I remember the sinking feeling I’d get early in my career when a couple I thought was improving, broke out into a fight that seemed to come from nowhere. It would even happen just before the end of what looked like a good session. Though my success rate with couples is better than I ever imagined, the memory of that sinking feeling keeps me motivated to grow and learn.
Frustrated as I might have been with the situation I just described, I knew I couldn’t blame my clients. They were looking to me to help them learn what they couldn’t yet do other own. I knew it was up to me to find more ways to help them when they didn’t do what the textbooks said they should.
In grad school, studying family and couples therapy, I read everything I could about family dynamics and couples counseling. Most of the books at that time had a theory about what works with couples, but it seemed to me that entire books started out stating their idea, without ever proving it, then spent hundreds of pages justifying something that might or might not work. Naturally skeptical anyway, I felt frustrated. I wasn’t interested in a theory that didn’t have proof behind it, one I couldn’t explain clearly to another person no matter how carefully I studied it and tried to make the logic work for myself. I wanted to know what worked.
The best of those books challenged unproven assumptions about what couples need to succeed. Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (originally published in 1999) is to this day one of the best books on what makes for a successful couple. I read that book in grad school, and many times after that.
What’s great about Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is that it’s based a long term study by author John Gottman, his colleagues, and grad students, who set out to find out what successful couples do so that they could use it in their couples therapy work. They took a long time to discover the principles, over fifteen years. The prerequisites for succeeding in a long term relationship were not what What Gottman and colleagues expected to find.
Gottman’s work stood in stark contrast to the other ideas out there: what passes for common sense, observations from one person’s private practice or small clinic, anecdotal notions about what should work. I knew my clients deserved better; I badly wanted that one book to be a cornerstone for effective work with couples. In some ways, it can.
While the book is easy to read and makes sense to most people, that was not enough for my clients. They got it, got excited, but wouldn't go on to do the exercises in it. I got frustrated trying to implement the lessons in Seven Principles. Having spent years as a corporate trainer and adult ed instructor, I knew that people learn by making sense of things for them selves, having new experiences they learn from directly. Having a new experience is what motivates people to change how they act. That’s the essential part. I wanted my clients to succeed by having these new experiences with their partners.
Thinking one book couldn’t do all I needed for my couples counseling clients; I started obsessively testing it. While the ideas made sense to me intellectually, my real life observation was that people needed to be relaxed enough to practice the suggestions, and too often they weren’t. I turned to my study of Zen, mindfulness meditation, yoga and exercise for answers to how to stay calm and connected to others, especially under stress. I knew from experience these practices allowed me and others to do just that.
I eventually found and studied with a mentor who'd answered my questions before I’d asked them. That mentor, Brent Atkinson, developed a way of working called Developing Habits for Relationship Success, which is based on Gottman’s research but adds the self-self regulation skills people need to be able to perform the good relationship habits that seem so hard at first.
Atkinson keeps developing his method, and I keep studying it, along with other ideas in stress reduction, positive psychology, and optimal human functioning. In this and future posts, I want to explain in plain language what Gottman, Atkinson, and other colleagues working in various areas of psychology have discovered. What’s so great is that these are not static ideas, but the subjects of living, ongoing research that I am excited to share.
I’ve spent so much time with people who struggle desperately to persuade their partners to change. Doing that is a recipe not just for disappointment, but for ever increasing strife.
The good news is that much what of what you need to succeed in a long term relationship is under your conscious control: physically, mentally and emotionally. The habits you need are individual ones that don’t rely on your partner changing. And paradoxically, when you stop trying to get them to change they are much more likely to change on their own. More about that later.
The habits I will describe in future posts are ones that, when practiced well and consistently will give your partner the space to decide to change on their own. You are then free to enjoy a more functional relationship or, conclude the relationship (even at its best), is not what the one you want. Either way, you win. You’re not wasting your time on the same stupid fight.
Research shows these two things you might not expect:
- people tend t believe their partners are in the wrong about a variety of couples' communication problems when they aren’t
- bad reactions about this lead to more, and even an escalation of the behavior you don’t want.
Thinking your partner needs to change because they are behaving in ways you don’t like might seem logical, but it just won’t work. If it’s has been going on between you for more than a few months, your relationship is most likely at risk. That means it’s time take it seriously and fix what you can. Couples counseling can help, by showing you what to do differently. You will have to do the work.
Many people object to the idea that they have to change when their partner isn’t, but learning some of the habits I will describe in later posts. There are ten specific habits you can develop, 6 to use when you feel frustrated with your partner, 4 for when you’re not.
The best thing to do with your partner is to respond effectively to them when you feel provoked. Some people just seem to have these skills naturally, but it’s possible, and necessary, to cultivate them. If you practice good relationship skills, over the long run, your partner is much more likely to become responsive to you. How people react when their partner does things they find frustrating is directly related to how flexible, and considerate their partners learn to become with them.
If you’re like most of us, you will need to lay a firm foundation and give your partner enough time to notice the changes you’ve made. Most of us pay much more attention to what’s wrong more than what’s right. The fact that our nervous systems evolved to scan our environments for signs danger makes it hard for us to notice improvements.
Under stress, our human nervous systems can respond to our partners as if they were predatory animals or lightning bolts about to strike us. Being on such high alert is dangerous to your health and your relationship. That means it’s important for you to cultivate skills to rapidly soothe and calm yourself down on your own, along with patience and the ability to notice small changes that you consider improvements.
Any habit you learn can be unlearned and replaced with another. You really can train your brain and nervous system to calm down. Think about how you know just without thinking how to drive your car to a familiar location or take the subway to work. Any action you often do is readily available to you. If you fight regularly, that’s available to you. If you take time to calm yourself, that’s available to you. Developing a relaxation reflex will help you shift from focusing on what you can't change to managing your reactions and taking good care of yourself. When you learn to do that reliably, you become more flexible, connected and responsive, more competent dealing with your partner.
You can a use combination of simple daily mindfulness, breathing, and cardiovascular exercises to develop a reliable relaxation response in your nervous system. So, however it works best for you, learn to calm yourself on a regular basis.
Learn to trust your own experience when you are relaxed, flexible and connected. Once you’ve created response often enough, you will notice yourself acting more effectively with your partner. You will also see them becoming more responsive to you. Then, a whole new world will open up to you.
I will be writing more about the habits of effective couples in future posts in this COUPLES COUNSELING blog, and more about stress reduction in my STRESS REDUCTION blog.