Couples Counseling – Improving Communication, Closeness and Conflict Management
Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern of disagreements escalating into full-blown fights. Or maybe you’ve seen a disturbing trend of one or both of you not attending to each other’s attempts to talk, be romantic or even resolve a conflict. When these types of dynamics happen occasionally, there is usually no need for concern unless other unhealthy patterns are present. But when you realize a pattern has emerged, it is time to get help.
The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy is an empirically validated methodology developed by Drs. John & Julie Gottman at the University of Washington over the course of 40 years of studying and treating over 3,000 couples. They discovered that certain practices (sometimes surprising ones!) were highly correlated with the long-term success of happy couples. They were also able to predict which couples would not last, with over 95% accuracy, based on a few simple behavior patterns (see The Four Horsemen below). With the simple exercises and techniques learned in the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, thousands of couples have dramatically changed their relationships from nearly certain failure to the closeness and excitement that they had dreamed about.
With concepts like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which signify major dysfunction in a relationship, and Bids/Turns, which address communication dynamics, their straightforward approach is intuitive and extremely effective. The Gottman Method of Couples Therapy is not just intuitive though, the empirical research supports the methodology and the success rates are astounding. Through the use of assessments, exercises, and homework, the Gottman Method helps couples learn how to communicate better, manage conflict more effectively, and build intimacy that may have been missing for many years.
Communication: The #1 complaint of couples in distress
“I just don’t feel heard anymore.”
“She just doesn’t seem to understand what I’m telling her.”
“Why do I feel so lonely when we are in the same room? Even when we are talking!”
These are all things that all couples counselors hear from people working to get their relationship back on track. They just cannot seem to communicate. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, these types of issues from time to time are normal and can be managed. A pattern is indicative of a deeper disconnection that must be addressed.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – The communication killers
While communication problems are not the only cause of relationship distress, it is often one of the first unhealthy dynamics to be recognized by couples. It represents a large part of how we connect with each other. A therapist trained in the Gottman Method will help you identify communication problems and will teach you the antidotes for the toxicity created by them. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are communication patterns that represent major dysfunction in communication and that if left untreated can result in the demise of a relationship:
- Criticism – This feels like character assassination. It is not simply a complaint about a behavior, rather it is a highly charged criticism of the very character of a person. These can be passive-aggressive, or overtly aggressive.
- Defensiveness – An angry denial or a charged deflection of responsibility; even excuse making. The focus becomes on the person hearing the complaint/criticism rather than on the speaker that needs to be heard. Things like Criticism and Contempt (the next Horseman) are often responded to with defensiveness.
- Contempt – Often feels like an expression of disgust. You’ll also see things like mocking, toxic sarcasm and belittling. There are facial features that also give this one away (Imagine a teenager rolling their eyes and pulling their upper lip up as if they smelled something horrible).
- Stonewalling – Stonewalling is frequently associated with flooding, a physiological state where a person is so upset that they literally shut down emotionally and communicatively. They will just withdraw from the conversation, not make eye contact, and may specifically look down and to the left. When we check their vital signs, we see increased pulse rate, among other things.
I mentioned above that there are simple patterns that when present can reliably predict the downfall of a relationship. The Four Horsemen are those patterns. I’d like to help you before they become a pattern, but if you see that they are already set in place, please get in touch so we can get started. Learning how to recognize the horsemen and remedy their toxic effects on your relationship helps you learn to listen better, feel understood more often, and maintain a calm and respectful demeanor when dealing with charged topics and conflict.
The antidotes to the 4 Horsemen are an important part of our work. I want you to leave couples therapy with a skill set, a complete toolbox that has the skills you need to work through conflict without resorting to the horsemen . . . and when they do show up from time to time, I want you to have skills to neutralize them. We will discuss how to do this in detail and I will give you materials that will help you remember these skills and integrate them into your daily routines (this helps prevent the horsemen).
So what makes a healthy, happy marriage?
There are a LOT of misconceptions out there about what destroys a marriage, and about what makes them work. For example, many people think that affairs almost always destroy a marriage. In fact, the vast majority of marriages are able to survive betrayals like this if the core issue is addressed in therapy. On the other hand, people tend to think that effective marriages are able to solve most of their problems. Dr. Gottman himself was surprised to find that in happy relationships, the reality is that 69% of conflict is managed, not solved! This gives most folks a great deal of relief as it means that conflict is just fine so long as there is a way to manage it that leads to discussion and compromise vs gridlock.
According to Gottman, a healthy relationship is compromised of nine areas:
- Knowing one another – Know the small details about each other
- Sharing fondness and admiration of one another – Build each other up, share what you like and love
- Being responsive to attempts to connect – Make efforts to establish and maintain connections every day
- Giving the benefit of the doubt – When dealing with conflict, remember you both want to restore harmony. Practice effective “repair efforts” when conflict does occur
- Managing conflict effectively – Remember, dialogue instead of gridlock. It is the discussion itself that keeps you connected through the conflict
- Working to help one another’s life dreams come true – Give your hopes and dreams a voice! Hear your partner’s dreams and find ways to help them come true
- Creating shared meaning – Approach life from a “We” or “Us” perspective instead of only as 2 individuals sharing a house
- Trust – Trust that you have each other’s backs when the chips are down
- Commitment – Show your commitment by showing compassion, gratitude, kindness, and optimism. Be trustworthy. Follow through on your promises
The last 2, trust and commitment, are the walls that hold up the entire house that is made of 1-7 above. Dr. Gottman calls this the Sound Relationship House.