Saturday, May 19, 2018

Most couples wait 6 years before seeking help (and other insights about couples counseling)

A while ago I took some relationship workshops from the Gottman Institute and one of my most popular Facebook posts was a compilation of takeaways from those courses. I'm posting it here because people asked to share with friends and family. The following are research-based findings from the field of relationship psychology:

Couples counseling facts:

  • Most couples wait 6 years after trouble starts before even seeking counseling. (Imagine waiting 6 years to see a doctor about a troubling lump or some other medical symptom??)
  • Less than 10% of people who are divorcing ever sought counseling. 
  • It's much easier to prevent unhappiness in a marriage than to fix it when it arises. (Makes sense as it's also true with physical health - it's easier to avoid smoking than to fix resultant issues; same with heart disease, being sedentary, etc. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.)
  • It's not enough to better deal with conflict, the connection needs to be re-established too. Disconnection is the number one cause of dissatisfaction in a marriage.
  • Why do couples fight? It's mostly over missed bids for connection. A bid for connection is when one partner reaches out to the other. 
  • People feel content when their lives have meaning, not solely seeking happiness. We are a meaning-seeking species, not a happiness-seeking one.

Bids for Connection:

Example 1:

"Look at that bird outside!"

The partner wants to share an experience. If the response is an annoyed sigh, that bid fell flat.

Example 2:

"Ooh look at the snow coming down!"

Partner reading a book might look up: "oh neat!"

They "accepted" the bid for connection. Ignoring or seeming irritated rejects the bid for connection.

Another example: 

"Here let me find something on TV."
"Ooh can you stop there?"
"Ok but let me see what else is on first."
"No I want to watch that."
"Okay in a minute, I want to see what else is out there."
"I really want to watch that!"
"Wait why did you say FINE like that?"
"You're impossible to watch tv with, forget it!"

They both missed what each other were asking.

It's interesting to note that this concept -- bids for connection -- applies to ALL relationships, not just romantic. 

Friendships, family, work, etc. -- anytime people interact, they have opportunities for connection... IF they are paying attention to each other's signals.

This is why emotional health plays such a significant role in relationship satisfaction. It can be easy to miss external social signals when internal ones overwhelm the senses. We cannot pay attention to what others need or subtly ask for if internally struggling with intense needs.

The principles of a communication practice called Compassionate Communication (also known as Non-violent Communication or NVC) recognize that at the core of conflict exists unmet needs.

Paradoxically, learning to recognize and meet our own internal needs, we become more available and present for others (and thus able to meet their needs).

More relationship facts:

  • Studies have found that in happy relationships, couples "turned toward" each other 86% of the time. In unhappy couples, only 33% of the time -- bids for connection continually fell flat. Couples struggle when the connection wanes. It can be tough prioritizing connecting amidst life's demands but major relationships are not okay on the back burner.
  • For every negative interaction, there needs to be 6 positive interactions to cancel that one negative one out. But that only brings the score back to neutral. To be happy, couples need *20* positive interactions for every negative. Sadly, research shows that unhappy couples experience 0.8 positive things for every one negative one. It's like a bank account. You need to deposit love and thoughtfulness. Then, when there's friction, there's more than enough goodwill from which to draw.
  • Only one person needs to be unhappy for the whole relationship to be unhappy. 
I know someone who asked their partner to go to marriage counseling. The partner said, "why? I'm fine." They were very out of touch with the emotional needs of their partner and did not even realize how unhappy their spouse was, even at this critical juncture where their spouse asked for counseling! Considering that it takes the average couple 6 years to recognize that they need help, this shows how intensely disconnected this couple was. They are divorced now.

Both partners need to take each other seriously. Even if only one partner says they are unhappy, lonely, or need something to change, both need to address the issue(s) together.

Conflict Facts:

  • If you're in a conflict and your heart is beating more than 100 beats per minute, you're in fight or flight mode. This means blood is diverted from the thinking center of the brain to the survival center. The conversation will no longer be productive and has to be halted. People are not able to reason when that portion of the brain is "shut off."
  • It takes at least 20 minutes for the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to leave the body once released. Take a half hour break and do something distracting to self-soothe and then return to discuss. The break should be no less than a half hour and no more than 24 hours (too long will feel punishing to the other party).
  • The brain systematically deals with stress by going into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Any threat, even a car cutting us off in traffic, is parsed by the brain into one of three limited survival strategies developed when we were emerging as a species. These survival mechanisms were great when threats were simpler: run from the tiger, fight for your offspring, freeze to hide from a predator. They're embedded in the "reptilian brain" which the mammalian brain wrapped around and built upon. But they're not great strategies for today when we can't actually exert ourselves running or fighting. We usually do not need all the excess adrenaline and other stress chemicals to solve our problems. We need to think our way out of our problems, not react. So anytime people feel triggered but need their brains "back" so they can cope, flush the system by engaging in either a physical activity or a distracting or soothing one for 20 minutes. Deep breathing can help. 
  • Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, releasing hormones of relaxation and calm, lowering blood pressure and slowing heart rate.
  • 70% of the issues a couple argues about are not resolvable. That's normal and average for happy couples! 
  • A lot of conflict in relationships actually affects immune function. Observable changes are seen in lymphocytes after only 15 minutes of conflict.

70% of a couple's issues never change, and that's fine

Most of the differences couples face are things that will continue, for the duration of their relationship, to be unresolvable, even happy couples. This means that core personality traits and preferences will not really ever change. Couples learn to live with and adapt to each other. Improving the relationship doesn't have to mean resolving core differences.

Example: she's an introvert and he's very social. They may never agree on the amount of social activity they each want and that's okay. Couples do not necessarily have to compromise, just understand and accept each other.

If there is fighting about a perpetual issue, that means acceptance hasn't happened and so greater understanding and dialogue needs to occur.

Understanding resolves conflict

  • Memory is laid down and accessed differently for unresolved incidents. An incident is unresolved when partners feel misunderstood. The incident will rattle around working memory and the brain will be trying to solve it like an abstract Rubik's cube. 
  • Once we understand why something is, we have processed it and can store it in regular memory. It no longer needs to be in the active "RAM" or working memory of the brain. It doesn't need to be "solved" to no longer plague us.
If raw feelings still exist about an older incident, it just means there is still some processing that needs to happen. (Note: this applies to simpler conflicts, not for larger, multi-faceted ones like betrayal or abuse.)

The Gottmans recommend a method of listening that is very effective for unresolved issues where one partner takes the floor for, say, 10 minutes, to discuss their side. The other partner's role is one of curiosity and only to ask questions that further understanding. Then partners switch sides. The objective is for both to understand each other more, making the issue easier to put into storage memory.


One partner spends more than the other. They are both triggered by the other's views of managing money which vastly differ from their own.

Partner 1: "When I was growing up, I was really poor.  I often wore hand-me-downs and felt judged by society as lacking. So this makes me really want to invest in a good wardrobe today so that my outside shows the confidence I want to project from my inside."

Partner 2: (Validate and encourage more sharing. Refrain from inserting own feelings, right now you are just a journalist curious to understand.)

Continue until Partner 1 feels heard. Then switch.

Partner 2: "Well, when I was growing up, we were very poor. I never knew if we would have enough to eat. Today this makes me want to tightly conserve resources so we are safe and secure."

Partner 1: (Validates and encourages more sharing until Partner 2 feels heard.)

Now both can discuss the compromise. Partner 1 will never NOT want to spend money on clothes, and Partner 2 will never sway from their conservative ways. But now that they understand the origins of where each other's value systems came from, they are emotionally ready to consider compromise. This may take a little tweaking, but at least they aren't fighting, they are talking. It is no longer a power struggle but a dialogue.

Barrier to counseling: Stigma

There's still a huge stigma to counseling, especially couples counseling. One contributing factor is the fear that the counselor will be judgmental and chastise the couple for "doing things wrong."

In reality, no good counselor would do that -- they're supposed to be like a BFF, only trained to give good advice and help. A good counselor can help bring the couple closer again and not let sessions feel one-sided. Both people get a voice. Criticism or unkindness should be halted.

The first session will not usually involve much "intervention." The counselor's focus is on observing the couple's own conflict resolution skills in order to see whether and how they handle conflict so the therapist can see where and how to steer them.

Help for Couples:

  1. Counseling method: The Gottman Method is my first preference because it has the most solid evidence behind it.
  2. Counseling method: Emotionally Focused Therapy is another good method, also evidence-based. (Many counselors are well-versed in both.)
  3. Book: If you only have time to read one book and don't want counseling just yet, the workshop recommended the book "What Makes Love Last" by John Gottman. 
  4. Couples Retreat: You can also bypass about 6 months of couples counseling if you sign up for a Gottman weekend retreat. It's an intense two full days but they cover an enormous amount of ground and found that 94% of couples in distress have rapidly improved their relationship after attending. 
  5. More reading (website): Imago theory has some interesting principles about partner interaction.
If you're not sure whether to stay in the relationship or go, read Mira Kirschenbaum's "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay." She details about 30 factors to consider, and which of those research has shown can be worked with and how, and which do not typically get resolved even with work.