Therapeutic Priorities in Marriage Therapy

couple holding hands outside officeIn my view, there are four particular dimensions of therapeutic priority for marriage therapists and the couples they serve:

The first dimension is power, which is made up of assumptions, rules, loyalties, and boundaries—those conscious and unconscious.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” One aspect of power in relationships might be called security. In relationships, security is a river flowing both directions, though unseen.

When one partner experiences what we commonly call “insecurity” because a partner does not display or reciprocate love and loyalty in his or her behavior, it may be that the partner does not know how to effectively show such love and loyalty, that the partner does not wish to show such love and loyalty, or that the “insecure” partner will benefit from learning more effective methods of seeking affirmation. Whatever the case, power is in play and at stake. Power is the concrete foundation of a sturdy relationship.

Security is also intrinsically tied up with fidelity—the real, known, and experienced faithfulness of a partner. Without fidelity, there is no security. Without security, there is no intimacy. Ultimately, therefore, intimacy requires a starting framework made of commitment, honesty, and trust, which, of course, are all woven together.

The affect dimension is about the underlying experiences of emotion between people.

Dr. Keith Sanford (2007) at Baylor University conducted a fascinating study on the effects of the perception of emotion in couple relationships. Sanford’s study called emotions perceived as asserting power “hard” and emotions perceived as expressing vulnerability “soft.” Sanford found, in the interplay of such perception in intimate relationships, that emotion precedes emotion.

In other words, he concluded what we already knew intuitively—that when, for instance, a spouse observes an increase in “hard” emotion from his or her partner, that spouse’s anxiety seems to rise as a result, presumably because he or she is perceiving “a threat to their control, power, and status in the relationship.” Additionally, when a spouse observes a decrease in “soft” emotion or an increase in what Sanford called “flat” emotion, the spouse’s anxiety seems to rise as a result, presumably because he or she is perceiving “neglect” of the relationship in his or her partner. A spouse’s own hard and soft emotions, then, as most of us know from firsthand experience, react in a reflexive fashion to perceived threat and neglect in a nearly moment-by-moment chain reaction.

Sanford wrote: “What you perceive your partner to be feeling influences different types of thoughts, feelings, and reactions in yourself, whether or not what you perceive is actually correct.”

When the positive end of one magnet is placed against the negative end of another, an invisible force pulls them together. Likewise, when the magnet’s positive end is placed against the positive end of another, they repel one another. Two pieces of uncharged metal neither attract nor repel. No force exists between them to affect their interaction. So go relationships.

These ideas have implications for how we conceptualize self-awareness and the now ubiquitous “mindfulness,” both in our intimate relationships and in nearly every kind of human relationship, including friendship and international diplomacy. Ultimately, perception matters, and, thus, we must perhaps finally learn to, as Jimmy Durante sang so persuasively, “try a little tenderness.”

The creativity dimension is where entrenched ruts in behavior and relationships are encountered and engaged.

In conflict-rich marriages, “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions are easily triggered and emotions are volatile and oscillate between fear and anger. Intimacy is achieved in releasing control by increasing actions and messages conveyed in spite of fear and anger, rather than at their whim. The effective development and implementation of a new conflict dynamic is inherently creative.

Anyone who has attempted to follow someone else’s marriage advice knows that marriage problems are not solved by applying equations. Any attempt to relate in a new way, to stir intimacy, truly requires an artful re-engineering—what you might even go so far as to call innovation—if it is to have any chance for success. This is the magic of collaborative systems-minded therapy.

Dr. John Gottman, executive director of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle and author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, has categorized three types of marriages: validating, in which partners pick their battles and fight fair; volatile, in which they fight all the time; and conflict avoiding, in which they rarely fight. All three are equally stable, Gottman has found, as long as the marriage is working for both partners and there is a minimum of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (toxic patterns of engagement which Dr. Gottman named “The Four Horsemen”).

Clearly, we find ourselves working within fixed patterns. And while the overarching themes of our relationships—clashes of temperament, conflict styles, and so on—may well persevere over the long haul, we mustn’t lay continually victim to our own hypnotic preconvictions and trauma-tomated reflexes. It may take therapy and more, but the truth is, we can and should change.

Zig Ziglar once said, “The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what you want most for what you want now.” Certainly, in our marriages, we can easily become trapped in selfish habits that pour wrath on emotional bonds. We, in fact, can literally become neurophysiologically addicted to our ruts. Whatever it may be, the path toward marital fruitfulness is a path of patience, intention, and distraction from such bad habits—recovery, in this sense and in any sense, requires what I call transformational creativity.

The truth dimension is about the damaging messages of worth and purpose that a person lives by and that a marriage may live by.

The Christian apostle Paul described in his letter to the Ephesians two models as to how husbands should love their wives. The first is “as Christ loves the Church,” and the second is “as he loves his own body.” The first provides a metaphor of selflessness and grace, and the second emphasizes care and diligence.

I encourage couples to evaluate what they believe to be true about their relationship—about the story of their relationship and about the qualities of their love. As psychoanalysts have believed for over a century, sometimes the careful ushering of beliefs, thoughts, and emotions below our surface of awareness into conscious self-awareness, in and of itself, has power to stir change.

In the course of therapy, couples are challenged to face their own conceptions of truth and have opportunities to rewrite—perhaps over time, even rewire—truth about their marriage. That is, the hidden stuff of truth in marriage is, in a manner of speaking, encoded into reflexive patterns, and the challenge of intimacy is for truth to become more holistically embodied and enlivened.

Ultimately, intimacy implies authenticity, a full exposure of self to other. Martin Buber called this an “I-Thou” relationship. Buber (1970) contended that we should work to experience ourselves more openly and nondefensively in our most meaningful relationships, describing how we often fail to fully regard and reciprocate. He referred to this common experience as an “I-It” relationship.

It’s easy to miss the real “other” in our spouses. Often we might as well be standing in front of a mirror when we come home to share our day. True intimacy entails a responsibility requiring courage and a continual empathic striving.

In the best of circumstances over the course of therapy, the therapy pact—sealed by these four high-priority dimensions—has taken on powerful and life-changing meaning and translates into significant changes in the ways a couple structures their life together, shares what is meaningful, creatively negotiates through challenges, and conceptualizes the narrative of their journey.


  1. Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. New York: Charles Scribners.
  2. Frankl, V. E. (1988). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Gottman, J. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  4. Sanford, K. (2007). Hard and soft emotion during conflict: Investigating married couples and other relationships. Personal Relationships, 14, 65-90.

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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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Juana

    September 26th, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    Why does something that seemingly should be so easy- a contract that two people enter into with love and devotion- end up being the hardest thing ever to navigate?

  • Lisa

    September 27th, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    There have definitely been times in my own marriage when I could get up feeling one way but then my husband could give off a different vibe and bam! my mood and feelings could change in an instant. Just because you wake up feeling all lovey dovey, if somone doesn’t reciprocate, then that is going to be a downer to the emotions that you are naturally feeling. I try to increase his good emotions instead of feeding off of the bad, but you know, there are just days when it is so much easier to get sucked into the bad right along with him. ANd I am sure there are days that he feels the same with me. Luckily the good still outweigh the bad and for the most part we are able to keep that in mind.

  • shay r

    September 27th, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    You know, I think that most people think that they get married and that’s that, everything else is supposed to work out on it’s own. They forget that they have to do a little bit of work on it eveyr now and then tto keep things moving along.

  • Grace

    September 28th, 2013 at 4:28 AM

    The first part of this really threw me because in my marriage I don’t think of having any kind of power over my husband and I wouldn’t think that he thinks that way about me. That would seem like some kind of sick relationship to me where there is this overt push for power in the relationship. I think that a good marriage is one where there is an equal distribution of power I guess for lack of a better word, no one is using that against the other, and you are both working toward an equal benefit for one another. I want to do things that are going to help the both of us and our family and I am pretty sure that he is doing the same. Everything feels balanced and there is not this constant struggle for the need to be right or the need to be in control. I don’t get those relationships that are set up like that at all.

  • peter h

    September 29th, 2013 at 8:56 AM

    so easy to get into a rut and get stuck especially when you have been married for a long time, sometimes it can be wonderful to discover new ways to get along with one another and to relate to one another but both parties have to be ready to do that and willing to try new things to make that happen

  • chris

    October 5th, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    it is so nice to read a well written, well thought-out article on this subject. You can never go wrong with Martin Buber! Thank you so much for this.

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