I work with all kinds of relationships —people living together or separately, straight, gay and lesbian, transgender, open relationships, and polyamorous.
From childhood, we are exposed to the idea of romantic love. Through movies, literature, and the internet we are conditioned to believe there is a perfect person out there who can meet all our needs.
Most romantic relationships, in the beginning, feel this way—there’s excitement, a sense of trust, and feelings of desire. In this stage, there’s lots of hope—each partner imagines how the other will improve their life—they are not delving into each other’s deeper complexities.
Often, problems begin to emerge in the middle and later stages of relationships.
Couples often get stuck in unhealthy power struggles. They cycle through the same arguments, pointing the finger of blame rather than take responsibility for the role they play in an unhealthy dynamic.
As a relational psychoanalyst, I help couples understand how these negative patterns are linked to their childhood attachment experiences.
Early experiences of frustration, disappointment, and rejection provide a roadmap into each partner’s psychological world. Couple therapy helps each partner identify and communicate more constructively the underlying emotions triggering the negative patterns of behavior so that the relationship becomes a healing environment for them both. Couples learn to be emotionally available, empathic, and engaged with each other, strengthening the attachment bond and safe haven between them.
In addition to psychodynamic approaches, I also draw on evidence-based research to help couples develop communication techniques that enhance their relationship satisfaction. Most couple research suggests that the goal of any couple therapy should be to change the patterns of interaction, emotional connection, and communication between the couple.
John Gottman, the renowned marital and parenting researcher has studied the skill sets couples need to improve communication and increase intimacy. His research suggests that while even happy couples experience conflict, it is how they handle that conflict that determines their marital satisfaction. He found that most happy couples are grounded in a strong friendship and possess good interpersonal communication skills.
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he claims it is possible to predict whether a couple will divorce within fifteen minutes of observing them. He calls the corrosive behavioral patterns that lead to marital conflict, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are:
1. Criticism: Statements that focus on your partner’s personality defects.
Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.”
2. Contempt: Statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated.
Example: “You’re an idiot.”
3. Defensiveness: Self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack.
Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.”
4. Stonewalling: emotional withdrawal from interaction.
Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals.
In Gottman’s view, reducing these negative patterns enhances communication, empathy, trust, and respect. Another important message from his research is that in successful marriages, partners don’t try to change one another—they accept their differences.
Most importantly, each relationship has its unique challenges and strengths.
Couple therapy may give your relationship the best chances for survival:
- by learning about the deeper issues that underlie your conflicts
- by learning to communicate more effectively
- and by emphasizing what actually is working in your relationship