When a couple is stuck in a negative pattern, even the slightest action can turn into an explosive eruption. For most couples who come for marriage therapy, they realize that they are not able to get out of it on their own. This acceptance is a first step to identify the problem behind the pattern, and then develop a plan for change that involves creating a new way to connect with each other.
Patterns in marriages are similar
The ingredients of a conflict are mostly similar with most couples in a negative pattern. In most cases, one partner criticizes or blames, and another defends or withdraws. For some couples both partners go into an attack mode, with one or both eventually retreating. In the worst cases, both partners stop attacking, but in a withdrawal state, the relationship is on life support.
In effective marriage therapy, we help couples stop the damage, reverse it, and build a new pattern. Ultimately, we want both partners to learn how to manage conflict effectively. The more intimate you are with your mate, the more likely you are to have conflicts—but the conflicts don’t spiral out of control. Instead, both partners see them as opportunities for growth. You can learn more about yourself, and about your spouse, during and after a conflict, if you both know how to navigate the fight.
Communication skills can help
I work to help couples learn how to address each other better, and how to respond to needs that are often under the surface. While it is true that criticism and contempt don’t work in a relationship, a couple needs help to get out of that negative pattern, and telling them not to follow the same pattern is not enough. I help partners manage their conflict more effectively, in realistic and practical ways. Couples need to learn more than conflict management skills, but some skills are useful.
For instance, instead of criticism, masters of relationships start their conversation with a complaint. “I’m getting overwhelmed because the garbage is piling up” is a lot easier to hear than the critical counterpart of “Why can’t you even take the garbage out!” The more inviting start of the conversation could be followed by invitation that lets a partner know how much he or she is valued, basically communicating how the spouse can be a superhero. “If you could take the garbage out, you would really help relieve the stress that I’m in right now.”
Seeing the warning signs that can doom marriages
A pattern of criticism and contempt signal major warning signs in a love relationship, and should be addressed before a couple spirals into negativity. We have more warning signs to be aware of, including defensiveness and “stonewalling,” when a partner ignores and tunes out the other. These patterns combined, without an effective intervention, lead to separation or divorce in over 90% of couples, as John Gottman found in his research with thousands of couples. Considering how high the damage can be, if you and your partner can’t get out of your negative pattern, effective marriage therapy can turn the tide, even for relationships in severe distress. So often couples feel overwhelmed with hurt and pain, and don’t realize how quickly these patterns can change when both partners are motivated to make their relationship better.