According to the research conducted by John Gottman, 69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual problems. They are not going away. Thus one of the many maxims of couples counseling: Marrying someone is marrying a set of problems!
So how do I help couples relate to their problems differently? I take a developmental approach to your personal concerns and goals. This means I help couples learn and develop principles of relationship growth and well-being. I focus on cultivating your development by expanding your openness with your partner and your self. It is unlikely for me to spend our time together trying to mediate solutions to your problems. Instead of buying into the sense of urgency and gridlock that can easily confound a relationship, we will develop a focus on the way each of you wants to be with your problems.
There are an infinite number of ways to respond to our problems. How we do so speaks to our development and maturity in our approach to life and relationships. When people learn to conceptualize their problems as opportunities to practice being the way they want to be rather than wishing their partner would be different, maturity occurs. This path is what’s meant by a developmental approach.
I seek to inspire each individual to focus on how he or she wants to show up in the relationship. A couple is composed of two individuals and the only person you have control over in a loving relationship is yourself. Therefore I focus on autonomous change as that is the approach that is going to bring about the most growth for the couple. Autonomous means that your focus is independent of how your partner behaves. At the bottom end it means you have an ethical safety net that saves you from adhering to excuses and rationalizations that condone your negative behavior because of your partner’s negative behavior. At the top end it appeals to the greatest version of you possible. There are no limits to the partner you can be.
Think of your relationship like a team. An effective team member knows that the best way to help the team improve is to develop each individual’s ability to contribute to the team goal. What are the areas you want to improve as a teammate? How do you relate to your team when there is stress in your life? Do
When a team grasps the effectiveness of growth principles they are less likely to get bogged down in focusing on the negative aspects of the past. They will be able to develop the positive aspects of their future together. There is no headway to be made as a team when you are consumed with past negative events, if only for the simple reason that you are not focused on headway. Legitimate obstacles to each person’s relationship growth do exist at times. It is the attitude and outlook that we use to address them that makes the difference in our life and relationships.
For the couples who begin with conveying a sense of urgency for change I direct them to slow down their timeline. Skillful lasting changes are not likely to emerge under pressure. When a couple has low reactivity and is capable of engaging in the process, I like to start off by giving them the definition of a fight—two people who feel too unheard to listen to the other. I ask them to picture two center linebackers squaring off, jumping off the line and slamming into each other. At the same time I use my fists to emphasize the action of two entities slamming into each other. The most consistent outcome with this approach is gridlock. The two desires (one for each person) are figuratively slamming into each other and not being received by either partner. In order to have an effective dialogue and discourse on any subject there needs to be roles and turn taking. The rules of engagement, as one wife recently put it. For most couples, I introduce the roles in the second or third session.
Morgan Barber, LCSW, is a therapist at the Center for Creative Healing. Read more about him here.