In my work with couples a lot of people ask questions like “How can you do that kind of work?-sitting there while couples yell at each other, I couldn’t take it…” The truth of the matter is that most couples who come in for counseling, but not all, are not yelling at each other a lot. Most couples who come in are barely talking to each other-and our work in therapy begins with setting them up to feel comfortable and safe to talk in the therapy session, hoping they can end up feeling safe on the outside of the room to talk about their relationship.
The Gottman research says that most couples who are experiencing relationship-threatening problems wait an average of six years before they seek help. I have my own theories about why that’s the case-but it’s really a case by case basis. The fact is that most couples who come in have been in trouble an average of six years, and sometimes a lot longer. And usually they’re not talking about it.
My experience with couples is that many of them really want the conflicts to stop-and they can be desperate for relief. That’s a good sign-being uncomfortable with the constant conflict, who wants that? However, the road to long lasting conflict resolution begins with simply being able to talk to each other-and this part can be distressing for couples looking for a quick fix to their conflict.
When a couple is experiencing constant or persistent conflict, it’s usually in the category of a perpetual problem. 69% of conflict in a relationship is about unresolvable, perpetual problems (Gottman, J.M., 1994). This sounds worse than it is-if the couple can begin to communicate with a desire to understand each other, rather than be understood, these couples can work with their perpetual problems, not necessarily around them.
The way we begin is by working on the Love Maps-the ability to know and understand your partners world. Re-establishing the friendship is the first step to begin to talk about conflict. We treat our friends much differently than we treat our adversaries when we’re in conflict. Once we have an open dialogue about our partners world, and deepen our understanding of it, we can move to conflict resolution with an attitude of teamwork, rather than adversarial. The Gottman methods for improving communication and cultivating a desire to work together, not against each other, are key components to working through our perpetual conflicts.