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When Is "Doing What Comes Naturally" a Bad Idea?

Spontaneity is great, until it turns out that it wrecks your relationships.

This post is in response to
Emotional IQ Alone Is Not Enough For Marriage Success

online marriage education with

Marriage courses can be in group settings or online.

Close your eyes, and picture your parents interacting the way they used to when you were a kid. Notice how they treated each other. Notice what they used to do that you like, and what they used to do that was less than ideal.

Is what you saw in that visualization what you want for your intimate adult relationships? If not, beware of "doing what comes naturally" as what comes naturally will be what you saw and heard growing up.

The recording in your head for what to do when you feel angry probably comes from one or both of your folks. The issues that bug you were most likely issues that bugged them. The way you talk to your loved ones—in a way that's kindly or mean, curt or communicative—most probably comes in large part from what you heard as well.

Outside of home you probably rely on what you learned of public speech. Kids learn this way of interacting from teachers and from peers. The ways you handle yourself at home though generally are based on what you saw, for better or for worse.

That reality gives you three options: repeat your parents' patterns, react against them and behave quite the opposite, or learn new ways. The good news is that learning better interaction patterns can be fun and gratifying.

Relationships that flow smoothly look easy. Not so. They are a sign that folks have high level skills.

What skills do folks need for successful intimate partnering?

This post details some of the key techniques for communication in relationships that enable couples to handle the inevitable challenges that arise in lasting partnerships.

The toolkit for relationship and marriage success needs to include:

How does your tool-kit look on the above seven dimensions? To evaluate your relationship tools in further detail, take the free online PowerOfTwoMarriage relationship quiz. The quiz, which takes about 6 minutes, gives you a way to assess which skills you have already and which could use an upgrade.

By the way, no need to panic if some questions on the quiz use the word "marriage." The skill sets are essentially the same in marriage, in unmarried partnershp relationships, and also between parents and their teenagers.

If your intuition or the quiz indicates that you might benefit from adding tools to your toolkit, what are your options? That's where relationship education comes in.

Multiple studies have confirmed that couples who have taken marriage education classes have higher odds of being able to sustain their loving partnership when conflicts occur.

For instance, studies in 2008 and 2009 by Hawkins, Blanchard, Baldwin, & Fawcett found that marriage and relationship education courses reduced aggression between partners, lowered divorce rates, and increased marriage satisfaction and communication. offers a free listing of courses all over the U.S.

"I have no time to go to relationship ed classes!"

No problem. Marriage/relationship education is available now online so you don't even need to leave home to pump up your toolkit.

Do online communication and conflict resolution skils courses have any impact?

A recent research studied exactly this question. They evaluated couples, some married some not married, who took the online course. That's the course that's based on my book The Power of Two. The study, which was published this year in the Journal of Family Psychology, used randomly assigned clinical trials to assess the program's efficacy.

This was one of the first studies and maybe the first study, of an online relationship skills course, Participants could learn online alone or with a partner, at any time of day or night, 24/7. The coach assigned to each participant when they signed up for the program also communicated with them online, via email.

The research results were reported in the Journal of Family Psychology. The outcomes confirmed that the online PowerOfTwoMarriage course produce the same or even stronger improvements in ' communication skills and relationship satisfaction as face-to-face courses.

What does that mean in terms of stress?

Fighting is stressful. Not talking about difficult issues for fear of a fight is also stressful because the problems and the distress they cause are real and will continue on. Depression caused by inability to communicate to a spouse or partner what your concerns are, or from saying your concerns and having them met with a brick wall also is extremely stressful.

By contrast, when couples learn the skills for talking cooperatively about their differences, stress levels zoom downward. Satisfaction zooms upward.

Virtually all marriage education programs are showing positive impacts.

The review below, reporting on a recent study, suggests that you can pick a program, any program, to increase the odds are that you will gain more gratifying relationships.

James and Audora Burg wrote a summary of this research for the Sturgis Journal in Sturgis Michigan. They have given their permission for me to post exerpts of their report on the study. Thank you James and Audora!

Here's excerpts from the Burgs' article:

Marriage education course in a living room.

Courses meet in churches, community centers and living rooms.

Marriage Matters: Tool Time

by James and Audora Burg

Exciting new research demonstrates that marriage education itself is effective at improving relationships, without regard to which class a couple takes.

A study involving 17,245 Californians who invested anywhere from eight to 24 hours in a marriage education program found an average increase of more than 13 percent in relationship satisfaction immediately following the marriage education course; six months later, the satisfaction level rose to 14 percent higher than before the course.

The increased satisfaction level was likely a function of improved communication, which in comparison to before the course, increased 23 percent immediately following the training and 27 percent at the six-month mark.

The results ... drew from a diverse participant pool: the couples involved included those with severe marital problems who were relatively “resistant” to change as well as highly-functioning couples who had “relatively little room for improvement.” Further, all ages and socioeconomic levels were represented, and 50 percent took the class in a language other than English.

Even more remarkable: more than a dozen different marriage education programs or curricula were measured, although all classes had in common a primary focus on teaching communication and conflict management skills.

So why don’t people make this investment? It may be that marriage education suffers from a perception that it is boring, stuffy, or not relevant to their particular relationship. Although we freely admit that we tend to be marriage geeks, we can honestly say that we have actually laughed, had fun, and learned something helpful for our relationship at every marriage education event we have attended.

Collecting such “tools” has become a part of the culture of our marriage. After 14 years of proactive effort, our tool kit is pretty well-stocked.

James Burg, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue,Fort Wayne. His wife, Audora, is a freelance writer. You may contact them at


Susan Heitler, Ph.D. , a clinical psychologist in Denver who specializes in working with couples, has authored From Conflict to Resolution (for therapists) and The Power of Two (for families) plus the online program