Couples Therapy and the Disasters of Relationship

Couples Therapy and the Disasters of Relationship

Couples Therapy

You’ve probably come across the proverb ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. The Collins Dictionary definition states the expression is used to say that if you know a person or a situation very well, you can easily lose respect for that person, or become careless in that situation. When it comes to couples relationships, research has given some scientific validity to the old proverb.

In the last post, I described how the Masters of Relationship were found to be consciously building a culture of appreciation with each other. One of the ways they do this is to habitually turn toward their partner to notice the things they do, say and feel and in this way show appreciation. There are many ways to turn towards your partner, but effectively it is about being interested in their experience and looking for things their partner is doing right. Being interested in your partners experience is also about respecting them as a person.

The Disasters of Relationship, on the other hand, tend to habitually turn away from their partner. They look for things their partner is doing wrong and criticize in all kinds of ways. The research showed that this means they miss roughly 50% of the positive things their partner may be doing, and worse, they see negativity even when it’s not there. The worst way the Disasters of Relationship turn away from their partner is by displaying contempt towards their partner. Among others things, contempt is about lack of respect for the other person. So giving your partner the cold shoulder, putting them down (particularly in front of others), deliberately ignoring them or even just responding minimally are all ways of expressing contempt.

And research shows that the regular presence of contempt in a couples relationship predicts early divorce in marriages more consistently than any other factor.

About the Author Campbell MacBean

Campbell has over 20 years’ experience working with couples, individuals and groups. He is a Registered Psychologist (AHPRA), and Certified Gottman Therapist (CGT) through the Gottman Institute based in Seattle, USA. He is a Member of the Australian Psychological Society (MAPS) and a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD) read more here.

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Our speech pathology and psychology clinic is located in Braddon, ACT, in Canberra’s CBD. Call us on 5117 4890 or email reception@inpositivehealth.com to get in touch.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.

A Culture of Appreciation

A Culture of Appreciation

Because relationship for humans is like the air we breathe, we often tend to take one another for granted. This may be particularly true in intimate partner relationships over time. Over years of working with couples in therapy, one theme that often emerges is that a couple who has been together for some time, perhaps with children, tend to ignore their relationship. There is a tendency for a ‘set and forget’ mentality once a commitment has been made and life gets busy.

In contrast, research shows Masters of Relationship consciously build a culture of appreciation with each other. They find ways to validate and affirm each other in small ways. Making eye contact and smiling to each other, physical touch, showing interest in each other’s thoughts or ideas (even though they may not agree), complimenting or giving verbal appreciation for simple day to day events (like cooking dinner), are just some of the possible ways couples build a culture of appreciation.

If we want to strengthen our relationship, one important task for a couple is to take time to ask each other “What is our culture”?

You may come from similar or very different backgrounds. You may come from different countries, language or cultural groups. But if you want to strengthen your relationship, one of your jobs as a couple is to actively create your own culture, a culture that is unique to you two. What are our rituals? What do we want to stand for in the face of external threats? Why is this important to us? What example do we want to set for our children, or grandchildren, our community?

Our speech pathology and psychology clinic is located in Braddon, ACT, in Canberra’s CBD. Call us on 5117 4890 or email reception@inpositivehealth.com to get in touch.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.

A Culture of Appreciation

Gottman Therapy and Masters of Emotional Safety

Gottman Therapy

In 1986 John Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson set up a lab in the grounds of the University of Seattle. This lab was quickly dubbed ‘The Love Lab’. With their research team, they hooked up each couple to electrodes and asked them to talk about their relationship, including a major conflict they had together. The electrodes measured heart rate, blood flow and sweat glands – key physiology markers. From this physiology data, the researchers were able to divide the couples into Masters and Disasters of relationship.

6 years later the researchers did a follow up study on all the couples. The Masters were still happily together, whereas the Disasters had either divorced or were unhappy in their relationship. One of the key differences was physiology. When talking about an ongoing problem they had together, the Disasters looked calm on the outside, but their physiology data showed they were in fight or flight mode – fast blood flow, increased heart rates and active sweat glands. Over years of research with thousands of couples, Gottman and colleagues found that the more active the physiology in the Love Lab a couple showed, the quicker their relationship deteriorated over time.

The Masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and safe with each other, their behaviour looked warm and affectionate even when they were arguing. The Masters weren’t born with any special gift, they had instead created and maintained an atmosphere of emotional trust and intimacy together. Emotionally comfortable meant physiologically comfortable. We could say they were Masters of Emotional Safety.

About the Author

Read more about Campbell MacBean Psychologist Braddon Canberra

Want to find out more, please have a read of our Couples Therapy information

Certified Gottman Therapist Braddon Canberra

Our speech pathology and psychology clinic is located in Braddon, ACT, in Canberra’s CBD. Call us on 5117 4890 or email reception@inpositivehealth.com to get in touch.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.

Of Love & Limerence

Of Love & Limerence

I was at a wedding last weekend, the best I’ve ever attended (apart from my own!). What was so good about it? Well, apart from perfect weather, gorgeous location, excellent catering and moving speeches, here was a couple who actually love each other.

As a couples therapist I have seen many couples who started out ‘in love’ but struggle to negotiate the transition from ‘in love’ to love. The technical term used for this ‘in love’ stage is limerence (Tennov, 1979). Wikipedia defines limerence as “an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one’s feelings reciprocated”.

Right. So when you are ‘in love’ you are overwhelmed with feelings for the person you are attracted to and are driven by an obsessive need for them to feel the same about you. But the problem is that in this state we do not actually see the real person. We see an idealised image, or in other words, we see who we want to see, not who is actually there. The danger is that when we finally wake up out of limerence we are faced with the real person. The question then is, can we now love the real person and not the image?

Limerence can only last up to 2 years or so. Love begins after limerence, when we can finally see the living, breathing flesh and blood man or woman that we are sharing our life with. The wonderful thing about this fact is that love is truly like good wine, it really can deepen and mature with age. It reflects both the vintage in which it was bottled and the changes time inevitably brings.

But unlike wine, a love relationship needs to be baked daily like fresh bread. It is never set and forget.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.

Stress-Reducing Conversations

Stress-Reducing Conversations

Life for the average couple these days is beyond hectic. Keeping on top of work, friends and family in the era of social media is a full time job in and of itself! If you throw children into the mix then there is the added time needed to ferry them to sport, friends and dozens of other activities which kids want to be involved in. If you live in a blended family with children from different relationships the complexity simply becomes exponential.

One of the biggest opportunities for couples, often missed, is to be the main support for each other within the busyness of our lives. To be a port in the storm for each other. However, what often happens is that stresses from outside the couple relationship end up getting in the way. Sadly, we end up seeing our partner as just another source of stress. Then we miss out on being a safe haven for each other.

A good antidote to this situation is what John Gottman calls The Stress Reducing Conversation. This is where a couple takes the time to greet each other regularly with a short conversation in which the only goal is to be on each other’s side – not to solve problems. You can find a great example of this kind of conversation in a brief video by Jason Headly called It’s Not About The Nail.

It is often said that women need men to stop solving their problems and just listen to them. Another way of saying this is they need to know their male partner is on their side. But actually men need this just as much, it’s just they are not typically very good at it (as you see in the video). Same sex couples are no different. For love to remain present in any relationship, a good place to start is to practice listening to each other without giving advice and without leaping into trying to fix each other’s problems.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.

The Nasty Box for Couples

The Nasty Box for Couples

Every couple has arguments from time to time and sometimes these arguments get stuck in what John Gottman calls ‘the nasty box’. This is the place where the argument seems to take on a life of its own and no matter what is said by either partner, they don’t seem to be able to get out of the argument. It’s a bit like in the song Hotel California by the Eagles, ‘you can check in any time you like but you can never leave’.

When in the nasty box some couples torture each other with very vocal attacks, while others avoid direct conflict but will stew and remain silent for days or weeks. When asked about this the couples will tell you they feel terrible about these arguments but they don’t know how to stop and resolve things. In Gottman’s research he says that there are typically 2 main reasons for this inability to stop – flooding and failed repair attempts.

Flooding is the term used for a physical response more commonly associated with high level stress. Increased heart rate, high blood pressure, tensed muscles and shallow breathing are what we feel when highly scared or anxious and it is exactly the response that one partner in the couples nasty box can often experience. Flooding in this case is another way to describe the fight and flight response and it is deadly for couples if it happens a lot because it shuts down the ability to be rational, to listen, solve problems or understand our partner’s emotions. So typically a flooded person will either attack (fight) or shut down and refuse to communicate (freeze or run). Gottman calls this stonewalling.

The second reason for staying in the nasty box is failed repair attempts. It is often connected to flooding because when one partner floods they lose the ability to make a successful repair attempt which could calm things down. Often, even if the one who isn’t flooded attempts to soothe their flooded partner, this repair attempt fails. So they might attempt a repair by using humour but if the other partner is flooded they will not respond to the humour but rather remain shut off and turn away. This is how trust is eroded between a couple.

What is so often lacking is a failure of attunement within the relationship. That is, the ability to really understand and respect each other’s inner world and to communicate this understanding in a way that each other can actually hear. I’ll talk more about attunement in another post.

But if you are reading this right now and you realise that this scenario describes what is going on between you and your partner, you might want to take the warning sign seriously. When we get stuck in the nasty box more times than not then our relationship is in danger of further eroding of trust. It might be time to consider seeking some couples counselling before the nasty box becomes the norm.