What makes some couples thrive over the long haul? Relationships challenge us to grow in many ways, and over time, certain behavioral patterns and barriers to intimacy may appear to be ingrained, immovable. When needs are left unmet, or roadblocks to communication appear at every turn, many couples are left wondering whether they should attempt to salvage the relationship or end it.
Some partners pursue couples counseling, where they first learn to identify why unhealthy patterns of behavior develop, and then begin to transform those patterns. To help couples understand the natural stages a relationship moves through, Ellyn Bader, PhD, and her husband Peter Pearson, PhD, formulated the developmental model of couples therapy. They identified five distinct developmental stages in relationships, and they believe that understanding these stages and challenges inherent in each can help couples move through the phases more confidently and securely.
We recently had the opportunity to ask Ellyn some questions about her approach to therapy and her experience working with couples. Ellyn will be offering a web conference, Lies, Deception, Infidelity, and Jealousy … Couples Therapy Challenges Galore on March 6, 2015 at 9 a.m. The presentation is available for two CE credits at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members.
1. What are some of the most common issues for which couples seek therapy?
There are so many issues that bring couples to therapy, including infidelity, addiction, boredom, sexual incompatibility, and chronic unresolved fighting. The number one reason couples give is “We can’t communicate.”
Often when I first meet couples, their relationship is in crisis. Both partners are hurt and angry. They can no longer talk to each other, especially on issues where they don’t see eye to eye. They may have tried talking to each other many times, but they get so stressed that they start fighting or shutting down. Some couples are able to repair after a fight; many more can’t and live in tension and hostility until the next battle erupts.
Couples may come for therapy after an infidelity is revealed or when a major life change has happened, like having a baby or changing jobs; others drift apart over many years, focusing their attention on children or careers until they retire or their children leave home and then realize they are living like strangers with each other. Many people believe their partners should want the same things they do and are disillusioned when they don’t, and most believe their partners are the ones who need to change.
2. Is it possible to help couples who have conflicting interests or values?
Well, it’s important to first acknowledge that conflicting interests and conflicting values are two very different things. Conflicting interests can be exciting and challenging and are often easy to help couples manage. Conflicting values, on the other hand, are very different and sometimes irreconcilable.
Conflicting interests in an intimate relationship are not only inevitable, but essential. Relationships truly transform when partners start seeing their differences as the spice in their lives and not as inevitable sources of pain or conflict.
Just think, what would it be like to live with a clone of yourself? It might be peaceful, but how boring would it be? Becoming curious about a partner’s desires and interests provides rich opportunities for self-development and growth.
Conflicting values are different. Values are the deeply held standards, principles, and beliefs that help to shape our identity. We are often unwilling to change them, so the skill here is learning to express our beliefs in ways that are not demanding or threatening to our partners and being open and respectful to their responses. Values cannot be negotiated. For example, if one partner believes in spanking and the other is completely opposed, there is no compromise here. It is impossible to spank and not spank a child.
3. Can you briefly describe the developmental stages most couples go through?
As couples progress through a relationship they go through five distinct stages of development:
- Symbiosis: When people fall in love, two separate individuals—an “I” and an “I”—become a “we.” This is a romantic, intoxicating, essential part of the bonding process and it forms the foundation for a couple’s life together. Differences are minimized and similarities emphasized. It can be a struggle at times to balance the “I’s” need for autonomy with the “we’s” need for intimacy. This stage lasts around two years before the powerful connection of symbiosis begins to fade and differences between the two partners appear.
- Differentiation: Partners take each other off the pedestal of perfection and see the other’s imperfections which leads to disillusionment and disappointment. Expressing different desires or the expression of different ideas may be seen as challenging the relationship. This can be a difficult and stressful time. Some couples develop healthy ways to manage conflict and negotiate with each other. Others struggle and try to return to the togetherness of symbiosis by avoiding conflict, denying their differences, or escalating into conflict in the hope that their partner will agree with them.
- Exploration: In this stage, partners form a more solid identity apart from the relationship. They build a stronger personal identity and increase their self-esteem, independent from how the relationship is faring. This is a vital stage of couples development, and again, can be a stressful one. Love may seem to have disappeared, and partners are more like roommates than lovers.
- Reconnection: Partners have strengthened their identities and learned to maintain their perspectives without hostility. They return to a more sustainable level of intimacy that is often accompanied by reawakening their sexual desire for each other. They are better able to express their wishes and less inclined to make demands on each other.
- Synergy: Intimacy deepens as partners develop the ability to manage their emotional reactions when differences cause tension. They relate in ways that are true to their own values and support their partner’s right to do the same—even at times when it is inconvenient. They appreciate the richness their partner brings to their life and realize how much poorer it would be if their partner wasn’t there. One plus one is truly greater than two at this stage.
4. Tell us about how partners’ self-protective strategies can undermine intimacy.
There are so, so many self-protective strategies, including defending, blaming, complying resentfully, criticizing, personalizing, becoming a victim, shouting, threatening, changing the subject, withdrawing, and shutting down. All of these ineffective behaviors are blocks to intimacy because no one likes to be on the receiving end of these.
Self-protective strategies are ways of hiding out and masking the vulnerable feelings we experience when we don’t feel safe or believe that we can depend on our partners. A big paradox of being in an intimate relationship is that we are wired to connect with our partners and we are also wired to protect ourselves from them.
5. How does neuroscience influence your work?
Enormously! Our understanding of neuroscience hugely shapes the way we can help couples make sense of their conflicts. It is the function of one part of our brain, the limbic system, to record and remember painful experiences, and as a conditioned response, it alerts us to the danger of perceived threats by flooding our bodies with adrenalin, which brings on the fight or flight response.
We each have our own unique history of painful memories stored in our limbic systems, and when we become emotionally triggered a different part of our brain—the thinking, rational, prefrontal cortex—is not able to communicate effectively with the limbic system, because the limbic system is immune to logic.
It is such a relief when partners learn that this is why they are using ineffective coping strategies when they get distressed, strategies that serve to further increase each other’s pain. The wonderful news is that neuroscience also gives us a clear understanding of how we can help partners get out of the painful trap they are living in by helping them calm the emotional brain, reduce their pain, restore safety, and learn effective ways to talk and respond to each other.
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