If you are experiencing distress or dissatisfaction in your relationship, or considering couples therapy, you are certainly not alone. Today, one of the primary reasons people seek out counselling or therapy is due to conflict or distress in their relationship with their boyfriend/girlfriend, significant other, intimate partner, lover, or spouse.
Why are problems in our relationships so painful?
One of the reasons distress or conflict with our partner can feel so painful, is that we know innately how important healthy relationships are for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. When we experience distress within our marriage or an intimate partnership, we are more likely to suffer in other ways as well. Relationship distress is linked to an increased rate of physical illness including colds and flus, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, as well as mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and addiction.
When there are young children in the home, conflict in your relationship can feel even more distressing as children also feel the negative impact of tension, fighting and disconnection They may begin to act out, have difficulty regulating their own emotions, or have difficulty in school or with peer relationships. Perhaps not surprisingly, experiencing a happy healthy relationship is linked with improved physical and mental health, and may actually act as a buffer against physical and mental illness. When our relationship begins to suffer over an extended period of time, it can feel like a landslide where other issues seem to crop up and eventually you are not just dealing conflict or disconnect in your relationship, but a number of other physical and mental health problems, both for you and your partner, as well as your children, and even challenges at work. Our relationships are so important, that they have a tendency to influence all of the other areas of our life.
When we are experiencing dissatisfaction and stress in our relationships, and this experience goes on long enough without help, there is a greater likelihood that the relationship will end in separation and/or divorce. Psychologist, John Gottman, has extensively researched what he refers to as the “Four Horsemen” of relationships—behaviours that, when present, are strong predictors of separation and divorce. These behaviours include: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling. It’s not that people in healthy, satisfying relationships don’t ever display these behaviours, but they do it less often and they repair more quickly.
Will counselling help?
Stereotypes exist in our society that can make seeking the right help for our relationships issues difficult. Men are socialized towards suppressing their emotions and affection, valuing success and control, and refraining from seeking help. Even though these stereotypes are not necessarily true of all men, there are many other reasons why couples don’t seek help, including concerns about finances (although divorce is MUCH more expensive than couples therapy), time-constraints around coordinating work schedules and childcare, concerns about whether couples therapy will be effective, fears about sharing aspects of your intimate relationship with a stranger, and worries about what other people think if they find out.
Couples who enter therapy typically expect to talk about their issues, be challenged and guided by the therapist, and be offered different perspectives. Overall, couple’s therapy is effective at increasing marital satisfaction and decreasing distress, but many couples either aren’t able to find a therapist who is a right ‘fit’ for them, or they aren’t able to make the commitment and follow through with therapy, which is necessary to achieve these results.
Research shows that emotion (feeling it and expressing it) is imperative to relationship satisfaction and the experience of intimacy. It may seem obvious, but until the 1990’s and early 2000’s (thanks primarily to the work of John Bowlby on relationship attachment) the importance of emotion wasn’t known or emphasized by most couples’ therapists, and marital distress makes it more difficult to experience and stay in touch with positive affect. John Gottman claims that the ‘secret’ to happy couples does not lie in communication but in the couple’s ability to repair. He and his colleagues emphasize that repair occurs when negative affect is reduced and positive affect increased. The most effective repairs occur when attention is placed on the primary emotions and are aimed at reestablishing an emotional connection, rather than focusing on the presenting issue from a problem-solving, logical, or rational approach.
If you are thinking about attending couples therapy, you may want to consider an emotion-focused approach like EFT (Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy) which prioritizes the recognition, experience, and expression of emotion and supports couples to restructure their responses to one another. EFT is one of the most effective approaches to couple’s therapy in the world with a 70-75% success rate in resolving marital distress, including long-term success in maintaining the improvements.
What is attachment and why is it important?
In the 1930’s, John Bowlby, began studying the behavior of infants in relationship to their caregivers. Along with his colleague, Mary Ainsworth, he developed what we now have come to know as Attachment Theory. Infants are born biologically programmed to bond with a caregiver who is responsible for meeting their physical needs, but this bond extends far beyond physical needs. It was once popularly thought that children become attached to whomever fed them and met their physical needs, but we now know that children who are separated from their parents become extremely distressed even when their physical needs are met. The more sensitively a caregiver responds to a child’s needs, the more securely attached the child will become.
Secure vs. insecure strategies to get love
The model of love shown to us by our parents is what becomes familiar. If our parents are unresponsive, or only sometimes responsive to our needs, we learn to expect that someone may not always be there when we need them. We inadvertently seek out someone with similar qualities in our adult relationships. When the person we count on is not there for us, we develop adaptive strategies to get our needs met. Typically, we either become anxious, clingy, hostile, or even aggressive, seeking out our partner and demanding or manipulating for attention. Or we become withdrawn and isolated, turning away from our attachment figure (or our partner) to avoid confrontation or rejection. We don’t do this because we are ‘bad’ or because there is something ‘wrong’ with us. We do it because it’s the most effective strategy we have available to us at the time, given our circumstances. We tend to keep similar patterns from childhood to adulthood, but our attachment strategies can change depending on the relationship. Two avoidant or two anxious people would likely not pair up very well. Two securely attached people usually make for the most satisfying relationships. One anxious person or one avoidant person paired up with a securely attached person can help the anxious/avoidant partner to become more securely attached. The people we choose to partner with in adulthood can either help perpetuate patterns we learned in childhood, compound them, or improve them. Difficulty arises when one or both people in a couple continues to use adaptive strategies they learned in childhood to maintain love and safety in their current relationship—but those strategies have worn out their usefulness, or don’t work in the same way in their adult relationships. As adults, many of us find ourselves having to re-learn (or remember) how to have healthy, secure functioning relationships. We are wired for it at birth, but sometimes adaptive patterns from childhood or an unhealthy relationship, cause us to move away from that and we may find ourselves in need of some help getting back.
Happy couples don’t ‘argue less’, they ‘repair faster’
Another reason that couples therapy hasn’t been effective for so many people is that many approaches have aimed to resolve the presenting issues without understanding the underlying problems. Theories have existed that pre-supposed that adult love relationships were repetitions of the relationships we had with our parents or primary caregivers or that we attracted the same kinds of relationships to us in order to resolve the conflicts of our childhood. None of these theories, however, truly understood the mechanisms by which these relationships were occurring.
Previously, attempts at repairing adult love relationships have been shots in the dark at best, hoping that improved communication, teaching patience, and good listening skills would be sufficient. We now know that happy couples do not argue less, or even ‘fight better’ than couples in distress. What they do differently though is repair—and repair more quickly. Through the lens of attachment theory, the quality of the relationship is defined by the quality of the bond between partners and the degree to which each person in the relationship feels that their partner is a “safe haven” and a “secure base”.
Humans have evolved to deal with fear, stress, and hyperarousal by looking for safety with another person whom they have an intimate bond with. As social creatures, we are neurologically and physiologically predisposed to seek comfort in another person at times of distress. Finding safety with a loved one helps us to regulate our nervous system, promotes calm and relaxation, and allows us to experience a deep emotional bond with another person. When we are stressed or distressed, experiencing anxiety, depression, or even panic or rage, it feels nearly impossible to maintain an emotional connection another person. In the context of couple therapy, this prevents partners from feeling safe with one another, feeling understood by each other, and being able to repair after conflict or a disagreement. This ability to repair is crucial for healthy, secure relationships.
You can book an online couples therapy session by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can learn more by visiting the ICEEFT website www.iceeft.com or by picking up a few of my favorite books on the subject:
- Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson
- Love Sense by Sue Johnson
- Attached by Amir Levine & Rachel Heller
- Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin