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From Thin-Skin to Win-Win: How Couples Counseling Helps

Three ways that couples counseling—or self-help resources—help your partnership.

This post is in response to
Why Does Therapy Work?
Couples counseling strengthens marriages in three ways.
Source: (c) unknown

What if you and your loved one are living the opposite of happily ever after? Do your marital issues create tensions and distance between you instead of leading to mutually satisfying solutions?

If your partnership is yielding too much negative energy, maybe it's time to reverse the trend. How can couples counseling help? And can do-it-yourself resources also help you to get your relationship onto a more comfortable track?

While couples counseling encompasses a wide range of philosophies and techniques, three levels of interventions stand out for me as critical for successful outcomes.

1) Skills coaching

An effective marriage therapist will coach the two of you in the skills that enable couples to succeed as partners in life. The therapist also hopefully will guide you in using collaborative dialogue and win-win conflict resolution skills to guide you to new solutions on the issues about which you have been spinning your wheels or fighting.

2) Look backwards at the sources

A good marriage counselor can help you to glance backwards to understand how your problems developed. Was there a period of time when your lives became too stressful and you began to turn against each other instead of staying united against the problem?

Also, did you learn to argue from how your parents interacted?

3) Emotionally hyper-sensitive issues.

A potent therapist can help you to identify and clear the subconscious trapped emotions that make strong emotions like anger and anxiety seem to erupt out of nowhere.

The terminology I like best for these three aspects of couple treatment come from my therapy colleague Matthew LeBauer:

How-to, How-come, and Landmines. Thanks Matt!

To illustrate the three levels of intervention, here's a case from my practice: Jerry and Nora--names changed, of course--sought therapy to end their chronic bickering.

Level I: How-To

Marriage is a high-skilled activity. Technique for communication in relationships matters. Jerry and Nora needed coaching to upgrade their skills in four arenas. They learned how to:

1) Talk and listen cooperatively instead of becoming adversarial—and take a breather to reset and switch back to cooperative if they began slipping again into argument mode.

2) Keep their interactions in the calm zone, with zero emotional escalations.

3) Resolve their differences with what I call the win-win waltz. When couples make all decisions, large and small, in a way that takes into account the concerns of both spouses, everyone stays happier.

4) Sustain a steady flow of loving appreciation, affection, and pleasure.

Over a series of sessions, plus home practice on my website, Jerry and Nora found that as they knew better, they began to do better.

Level II: How-Come

Nora's job had become stressful. Jerry had to cover more than ever at home with the children, a job which exhausted him. With two tired partners, the odds of entering the world of bickering zoomed up.

In addition, both Jerry and Nora had learned to bicker growing up in families where daily fights—between their parents and among the siblings—were the norm. In a household where parents speak English, the kids learn English. If they speak fighting, the kids learn the language of arguing.

Jerry learned in his family to be insistent; whoever hung in there the longest got his way. Nora's parents were too swamped to listen to the specific preferences of any of their seven children. Nora learned to give up before even saying what she wanted, and then to issue criticisms to vent her disappointment.

As a married couple, Jerry and Nora triggered each others' skill glitches. Jerry insisted on his way; Nora criticized; Jerry felt judged and snapped back, inviting further criticism from Nora, and round and round they went.

In sum, Nora and Jerry's conflict patterns stemmed both from the habits they'd learned from their families of origin, and from interaction cycles they'd developed in response to each other.

Level III: Landmines

Identifying and clearing landmines--deeper emotional well-springs of negative feelings--completes the therapy process. Deeper, as described by psychologist John Norcross, refers to subconscious feelings that occurred historically earlier in life, and/or that are less accessible to conscious awareness.

To access clients' landmine issues, I listen closely:

  • Clients' repeated or metaphorical words of distress: "I felt hijacked."
  • Thoughts that trigger intense negative feelings: "She doesn't treat me like number one!"
  • Specific situations that disturb them unusually strongly: "I hate being interrupted!"

Jerry's wife's critical tone of voice could trigger in him a geyser of resentment. While no one likes to receive criticism, Jerry's hyper-intense response to feeling unjustly accused stemmed from having been the recipient of unjust accusations from his parents. Similarly, Nora's anger surged when she experienced Jerry as not listening to her, again, a sensitivity stemming from family of origin experiences.

My favorite techniques for neutralizing landmines are a depth dive, which I describe in my book for therapists, From Conflict to Resolution, and energy therapy strategies from Bradley Nelson's The Emotion Code. For a video of the depth dive, which I also call That Was Then, This Is Now, go here and scroll down to the video examples.

Jerry and Nora completed all three levels of treatment: How-to, How-come, and Landmines. While they still experience occasional bumps, overall they now enjoy a vastly more collaborative, affectionate and bicker-free relationship. Mission accomplished!

More good news

While a good couples counseling experience can help, most of these changes are ones that couples can accomplish on their own with the help of marriage education. That's why I write my books. That's also why my adult children turned my book on what couples need for marriage success into a fun interactive-learning website. Why keep tensions simmering when you and your loved ones could be enjoying smooth sailing? --------------------

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications. From Conflict to Resolution explains how therapy works. The Power of Two teaches the collaborative dialogue and shared decision-making skills that enable marriage success.

A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler and her adult children also have posted a fun interactive marriage education website, PowerOfTwo

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