When couples come to therapy, it is because something has gone wrong in their relationship. While the problems they bring run the gamut, there is one thing that is almost always a common denominator. When asked how they met they get this far-away look — usually with a sigh — and then tell the tale of how they fell in love. During the telling, they are transported back to a happier time. As they reveal their dance of romance, their bodies soften and breathing changes.
For these few moments they have put down their weapons, and it is not unusual even with the most combative couples for a slight smile to come through. When asked what went wrong, the mood in the room changes. A dark and foreboding cloud is cast that can rapidly deteriorate into blaming and finger-pointing. The smiles vanish, negativity returns and the issues that brought them in in the first place are back.
What if there were a way to capture the essence of those initial feelings of joy and love at the beginning of a romance and find ways to nurture them and have them evolve? What would happen if we focused on strengthening our relationship right in the beginning rather than wait for it to deteriorate? The book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts by Suzie and James Pawelski has done just that. They have taken the best features of positive psychology and applied them to relationships. Their writing and exercises provide genuine hope for couples by giving them tools to help each other grow as individuals and together. Rather than starting with what’s wrong — they build on what is already strong.
The vast majority of training for therapists in working with couples has to do with untangling problems in communication. Couples fall into dysfunctional patterns that breed chronic negative moods for both, and some of these negative patterns have been identified as much worse than others. Relationship scientist John Gottman has identified four of them as the most destructive and highly predictive of divorce and separation. He famously dubbed them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. I doubt anyone reading this needs the definition as they are as ubiquitous in relationships as they are self-explanatory.
For most clinicians, the work is to help remove these negative patterns and others with the understanding that a good relationship has many fewer occurrences of them. We are then trained to teach couples how to repair them as rapidly as possible when they arrive.
This approach to treating couple-hood is influenced by the path psychology has traditionally taken. The goal is to alleviate suffering, remove the symptoms and problems, and the result should be a happy couple. More often than not doesn’t work. When couples come in for treatment they are usually upset, anxious, and depressed — and depression is something we know a great deal about.
Consider some sobering statistics. Up to an 80 percent of people with depression relapse. With all the treatment options available, including psychotherapy and antidepressants, the symptoms return. Removing a couple’s problems doesn’t necessarily restore love.
But in the last 20 years, there has been a shift in what psychology is focused on. The move has been toward understanding the elements of well-being and what makes people thrive and flourish. Why has this shift come about? Because of a simple fact: not being depressed isn’t the same as being happy. Studying what is wrong with individuals and couples doesn’t provide much insight into what makes for a healthy person or relationship. This is true whenever we want to understand optimal functioning. If we want to figure out what causes people to live longer we need to survey those who’ve lived past 100 — not only research those who die young. To discover what makes people naturally thin we’ll only get so far investigating obesity.
This brings us to the new approach to relationship science that is being championed by the Pawelski’s in their new book. As simple as it sounds this is a radically different way to help couples thrive because it identifies what needs to be done to strengthen and develop a healthy, loving relationship. It is proactive rather than reactive, and it puts the tools for mutual growth in the hands of the couple. In a very real way, the book provides the missing half in couple work.
The authors are most qualified to have planned the route for this unchartered territory. Suzie is a freelance writer specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on relationships and health. Her Scientific American Mind cover story in 2010 on “The Happy Couple” was a catalyst for the book, and James is Professor of Practice and Director of Education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program with Martin Seligman. This is a couple that lives the teachings and recommendations they advocate: the importance of practicing positive emotions, promoting passion, nurturing each other’s character strengths, and expressing gratitude.
Couple therapists now have a book to recommend that can help their clients develop tools to keep their love flowing once the negative patterns have been corrected. If you’re a couple looking to rekindle the loving feelings for each other the book provides the best published collection of positive interventions for couples. If you feel your relationship could use some untangling as well, you can connect to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy or find a couple therapist in your area by clicking in the “Find Help” tab at the top of this page.
Gottman, J., Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1995). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. Simon and Schuster.
Pawelski, S. Pawelski, J.O. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts TarcherPerigee
Shallcross, A. J., Gross, J. J., Visvanathan, P. D., Kumar, N., Palfrey, A., Ford, B. Q., … & Cox, E. (2015). Relapse prevention in major depressive disorder: Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy versus an active control condition. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 83(5), 964.