Relationships can bring up all kinds of unexpected obstacles, and therapy can be a helpful tool to navigate them. But what if there's no significant conflict at play? I get asked this very question pretty frequently as a therapist who works with many young couples who are just starting their journey together. My answer to them is that you don't have to go to couples therapy just because you're in an argument. You can go to couples therapy to make your relationship with partner better—which is actually a pretty sufficient and healthy enough reason to begin in the first place.
It doesn't matter if you've been together for one week or five years, you learn new aspects of your partner's personality all the time. It's not like you enter a relationship and have your partner fill out a personality questionnaire (or do you?) so you know as much as possible about them right off the bat. No, you figure it out along the way.
There are ways to understand your partner better that don't entail a personality quiz (although sitting down together to learn your Myers Briggs or Enneagram types could be a fun date, but I'm a dork so what do I know?). Couples therapy is one way to do that. I can hear you now: "We never fight. Why would we go to therapy together?" Well, couples therapy isn't just for couples who are on the brink of breaking up. It can actually be a beneficial tool to know your partner better in many aspects of your relationship. Couples therapy can help you learn about those little quirks a little bit faster, and in a setting that allows you both the space to air your thoughts in a safe manner.
By attending therapy when you're not in a fight or experiencing a crisis you can improve the quality of your relationship and deepen your empathy and understanding, and to communicate in a clearer and healthier way.
When you come to therapy before your ship starts to sink, we can more quickly work to gain heightened sensitivity to each person's feelings and needs, boundaries and vulnerabilities. Couples therapy increases knowledge and understanding of yourself and your partner, which helps both of you be kinder to themselves and each other. And that helps each person know and express their needs, communicate more skillfully, and be more attuned to the feelings and needs of their partner.
And guess what? All of these practices are useful for any couple at any stage in their relationship.
You and your partner don't need to be at each other's throats to reap the benefits of couples therapy. And in fact, getting comfortable with communicating honestly now might save you from an emergency session with a couples' therapist down the road.
We've all experienced being hurt by someone we love. It's inevitable. Even when two people have a connected, secure and healthy relationship, they will end up hurting one another at some point. We're human. That's just the way it is. When couples come to see me for therapy, it's often due to an experience or pattern of experiences that caused one or both of the partners to feel hurt. The couple decides to come to therapy because they are having a difficult time resolving this hurt. They need some help in order to feel safe with each other again.
When working with couples, I want to understand the nature and significance of the hurt before moving toward resolution. How bad is it? How deep is the impact? First, we must understand the two levels of hurt: relational hurts and attachment injuries.
Relational Hurts (Hurt Feelings)
Couples who are secure in their relationship can usually navigate relational hurts on their own. Some examples of relational hurts might be forgotten anniversaries, reactive insults, or blow-up fights that sneak into relationships. For couples who feel they can depend and rely on each other in times of need, relational hurts are pretty simple to navigate. Attuned couples do this by sharing their hurt feelings with each other, hearing and empathizing with the hurt of their partner, and they provide comfort and reassurance. Partners can then move forward in the relationship with trust, security, and safety despite the hurtful experience. This is a natural and expected experience for healthy relationships.
I can often tell when a hurt falls into the category of a relational hurt. In our sessions, couples may share feelings of sadness, anger, hurt, and pain in response to an experience. But when I ask them if they feel their partner loves and cares for them, they can quickly answer “yes.” For them, even though the hurt happened, it hasn’t significantly changed the way they view each other or the relationship.
Attachment injuries are trickier. These injuries require a lot more care, consideration, and guidance, sometimes from a couples counselor.
When couples are trying to respond to attachment injuries as if they are merely a relational hurt, they can stay stuck. Without recognizing the significance and impact of the injury, they can go down a long road of frustration and more hurt. An injured partner can feel even more hurt that the other person is not responding in ways that provide healing. The hurt deepens, becomes more complex, and can create great distress in the relationship.
Dr. Sue Johnson defines an attachment injury as “a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need.” When an attachment injury happens, a partner may view their relationship as changed or they may view their partner in a different way. An affair is a good example of an attachment injury. Infidelity often causes a partner to view a previously safe relationship as unsafe. While they used to view their partner as trustworthy, they now wonder, “Can I ever trust this person again?”
There are also more subtle attachment injuries. One example to consider is that of a wife, grieving the loss of her mother, crying in her bedroom. The wife observes her husband walk by on his phone, consumed in a work call. He sees her in tears but, because he was so focused on his work, he never returns to check on her. In that moment, the wife decides she is not important to him and she must go through this pain alone. In that moment, everything changes in how she views the relationship and how she views her husband. She was in need and he wasn’t there.
There are three ways to determine if a hurt is an attachment injury. First, partners report they have apologized, but their hurt partner keeps bringing up the hurtful experience. In addition, the hurt partner may report feeling as though they relive the hurtful experience when they think or talk about it. They can still feel the pain, almost as if it just happened. Finally, couples report a significant, defining shift in the relationship felt by one or both partners that can be traced back to a specific time or incident. If any of these things are happening in your relationship, there may be an attachment injury.
If you believe you are dealing with an attachment injury in your relationship, here are some helpful things to think about:
GoodTherapy.com: Relational Hurt or Attachment Injury? How to Tell the Difference.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a metaphor depicting the end of times in the New Testament. They describe conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. Dr. Gottman uses this metaphor to describe communication styles that can predict the end of a relationship.
The first horseman of the apocalypse is criticism. Criticizing your partner is different than offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an ad hominem attack. Criticism attacks your partner at their core. When you criticize, you're actually working to dismantle his or her whole being.
The second horseman is contempt. When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean. W treat others with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language such as eye-rolling. The target of contempt is made to feel despised and worthless.
“You’re ‘tired?’ Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic computer games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid – try to be more pathetic…”
In his research, Dr. Gottman found that couples that are contemptuous of each other are more likely to suffer from infectious illness (colds, the flu, etc.) than others, as their immune systems weaken! Contempt is fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about the partner—which come to a head in the perpetrator attacking the accused from a position of relative superiority. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce according to Dr. Gottman’s work. It must be eliminated.
The third horseman is defensiveness. We’ve all been defensive. This horseman is nearly omnipresent when relationships are on shaky ground. When we feel accused unjustly, we search for excuses so that our partner will back off. Unfortunately, this strategy is almost never successful. Our excuses just tell our partner that we don’t take them seriously, trying to get them to buy something that they don’t believe, that we are blowing them off.
Although it is perfectly understandable for the male to defend himself in the example given above, this approach doesn’t have the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling. Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction. In other words, stonewalling is when one person shuts down and closes himself/herself off from the other. It is a lack of responsiveness to your partner and the interaction between the two of you. Rather than confronting the issues (which tend to accumulate!) with our partner, we make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three horsemen to become overwhelming enough that stonewalling becomes an understandable “out,” but when it does, it frequently becomes a habit.
Pay close attention the next time you find yourself engaged in a difficult conversation with your partner, a friend, or even with your children. See if you can spot any of The Four Horsemen, and try to observe their effects on the people involved.
Being able to identify The Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones. Take the first step to discovering healthy, productive methods of communication and patterns of interaction by starting couples counseling today.