Pragmatic/Experiential Couples Therapy: Deepening Love, Desire, and Connection

Couple kissing in town squareThis article is the second in a two-part series on Pragmatic/Experiential Therapy for couples.

Phase II: Developing New Habits for the Respectful Negotiation of Differences
In the second phase of therapy with Mary and Fred, attention shifted from the past to the present. I assisted Fred in developing internal habits that enabled him to avoid hitting the panic button when Mary became critical, dismissive, closed-minded, or inflexible, and I helped Mary develop the ability to check her tendency to blindly accept the validity of her knee-jerk interpretations of Fred’s actions. The process for developing new habits of thinking and reacting during emotionally charged situations is no different from the process required for acquiring any habit that is too complex to be consciously implemented in a linear fashion (such as the development of complex musical or athletic skills). Practice must be focused, repetitive, and intense. The person practicing must be well motivated to practice and clear about the specific internal and external processes that need to be practiced, and the practice must be state-specific (i.e., new processes must be practiced when the client is in the emotional state that typically becomes active when upsets occur). Using a variety of practice methods, Fred developed the ability to remind himself that it was natural for Mary to favor her own opinions and preferences. Instead of making a big deal of it, he learned how to simply stand up for himself without a lot of fanfare and without thinking badly of Mary for her temporary inflexibility. Using the same methods, I helped Mary develop the ability to ask Fred to care about her wants and needs without punishing him emotionally when he seemed more occupied with his own.

Phase III: Increasing Emotional Connection
As Mary and Fred progressed through the second phase of therapy, each felt more respected by the other and had less need to insulate him- or herself emotionally. In the final phase of therapy, I helped Fred and Mary deepen feelings of love, tenderness, and the desire for connection. Many years ago, each partner had given up on the idea of having the kind of companionship that he or she had originally wanted. I helped rekindle dormant desires in each of them, and they began devoting considerable effort to trying to meet each other’s wants and needs. These efforts were important, but Mary and Fred needed more than well-intentioned “efforts” from each other. Each partner needed to experience genuine warmth, tenderness, fondness, affection, and sexual interest emanating from his or her mate. Each needed to know that the other was enjoying his or her company, that the other was having fun when they were together, and that the other missed him or her when they were apart. In the last phase of therapy, the focus alternated between 1) exploration of things that each of them could do to spark feelings of love and desire in the other and 2) exploration of ways that each partner could increase his or her own capacity to get into the mood for connection. Mary and Fred both wanted to be the sort of individuals who experience loving and desirous feelings freely and abundantly. In the final weeks of therapy, they discovered ways to consciously open their hearts to each other, allowing feelings of warmth, tenderness, affection, playfulness, sexual interest, and the desire for loving connection to emerge.

Throughout therapy, each partner was helped to realize that his or her own internal abilities and interpersonal habits significantly constrained or enhanced the degree of satisfying connection that she or he could make with each other. Early in therapy, Fred and Mary each made a conscious decision to adopt the following philosophy: “If I want the love and respect of my partner, I need to develop the habits that are shared by almost all people who know how to get their partners to treat them well—and I certainly want to avoid habits that characterize people who almost always end up feeling unloved and disrespected.” As a therapist, my experience is that if even one partner develops the full range of abilities needed to form a secure partnership, the other will usually follow, and a secure emotional bond will develop.

1. Atkinson, B. (2011a). Developing habits for relationship success. (Version 4.1). Geneva, IL: The Couples Research Institute.
2. Atkinson, B. (2011b). Supplementing Couples Therapy with Methods for Rewiring Emotional Habits. Family Therapy Magazine. Alexandria, VA: The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 10(3), 28-32.
3. Atkinson, B. (2010a). Rewiring emotional habits: The Pragmatic/Experiential Method. In: A. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical casebook of couple therapy (pp. 181–207). New York: Guilford Press.
4. Atkinson, B. (2010b). Interview with Brent Atkinson on the brain and intimacy. In A. J. Carlson & L. Sperry (Eds.) Recovering intimacy in love relationships: A clincian’s guide (pp. 233-247). New York: Routledge.
5. Atkinson, B. (2005). Emotional intelligence in couples therapy: Advances from neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. New York: W.W. Norton.
*Additional articles and resources related to Pragmatic/Experiential Therapy for Couples can be found at

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Brent Atkinson, PhD, therapist in Geneva, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • angela


    February 13th, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    Why do our natural tendencies always make us think that we are the ones who are right and that it is everyone else who is in the wrong? It took me a long time to be able to admit when I had made a mistake, but just coming to terms with that little bit of honesty in myself has made me a much better person and I know a better spouse to my husband.

  • Sandra


    February 15th, 2012 at 2:30 PM

    For me over the years I have found that a marriage is what the people involved wish to make of it.
    If they want one that is convenient they make it convenient.
    If they want one filled with fights then that is what they get.
    But if they truly want an equal partnership based on love and respect then they get it too. It is not easy and it is not that this is handed to them on a silver platter.
    But this is what they work towards with both partners willing to do the things that they need to do to make it such.
    It is all about what you put into a marriage that you get out of it.

  • N Bates

    N Bates

    February 15th, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    Many times it so happens that the problem or issue itself is small but our wrong understanding makes it seem like they are much bigger and tougher. This will then lead to further complications and the relationship takes a hit.

    We need to learn to assess things better and not make any judgements about why our partner did or said something. that will lead to a more open dialogue and easier solutions.

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