A good relationship as the foundation for a good life
Health and well-being
We all know how dramatically a distressed relationship or marriage can constrict one's quality of life. Intuitively we have always known that a good relationship is a foundation for a meaningful and fulfilling life. Today there are scores of scientific research findings supporting this ancient wisdom. We know for example that emotional isolation poses an equally high health risk as does smoking or obesity. This is not surprising as it has been demonstrated that relationships affect even immune system functioning and wound healing. So investing in building a good relationship might be equally important as a healthy diet and regular exercise. Similarly, studies have found that in a happy relationship the presence of your partner can actually lessen the intensity of fear and pain. We also know that if you can find comfort in the arms of your partner, the negative impact of traumatic life events on your psychological health is minimized dramatically. After reviewing the research available on this matter, the social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary concluded that to human beings relationships are as important for well-being and survival as is food and water.
Even our sense of self-worth depends on the quality of our intimate relationships. In our culture, which prizes individualism, we often think that we are solely responsible for our own sense of self-worth. Many psychologists even suggest that positive thinking and willpower is all that is needed to achieve a stable sense of self-worth. But when it comes to shaping how we feel about ourselves, the reality is a much stronger force than our thoughts or our own willpower. More often than not, in reality, our sense of self-worth is an accurate reflection of how much love, care, and acceptance we experience in our most important relationships. When we are rejected by our loved ones, we naturally start doubting ourselves. A wise man once said that you can accomplish anything on your own, except sanity.
Antidote to pain and platform to fly from
Loneliness and distress in relationships amplify life’s problems and pain. A loving relationship is an ultimate antidote to the fear and pain that we will inevitably encounter in life. Together we can better master the storms of life and life’s problems become much smaller. Together we can experience life’s obstacles as challenges that stimulate us, rather than as problems which wear us down – we can live life from a place of vitality, energy, curiosity, and joy. A strong relationship gives us a secure base – a platform we can fly from and a place we can return to whenever we need comfort, care, support or acceptance. In a strong relationship, both partners feel supported in pursuing their own interests, values and life goals and can be more fully who they really are.
Is couple therapy the right thing for us?
Many good reasons
There are many good reasons for seeking couples therapy. Here are a few examples: Some couples come in because they got stuck in frustrating and repetitive arguments that they want to break out of. Some couples want to learn how to support each other while they face a life transition such as emigration or a traumatic experience such as severe illness or the loss of a child. Some couples want to heal the injuries inflicted by an affair. Some couples struggle with difficult couple issues such as high jealousy in one partner. Some partners want to restore passion and sexuality in their relationship. And some couples simply want to create an even stronger and more loving relationship. There is a multitude of reasons for seeking couples therapy. And in most cases, a skilled couples therapist can be of tremendous help.
Why do we get stuck in misery and distress, and why is it so hard to get unstuck by your own efforts alone?
When partners fall in love with each other, we see this process where both partners take small steps towards each other. Step by step each partner reveals a new aspect of him- or herself to the other. As long as this process continues, trust and intimacy flourish. But then something happens and the partners decide that they need to start protecting themselves instead of opening up to their partner. This is where vicious cycles of distress start. Often we are not aware of what has happened until we are already caught in a cycle and we can no longer recall what triggered it. Often triggers are misunderstandings, stressful life situations in which one partner cannot be as present and available to the other as before, and fears that partners have brought into the relationship from their pasts. The trouble with those vicious negative cycles is that they are very compelling – they exert a pull that is hard to resist. Ironically, this compelling nature is due to a very positive thing: The compelling nature of negative cycles is due to the fact that partners have a huge impact on each other – usually the impact we have on our partner is much larger then we realize. So, if one partner protects him- or herself by getting angry or withdrawing, that has a huge impact on the other, and so he or she quickly moves to protect him- or herself as well. Vicious cycles of interaction develop a life of their own and they tend to take over you and your relationship. After a while, these cycles are so quick and so compelling that it is hard to escape from them without the help of a skilled therapist. Below, under the heading "How does Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy work?" you will find more information about vicious cycles.
Many couples also get stuck in negative ways of interacting and being with each other, because they have never learned how to create a strong and loving relationship. – They just never saw a model of what a good relationship looks like. As Dr. Sue Johnson (arguably the best couple therapist in the world) frames it, they are desperately trying to dance a “will-always-love-you” tango without having ever seen the steps. And in the process, they do not only step on each other’s toes, but they also slip and fall and break their hearts.
The goals of couple therapy
Different methods of couples therapy have different goals. The method I practice is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. The goal of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is not only the reduction of fights, tensions, and negativity. The main goal of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is to create a secure relationship. What is a secure relationship? A secure relationship is a relationship in which both partners feel accepted for who they are and in which they find closeness and comfort with each other whenever they need it. It is also a relationship which supports both partners in pursuing their own goals and dreams and in becoming more of who they really are.
Passion and sex
A secure relationship is also the prerequisite for passion and great sex. For only if I feel accepted and safe in a relationship, can I freely express myself and take the risks involved in passionate sexuality. How can I feel turned on when I feel tense all the time because my partner is angry or emotionally distant and shut down most of the time? As they say, porcupines have to make love very carefully. The same holds true for humans when one's partner is angry or resentful and looks as prickly as a porcupine. In a secure relationship, partners can have passionate sex because they can let go, and there is room for spontaneity and for allowing themselves to be carried away by the wave of passion.
A secure relationship is not a “perfect” relationship. Human beings are not perfect, so we cannot expect our relationships to be perfect. And the good news is that perfection is not even necessary: If we take a look at research studies, we can see that secure and insecure relationships do not so much differ in the number of conflicts. Both happily and unhappily married couples have conflicts. A major difference is that in a secure relationship conflicts are resolved quickly, while in an insecure relationship conflicts are extremely stressful and prolonged. In a secure relationship, conflicts are like a cool breeze on an otherwise warm and sunny day. In an insecure relationship, in contrast, conflicts often lead to fierce arguments, prolonged emotional disconnections, and intense feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Insecure relationships repeated experiences of emotional reconnection after conflict leads to a strong sense of trust: When you know from experience that conflicts can be resolved, differences no longer feel so threatening. Instead, differences can be experienced as enriching and exciting.
How does Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy work?
Like a dance
Let me introduce a metaphor to make this explanation as simple as possible: In a way, a relationship is like a dance. A relationship and a dance have in common that both partners move together, they react to each other, and they move toward each other and away from each other in particular ways. When we picture a relationship as a dance, then emotions can be looked at as the music of that dance. In a dance the music makes us want to move in certain ways. Similarly, in relationships, our emotions define the way we interact with our partners. With the right type of music, a dance can be exhilarating and passionate. But with the wrong kind of music the dance either looks clumsy or boring or partners end up stepping on each other’s toes. A common dance in a distressed relationship looks like this: One partner (say Chris) feels hurt or neglected and so he or she gets critical or demanding in order to make his or her partner (say Ryan) respond. The more critical and demanding Chris gets, the more Ryan feels attacked and moves away. And the more Ryan moves away, the more Chris feels hurt and neglected, and the more critical and demanding he or she becomes. This, of course, makes Ryan move away even more and so a vicious cycle is created. The emotional music in this dance is typically anger, resentment, and icy silence. Relationship dances tend to be vicious cycles that drive partners further and further apart and into distress until love and passion are only faint and distant memories. Of course, this is a quite simplified description of a "relationship dance", in real relationships can be very complex (and confusing) indeed.
Stage 1: Understanding your dance
The method of couples therapy that I practice has three stages. In the first stage, I help partners recognize the "dance" they have created together and how they end up stepping on each other’s toes. I also help them see how their emotions motivate their moves in this relationship dance. Clearly seeing how they move together and how they unintentionally step on each other’s toes already helps the couple do less of the toe-stepping. In other words, by gaining this new perspective on their relationship, their fights and other painful interactions reduce. It is as though this new perspective gives the couple a shared platform they can stand on to observe together what is happening in their relationship. They no longer need to fight each other, instead they can stand together, look at what they are creating together, and see how this ends up hurting them both. From this point on they are no longer helpless victims of their painful relationship dance. Instead, they are able to take charge of their own relationship, and they can begin the process of creating a more loving relationship together.
Stage 2: Creating a new dance
In the second stage of therapy, couples learn to create a new, more loving relationship dance. This is facilitated by changing the emotional music of the dance, as both partners open up more to each other and share new emotions and aspects of themselves with each other. This process is similar to the original process of falling in love. So it should not come as a surprise that in this stage of therapy partners rediscover the love they still have for each other. This love might just have been out of sight for a long time. In this stage of therapy the therapist will provide a "safety net", i.e. he will make sure that partners will not get hurt as they take leaps of faith by opening up more.
Stage 3: Solving old problems
In stage three partners are helped to consolidate changes and to find new solutions to old problems that always get them stuck in futile arguments. Here you can think of problems in the domains of parenting, sexuality, money, extended family, life goals, religion or hobbies. At this point in therapy partners have build a strong and loving bond. Now, different wishes and opinions no longer mean “You don’t love me – you don’t care about me – you don’t accept me – and I don’t count.” This takes the “sting” out of arguments, and instead of getting stuck in endless discussions or icy silence, partners are now able to resolve issues that never seemed resolvable before.
Does couple therapy really work?
Research and scientific evidence
There are countless methods of couples therapy. And of most of these methods, we cannot be sure they actually work. That is because most methods have not been tested in well-designed scientific studies. Some therapists claim they don’t need scientific studies to know that their method is effective. This is not true. As all people, couple therapists are often "blinded" by their own experiences. It is easy, to selectively remember cases, in which your work has been successful and to forget about cases, in which the couple’s relationship deteriorated or the couple simply dropped out of therapy because they didn’t see any improvements. Only well-designed scientific studies can tell us for sure whether a therapy method actually does work and how well it works.
Two effective methods
There are only two methods whose effectiveness has been proven through rigorous scientific studies. One is Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy and the other one is behavioral marital therapy. So both methods work, however in behavioral marital therapy relapse is a significant problem. In other words, with behavioral marital therapy improvements tend not to last for very long. In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy relapse rates are much lower, even in high-risk groups, i.e. couples who face massive stressors. Additionally, studies have demonstrated that Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy has much higher improvement rates: Scientific effectiveness studies have demonstrated that in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy 90 % of the couples improve their relationship significantly, while 7 out of 10 couples recover fully from their distress. In comparison, in behavioral marital therapy improvement rates are at about 60-70 % on average, while recovery occurs only in about 3-4 out of 10 couples.
Want to learn more?
We were only able to briefly touch on these topics here. If you are interested in learning more about the research on the importance of good relationships and on how couple therapy works, you might enjoy reading Dr. Sue Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight”. This book has also proven to be an invaluable tool for enhancing and speeding up the therapy process. Additionally, there is a great theoretical book on the scientific study of love and relationships. This book was written by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon and is titled “A General Theory of Love.”