We often think of marital therapy as a last resort. We assume that only couples with “serious” issues should seek it. We assume that only couples in dire straits can benefit. But all couples can enhance their relationship by learning the skills taught in couples therapy.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Robyn D’Angelo teaches skills that couples can use to address any topic. “[I]f we have the tools to understand, empathize, listen to and connect with our partners within and outside of conflict, we can have the fulfilling relationships that we were meant to have.”
Below, D’Angelo shared three skills that your relationship might benefit from.
1. Know your partner’s world.
“Research has revealed that a powerful predictor of relationship stability is whether couples, particularly husbands, create a cognitive understanding of their relationship and their partner,” said D’Angelo, who maintains a private practice in Laguna Hills, Calif.
One way partners can do this is to get acquainted with each other’s “love maps,” she said. This is a map to your partner’s inner world – their wishes, worries, dreams, goals and joys. The term comes from John Gottman’s “The Sound Relationship House” theory.
“Couples who have epic love maps of each other’s world are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict,” D’Angelo said.
She suggested playing a kind of game by asking open-ended questions, such as: “Name your partner’s two closest friends.” “What makes your partner feel most competent?” Play this game every six months, since our love maps change over time, she said. (D’Angelo shares more questions in this post.)
You also can learn more about building love maps in this piece on “The Gottman Relationship Blog.”
2. Know your partner’s love language.
According to marriage counselor Gary Chapman, each of us speaks a different “love language,” of which there are five: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; and physical touch.
We tend to assume that we know our partner’s love language – what makes them feel happy, significant and special, D’Angelo said. However, often “we automatically show our partners love and try to meet their needs the way we feel loved or by doing things that would meet our needs.” This usually leads to distress, disappointment and miscommunication: One partner feels like they didn’t get their needs met. The other partner feels underappreciated for how hard they worked to make their partner happy.
For instance, a husband says that he works long hours to provide for his family. When he gets home he just wants dinner to be ready. When it isn’t, he feels like his wife doesn’t care about him or how hard he works for their family. The wife says that she works tirelessly all day long caring for the kids. When her husband gets home all she wants to do is connect with him. But he just plops down on the couch to watch TV.
In other words, “The wife has cleaned up and gotten everything perfect, so they can have ‘quality time’ thinking that is his love language when in fact it is hers. And the husband prides himself on working hard by his ‘acts of service’ for his wife when in fact that is his own love language.”
So what can you do? D’Angelo suggested partners take the The 5 Love Languages quiz. “Then set a date night, bring the results from the quiz and talk to one another about specific examples of your love languages.” In other words, talk about the ways you want to be loved.
Speaking your partner’s love language involves “learning how to navigate ‘this is what I want and that is what you want — is there a way to meet all or a portion of both of our needs?’” This starts with understanding each other’s experience, she said. (And simple answers might not exist.)
D’Angelo shared this example, if she were seeing the above couple in therapy: “If the wife hears the husband say ‘I feel like you don’t care about me,’ as a therapist I tease out more feelings. [This way] the wife can see her husband in a new light and connect with the human, tender side, which is hard to see when we’re hurt and our partner seems to be blaming us. If the husband can hear how rejected and lonely the wife feels, they can start talking about new ways to connect — even when he’s tired and hungry and she needs him to be present with her.”
3. Repair conflict.
The last skill involves mastering “the art of making and receiving repairs.” Which is absolutely crucial in navigating conflict, D’Angelo said. “When it comes to the concept of repair …i t’s less about fixing and more about getting things back on track.”
This is where “repair phrases” come in. They also originate from Gottman Method Couples Therapy. “[T]he idea is that as conversations escalate, you can turn to the list and identify which phrases will and won’t work,” D’Angelo said.
The list features six categories: “ I Feel” “I Need to Calm Down” “Sorry” “Stop Action!” “Get to Yes” and “I Appreciate.” Examples of phrases from each category include: “I feel defensive. Can you rephrase that?” “Can we take a break?” “Let me start again in a softer way.” “We are getting off track.” “I agree with part of what you’re saying.” “I know this isn’t your fault.”
She asks her clients to review the list, and pick two phrases from each category; if they heard their spouse say these phrases, in the midst of an argument, they’d know they were trying to repair. Couples share the phrases to make sure they don’t trigger a negative response, she said. Lastly, they go through each category, again, to discard any phrases that are triggering.
(You can learn more here.)
As individuals, we benefit greatly from learning skills to manage our emotions, cope with our inner critics and become assertive. The same is true for couples: Our romantic relationships also benefit greatly when we take the time to learn and practice the skills that cultivate connection.
Couple at home photo available from Shutterstock