Most relationships begin with a great deal of positivity and mutual support; however, over the years dysfunction and unhappiness can creep into a relationship/marriage and even result in a divorce. Western research finding state that the most cited reason for divorce was that people were seeking personal happiness.
Couples and marriage counseling focuses on many aspects of the relationship. Couples and marriage counselors are trained to work with couples to uncover relationship dynamics and patterns, improve communication, reduce dysfunction, and facilitate happiness. An insightful counselor helps people gain understanding about themselves and their relationship by encouraging a holistic view. This means that the socio-cultural context must be taken into consideration, as well as the impact of one’s family of origin (how you were parented/how the parents treated each other), gender differences, individual differences, and the challenges of modern life.
In the safety of a counseling session, couples are empowered to communicate openly about their feelings and needs. Counseling helps bringing up unspoken issues to the forefront and facilitates addressing them. Past incidents/disappointment are processed, so this “extra baggage” can be put down and not continue to intrude on the present. It is through open communication that couples move forward in a positive way.
During couples and marriage counseling information on improving general communication is imparted and advanced communication skills are taught. During couples counseling the differences between functional and dysfunctional relationships and life-styles are emphasized. When couples have children, a counselor will also address parenting issues that cause conflict and impart basic positive parenting techniques. Counselors also give information on positive conflict resolution techniques and the basics of solution focused discussion. A counselor will emphasize and encourage the four basic elements required for a healthy relationship: *Respect*Honesty*Equality*Communication*
Today’s marriage counselors have the advantage of having a vast amount of research findings at their disposal to be aware of consistent patterns within marriages or relationships. Couples counselors can help couples identify dysfunctional patterns of behavior, so they can be replaced with functional patterns of behavior. The end goal is to facilitate marital stability and happiness, and to highlight that relationships require ongoing attention.
The following research findings were discussed by Dr. John Gottman, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 1998, 49:169-97 in Psychology and the Study of Marital Processes. Dr. Gottman has extensively studied marital relationships applying sound, scientific methodology in what he called his “love lab.”
- show greater negative expression of emotion or feelings towards each other.
- have a higher ratio of negativity than positivity.
- hold more negative views toward their spouses, or significant others.
- display criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (withdrawal).
- display more “wife demands and husband withdraws” patterns.
- think negatively of their partners and created negative narratives about their marriage.
- have greater physiological arousal (blood pressure, perspiration etc.) than happily married couples.
- turn towards each other. During everyday interaction partners “turn towards” each other rather than “turning away.” Essentially this means that interest, excitement, and irritability are shared and responded to.
- sooth each other physiologically (blood pressure, perspiration etc.). During events-of-the-day discussion and casual conversation partners sooth each other with interest, affection, validation, empathy, humor etc.
- create a “love map.” Here each partner knows his/her partner’s world and continues to update that knowledge. The husband’s love map is particularly important for long term happiness.
- show admiration and fondness. Marital partners show spontaneous admiration and affection for each other.
- accept repair attempts. This means that apologies (verbal, humor, gift etc.) are accepted and tension is diffused.
- Here the partners have leaned to softly broach contentious topics. These positive startups prevent emotional flooding and physiological arousal (blood pressure, perspiration etc.). Husbands, in particular, benefit from a soft startup.
- respectfully influence each other. Conflict is de-escalated by using assertive persuasion to find a resolution.
- display positive affect. This means that there is a great deal of interest, affection, humor, and validation.