EducationUnderstanding Couples Therapy

Craig Toonder, MFT. Oakland Couples Counseling

Understanding Couples Therapy

The first thing to keep in mind about understanding couples therapy is that all couples fight. John Gottman’s research shows us that the success of a relationship or marriage does not depend on the number of fights a couple has. Successful relationships depend on a couples’ ability to have more positive interactions than negative interactions and how they work with each other to manage their arguments.

One of the first steps in how work with couples is to help them realize and gain greater awareness of the “pattern” of their fights/arguments. For couples’ arguments tend to be repetitive in nature. So if you are having trouble arguing with your partner, you may notice that the “moves” of the fight are the same, it’s just the topic that changes.

When couples recognize that they have this pattern or “play book” that most their fights follow, they can then begin to discover how the pattern reinforces itself. It’s the tragedy of a struggling relationship; the attempts to solve the problem become the cause of the problem.

After gaining insight into the fight pattern itself, I then assist the couple in learning to recognize the deeper needs, beliefs, or pain driving the pattern. Once couple truly understands how they fight and what drives the fight, they know have the knowledge-power to do something about it.

This is the second phase of therapy, learning to turn towards each other and discuss what is really happening or needed without triggering the other into a defensive stance.

While couples are working on developing this understanding of their fights and learning the tools to change it, they need to simultaneously strengthen their positive feeling and behaviors towards each other, as well. Gottman’s research shows that successful couples have a positive to negative interaction ratio of greater than 6:1, while couples who ended up divorced or separated have a ration of less than 6:1. What this shows us is that while working on changing the fight pattern is important to create a safety and understanding; qualities like friendship, admiration, fondness, and respect for each other are equally important to the survival of the relationship.

Therefore, while half the focus of couples therapy is about understanding and working through what goes wrong, the other half has to do with really learning how to love each other in a much more impactful way.