotional displays. They promote calm problem solving. In general, they provide a space in which it becomes possible for couples to step out of defensiveness and work on problems in a productive and rational manner.
- Normalization and Reality Testing. Experienced therapists have "seen it all before" and are able to help couples to understand when their desires and expectations (of each other and/or of themselves), indiscretions and reactions are normal and when they are unusual, inappropriate or even abusive. Such feedback from a relatively objective third party can provide a needed reference point which partners can refer to during their negotiations.
- Traffic Control. Conflicted couples often become easily defensive and have difficulty listening to each other. Therapists function as traffic cops to make sure that partners take turns talking and listening to each other, no one is shut down and unable to speak and all have a better chance to feel listened to than would otherwise be possible.
- Skills Education. Therapists teach problem solving skills which can help couples gain tools to help them better address and manage their conflicts. Communication skills help couples to know how to better speak and listen to each other. Soothing skills help partners to better recognize when they are becoming defensive, and how to calm themselves so that rational dialog remains possible.
- Interpretation. To the extent that the problem appears to be caused by partners' failure to understand one another, therapists will work hard to promote communication. They teach listening skills, promote sharing of feelings and desires that may be difficult to express and encourage partners to repeat what their partners have said so as to demonstrate their comprehension. When necessary, they will interpret partner's meanings so as to better promote each partner's understanding of the other. Therapists may also point out relationship patterns that partners may not have been aware of (for instance, if one partner attempts to treat the other as a child or as a parent) which could interfere with their ability to relate as adult partners.
Marital therapy generally takes place outpatient-style in a therapist's office and is offered once per week with each session lasting between 60 and 90 minutes. One or two therapists may be present in the session. When two therapists are present the process is called 'conjoint' therapy. The number of therapy sessions will vary according to the severity of the presented problems, the therapist's training and technique, and (unfortunately) the couple's ability to pay for services. Many insurance plans will provide partial coverage for marital therapy. Although some therapists will suggest that significant change can be made in one or two sessions, it is more likely that between 8 to 12 sessions will be required before significant and lasting change might realistically occur. On the other end of the spectrum, therapies that last for more than a year or so without producing results are not likely to produce results. In such cases, troubled couples might consider working with a different therapist with a different approach, or to rethink the viability of their marriage.
During sessions of marital therapy, therapists help couples to work through their difficulties which may include estrangement and loss of loving feelings, communication problems, affairs, mismatched expectations, and competitive struggles to determine whose vision and goals will dominate. Couples that have the best chance for recovery are those who are both motivated to keep their marriage alive. Couples who arrive at martial therapy with one or more partners ambivalent with regard to whether to remain committed to the marriage, whose problems are more severe or are characterized by more disengagement, or who are unwilling or unable to compromise are less likely to successfully work things out. Couples who arrive at therapy with one of the partners already emotionally disengaged from the other may be beyond help.
Marital Therapy in Perspective
When most people think of therapy they think of individual therapy - where one therapist works with one client. Marital or couples therapy works somewhat differently than individual therapy in that the therapist thinks of the couple as a whole as his or her client rather than either of the partners considered separately. Treating the couple as the client keeps the focus of therapeutic discussion more firmly fixed on healing the couple's troubles, and helps the therapist resist siding with one of the partners at the expense of the other.
Marital therapy works best when both partners are physically and emotionally present. It can be initiated by one of the partners in the absence of the other, but it cannot effectively proceed unless both partners are willing to attend and be engaged by the process. Therapy is worth initiating even when one partner will only attend under duress, but it is unlikely to produce useful change if the unwilling partner remains disengaged throughout the process.
Like many therapeutic interventions, medical and otherwise, marital therapy isn't perfect and doesn't always succeed in helping couples to preserve their marriages. Those forms of marital therapy that have been studied have a success rate that stands around 65%. Marital therapy is highly recommended, nevertheless, as it remains the single best thing that a troubled couple can do to help themselves. Even when therapy does work and couples do come to relate better towards one another, results can sometimes be modest, with disagreements and unresolved conflicts continuing to be present. Couples who have benefited from marital therapy and who have subsequently relapsed may find it useful to return to therapy for 'booster' sessions.
There is no single 'marital therapy'. Rather, there are different schools of marital therapy, and therapists often pick and choose techniques from among these schools in eclectic fashion. Even so, therapists trained in particular mental health professions will often most closely ally themselves with schools favored by those professions. For example, social workers tend to favor techniques and perspectives drawn from the ecologically-oriented 'Family-Systems' school, and psychologists tend to draw on Psychodynamic, or Cognitive-Behavioral techniques and perspectives. Though it can be fairly said that all surviving techniques and perspectives have merit, those drawn from the behavioral school have received the most scientific scrutiny, and are consequently most standardized, understood and evidence-based. We recommend couples look for a behaviorally based marital therapist if they want to maximizing their chances of receiving effective therapy in the absence of a trusted referral.
The best therapists combine education and experience with an empathic and compassionate but sharp and attentive personality. They are perceptive individuals and tend to see through partner's manipulations and dramatizations. Just the same, they work to find non-threatening ways to provide corrective feedback to their clients. Though behavioral therapy techniques are arguably the best available, they will be relatively ineffective in the hands of a therapist who does not possess the right personality and motivations. For this reason, the best way to locate a good martial therapist is often to obtain a referral from someone who knows a therapist's professional work; someone who has been in marital therapy, or someone who is themselves a healthcare provider. If a therapist is good, the specific techniques they bring to bear will matter less. When a referral from a known source isn't possible, it then makes sense to select a therapist based on their approach. (Various professional societies representing particular schools provide telephone referrals; see the link list below)
The 'chemistry' between a couple and their therapist(s) is also important. Effective therapy requires trust on the part of all parties. If one or more partners fail to see their therapist as fair and impartial, the therapy is likely to be compromised. For this reason, it is not a particularly good idea to recruit a therapist who has previously worked with one member of a couple. Rather, partners are generally best off with a therapist who is initially unknown to both. Therapists and couples also must pay attention to and talk about how their relationship feels over time so that any partner's perception that the others are ganging up on him/her is minimized.
Marital therapy process
Martial therapists often start a therapy engagement by asking clients to participate in an information gathering assessment phase during which they attempt to understand the nature of the problem they have been asked to address. The assessment process may be formal or informal depending on the therapist.
An informal assessment consists of one or more sessions devoted to an interview process wherein the therapist asks the couple to describe their problem. Sometimes these early information-gathering sessions involve both partners being present; at other times the partners are individually interviewed.
When a more formal assessment process is called for, the interview is supplemented with one or more formal questionnaires, exercises or interviews designed to gather more objective information. Family-systems trained therapists often ask each partner to complete a 'genogram' which is a sort of psychologically informed family tree. Systems therapists are sensitive to the intergenerational dynamic relationships and vulnerabilities that each partner in a relationship have been shaped by (for instance, whether one partner was raised in an alcoholic environment and had to take on parent-like responsibilities before they were ready, or was a child of a holocaust survivor, etc.). They use the genogram to better understand how family background conditions influence marital behavior. Behaviorally based therapists, more interested in the nature of the current relationship, may ask each partner to fill out a 'dyadic adjustment scale' wherein each partner is asked to describe how they understand their relationship. The behaviorally informed therapist will then compare each partner's responses on this questionnaire to learn how similarly each partner views the relationship.
Generally the assessment phase will be one to three sessions in duration and will terminate in a session where the therapist presents his or her understanding of the problem to the couple along with a proposed treatment plan and goals.
Having made a best attempt to understand a couple's problems, a therapist will next work with the couple to remediate those problems. Regardless of his or her orientation, the therapist's task involves teaching the couple how to interrupt their slide towards disengagement (via contempt, frustration and defensiveness; Gottman's "four horsemen") so that their more loving efforts have a better chance at success. Though the therapist may appear to be improvising at any given moment, there are only a limited number of interventions the therapist will use.
Communication Approaches in Relationships
Trust and affection are the glue that hold couples together. Healthy partners communicate these positive feelings towards each other via words and gestures in a cyclical manner that breeds more positive communication. Chronically conflicted couples lose trust between the partners, affection suffers and communication between partners takes on a more negative, defensive and demanding tone. Marital therapists teach conflicted couples communication skills designed to help them interrupt their negative communications and replace them with more positive (or at least neutral) ones.
- "I" Statements. Chronically conflicted partners frequently find themselves in escalating verbal fights during which they accuse and curse each other. One attack leads to another in a vicious circle of undesired but seemingly unavoidable blows. In the midst of this violence partners forget that the best way out of a fight is to be mutually vulnerable; to share hurt feelings and invite help rather than to accuse and attack. In this vein, therapists pay careful attention to how couples fight, and may suggest alternative ways that couples can speak to each other that might minimize fights. For example, when one spouse has forgotten (yet again) to pick up milk on the way home, his or her partner may see this as evidence of that spouses' thoughtlessness and lack of concern and go on the attack, "That was a thoughtless thing for you to do". The recipient of this sort of accusing, attacking message is likely to become defensive or even to attack back. A very different reaction would be expected, however, if the original communication was less attacking and more communicative of the underlying hurt and betrayal experienced, " When you come home without the milk, I feel like you don't care about me". This second type of message, phrased in the first person (which is why it is called an "I" statement) communicates feelings rather than accusations. It elicits a helpful, supportive response rather than a defensive one, and helps to defuse potential fights and arguments. "I" statements work wonderfuly when people are able to remember to produce them before and during battle. The big problem with "I" statements is that people don't remember to produce them.
- Focal, Not Global Criticism. In healthy marriages partners are able to forgive each other mistakes and preserve an overall positive impression of each other. In troubled marriages repetitive transgressions and disappointments can lead partners to form more negative impressions of each other which in turn degrade their mutual trust and affection. As a consequence of this process, partner's criticisms tend to turn from specific complaints (e.g., "you forgot to bring milk") to general (sometimes over-general) conclusions which may be exaggerated (e.g., "you don't care about me at all"). It may be the case that a spouse who forgets milk doesn't care about his or her partner, but it may also be the case that this milk-forgetting spouse is distracted by work or other pressing concerns. A generalized lack of caring doesn't necessarily follow from a series of milk delivery failures but it can be human nature to think that it does. As it only makes sense to not want to be in an intimate relationship with someone who doesn't care about you, it is in the interest of the marriage that such generalized and exaggerated conclusions be discouraged. In the service of this goal, a therapist may encourage his or her clients to stick to the indisputable facts (that milk was not delivered) and to not draw conclusions from these facts which might be mistaken.
- Traffic Control; Active Listening and Repeating. Chronically arguing couples often become so involved in defending themselves, correcting the mistakes and exaggerations their partner has accused them of, and figuring out what they're going to say next that they forget to listen and respond to what their partner is really saying. Conversation becomes exhausting and impossible, but because nobody is listening, the urge is there to speak louder as though an increase in volume or rhetoric will somehow get through better (it doesn't).
Therapists act as traffic cops and teach active listening skills to counter partner's obsessive defensive arguing. To enable both members of a couple to speak and be listened to, a therapist will set up and enforce times when each partner can speak and the other partner is asked to listen. The type of listening the therapist wants to encourage is called 'active listening' because it involves a state of actually paying attention to what is being said (rather than merely not speaking). The therapist will shut down any attempts by the listening partner to interrupt the speaker. When the speaker is through speaking, the therapist may ask the listener to repeat back the gist of what was said so that the speaker can know that they were understood. A process of correction may occur if the the speaker still feels misunderstood. Over repetitions of this exercise, taking turns amongst the partners so that each gets to speak and listen equally, the listening partners (ideally) learn to calm down, put themselves mentally into their (speaking) partners' position and open their minds to what is being said. Ideally, the couple will learn to do active listening and repeating to demonstrate understanding on their own without need of the therapist's intervention. Helping the partners to feel understood by one another may not solve their problems (fundamental differences in desires and goals may be uncovered in this process), but it does help the partners to better clarify what their problems actually are.
- Interpretation. While teaching couples ground rules and procedures for how to communicate effectively, therapists may also help couples to better understand each other by offering the couple their outsider's informed opinion as to why each partner has chosen to act as they have. Interpretation has to be accurate in order to be helpful, so therapists will often spend a fair amount of time getting to know the partners before offering it. When given, interpretations will also generally be offered in the form of a possibility for the partners to consider that they may not have thought of before and not as an absolute truth. A helpful interpretation might offer partners a new way of looking at their behavior that helps them to get away from being adversaries. For example, a therapist might link back one partners desire for stability to his or her parent's alcoholism, perhaps allowing the other partner to empathize and understand for the first time how that desire for stability came to exist rather than viewing it as merely an annoying aspect of their partner's character.
Soothing Approaches in Relationships
Chronically conflicted couples become easily overwhelmed, agitated and tense while communicating. Therapists often encourage such couples to practice soothing skills and techniques to help them defuse arousal and emotion, enabling them to communicate and problem solve more efficiently. Soothing skills practice help couples to better tolerate stressful provoking situations (lessening the chance that they will become overwhelmed in the first place), and to recover faster after they have become overwhelmed.
There is no perfect definition of what constitutes a soothing activity. As the popular phrase "Any port in a storm" suggests, most any alternative to outright fighting will generally qualify as a soothing activity. However, different people have different ideas about what works best for them when they need to calm down. Specifically, some people find it easier to relax when they are alone, while others can't calm down easily unless they are around supportive people. A good therapist will recommend soothing activities matched to each partner's preferences.
- Time-Out. The tried-and-true 'time-out' technique is very useful in helping couples to disengage from a fight. The couple agrees that they will ask their partner for a 'time-out' on their discussion for an agree-upon period of time when they start to feel overwhelmed. During the time-out period, they agree that they will not discuss what they've been arguing about. If necessary, the couple should physically separate themselves so that they cannot continue discussion until the time-out period is over. The duration of a time-out period should be set to allow enough time to go by so that tempers have cooled, but not so much that any of the partners become anxious or feel overly deprived from making their case. Whatever the length, it is important that a time-out's duration be agreed upon at the time it is asked for so that neither partner feels anxiety over when they will again be able to talk.
Where the time-out technique is most useful for letting off steam during an active confrontation, other soothing practices are useful in helping conflicted individuals to lower their general tension levels.
- Talking and venting feelings about one's situation is very stress relieving for some people. Trusted family members or friends, or an individual therapist can offer support, a shoulder for crying on and a place to discuss feelings and seek counsel. Similar relief and reflection can be had by keeping, reading and re-reading a journal of one's thoughts and feelings.
- Organizing helps some people to calm down. Cleaning one's house, getting the bills paid, even making lists of errands to be run and then checking them off as they are completed can be soothing activities.
- Relaxation techniques help relieve muscular tension associated with stress. Progressive muscle relaxation is a popular relaxation technique whereby a therapist (or audio program) instructs people to alternately tense and then relax different major muscle groups, producing a profound bodily feeling of relaxation. Massage and some types of exercise (including hatha yoga) can produce similar effects.
- Soothing environments, either imagined, visualized or experienced, help to calm jangled nerves. Guided imagery exercises (such as imagining one's self at the beach - often combined with relaxation exercises) can temporarily distract people from their consuming anxieties and angers. Music, lighting and aromatherapy products can be used to enhance the effect. Actually going out to be in a beautiful place (walking in a park, visiting the beach or a nature preserve) can also promote feelings of calm.
- Exercise can be a very effective means of calming one's self down. In addition to working out physical muscular tensions and producing fatigue, exercise is also a good distraction capable of talking one's mind off of disturbing thoughts and concerns.
- Distraction, or taking one's mind off of disturbing thoughts and feelings can also be a very effective means of coping with tension. Distraction works by refocusing one's attention away from things that are concern
ing towards something more immediate. Watching television, reading a book, talking with friends (about other things than disturbing thoughts) or focusing on a hobby can all be effective means of distraction. While taking distraction to an extreme would clearly be detrimental to a relationship (you can't have an intimate relationship if you are always distracted from it!), used in moderation, distraction can be part of a healthy coping repertoire.
Relationship Strengthening Approaches and Intervention Sequences
Whereas communication and soothing approaches help couples to work through their conflicts, relationship strengthening approaches help couples to strengthen the bonds that hold them together in spite of conflicts. As such bonds get stronger and are expressed more frequently through positive interactions, it becomes easier for couples to commit to the work and compromise needed to resolve their differences.
- Relationship Inventories. Some therapists urge conflicted couples to take an inventory of the things they have liked about each other in the past and in the present. Prompting remembrances of times when things were not so tense can help reawaken in each partner the feelings that first brought them together.
- Partner Pleasing Exercises. Therapists also sometimes will ask conflicted couples to commit to doing something, one thing, which will please their partner, and to commit to doing this thing for their partner as a gift, without expectation of reciprocation. Whatever form the pleasing activity takes, it should be something that the partner genuinely likes or wants. Such a gift doesn't have to be expensive; it is better that the gift express caring and concern rather than it be worth money. A good gift might be something quite free like a massage, or fixing something around the house (depending on what the partner would like to receive). What matters is that the gift is given in a sincere manner because the giver finds it within him or herself to want to give that gift. The recipient of the gift will have a hard time not reacting positively to the sincerity of such a gift (contrived though it may be), and the gift giver can feel good that he or she has done something pleasing for his or her partner. Asking the couple to practice positive interactions in this manner is a step in the right direction, and can sometimes rekindle a positive feeling that has faded.
- Forgiveness. Taking a cue from religious practice, some therapists ask conflicted partners to find it within themselves to forgive their partners for their transgressions. Forgiveness is a difficult movement for many people to make. It involves becoming willing to "lose a battle in order to win the war"; to swallow pride, disavow revenge, and to allow something that hurt you to go unanswered. While many people can force themselves to act as though they have forgiven someone who has hurt them, few are authentically able to forgive completely and without reservation. This is okay. The movement towards forgiveness is a good one in of itself as it helps us to recognize the human capacity for making mistakes which is not only present in one's spouse, but also in one's self. Forgiveness makes sense when there is genuine contrition on the part of the partner who has offended (e.g. by having an affair, by lying, or something to that effect), when the harm done is not part of a larger, repeating pattern, and when there is reason to believe that the mistake will not reoccur. Forgiveness is not recommended in cases where a partner continues to be abusive or when there is no reason to believe that a partner's apology is meaningful.
- Sex. Reasonably frequent sexual relations between committed partners are often an important part of what keeps a relationship healthy. Sexual relations offer partners opportunities to share physical pleasure, comfort, and release of tension and to come to associate these relaxing and exciting positive feelings with each other. These qualities contribute to couples' bonding and forgiveness of conflicts. Many marriages suffer when sexual relations cease or occur with significantly less frequency than normal. For these reasons, some therapists will encourage conflicted committed partners to make time for playful sexual relations, or to agree to have sexual relations again if one or more partners is boycotting sexual relations in protest.
Though there are many ways a therapist can provide intervention to a conflicted couple, only some of these techniques will prove useful for any given couple. It is part of the therapist's job to select a short list of interventions that will be maximally helpful to their clients. Therapists' selection of what techniques to use and what skills to teach are influenced by their intake assessment, by the continuing interaction they have with their clients, and by thoughtful common sense. A couple that cannot talk to each other without fighting won't have the discipline to use active listening and repeating. Instead, it makes more sense to teach such a couple how to use time-outs to combat their emotional overwhelm. Active listening can be taught later as a way to maximize communication when communication is again possible. Repetition of basic skills and techniques like time-out so that they become second-nature and therefore easy to do even during times of great distress and upset, is good practice.
Marriage skills training
Despite the fact that a great deal is now known about how marriages live and die, there is no simple formula for keeping any given marriage strong. Over time, two partners must find a way to keep their friendship alive, their life goals and expectations in sync, their emotions and passions transparent and communicated, their commitments intact and their boundaries, both as a united couple and as separate individuals, unbroken. Commitment, flexibility, compromise, consciousness and more than a little luck are required for these things to happen.
Marriage skills training classes exist to teach couples ways to keep their marriages strong. Such seminars are offered for couples in all stages of committed relationship from engagement through living together, to long-married. Communication, soothing and relationship strengthening skills are taught proactively in these classes (as opposed to reactively during marital therapy for an already troubled relationship). Learning relationship enhancing skills during times of marital harmony is a good idea, as it helps prepare couples to better recognize and cope with stressful events.
Marriage skills training classes are offered in many communities through various institutions including clinics, universities and religious organizations. Although individual trainers, therapists and clergy may individually produce excellent curriculums, there are also national programs that are worth seeking out. In selecting a program, keep in mind that programs based on scientific evidence are more worth the price of admission than are ideology-based programs as they will be more likely to provide solid helpful and realistic advice.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA