Mastering Happiness Masters Course
Couple’s Coaching: An Ounce of Prevention…
Most couples wait six years or more from the beginning of trouble to when they seek help with a counselor; even though prevention is much easier and more effective than repair.
During the years when I was working primarily as a Marriage and Family Therapist, it was heartbreaking when a couple would come to my office as enemies; having long ago crossed the point of no return.
Once trouble starts, if a couple ignores it or just “lets things work out on their own,” that bond can degenerate quickly, and two people who were once deeply in love can find themselves in an agonizing cycle of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling (silent brooding) – what relationship researcher and therapist John Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
That’s why I now work with couples as a coach. It seems to take less time for couples to seek a coach than a counselor or therapist; and with less accumulated pain and fewer hurtful habits, we can dive right into work on that prevention part.
The problem isn’t conflict. Successful marriages have plenty of conflict.
The problem isn’t even unresolved conflict. Successful marriages also have plenty of unresolved conflict.
Conflict is where our differences meet; in many ways, our conflicts help us to get to know one another. A marriage without conflict is also likely a marriage without much intimacy.
It’s how we treat each other when there’s conflict that is the essential difference between a happy marriage and a miserable – or a finished – one.
A marriage is not a game; it’s not a trophy to win or a position to battle for. A marriage is a connection between two people who love each other, trust each other, respect each other, and enjoy being with each other. It’s not about winning something over the other person; it’s about achieving something together; with the other person.
A happy, committed relationship is a collaboration of two people creating a life together, sharing a common direction, common values, common dreams. A marriage is a team of two committed, devoted, allies.
The heart of a relationship comes through small daily encounters that create an atmosphere, a reputation between two people for what they can expect together; and through what Gottman calls “rituals of connection;” the things we do regularly that bring us closer.
In a marriage, this can mean that we regularly take time in the morning to find out what each other’s day will be; and in the evening to see what each other’s day has been. It can mean building regular habits of sexuality and physical intimacy; weekly date nights; predictable time away together; and nurturing shared interests and activities.
And one of the most overlooked qualities of happy, successful relationships is playfulness.
Play, laughter and humor are extremely powerful. We know that when we sleep, our dreams rejuvenate us, establish more neural connections in our brains, and even sort of wash away some of the toxins that build up over the course of a day.
Play is the waking equivalent of dreaming. It rejuvenates us, connects us with each other, and helps to clear out some of the negative emotions that can become stuck or stagnant when we take things too seriously.
Play and humor – not sarcasm or biting, hurtful jokes, but benevolent play; playing with each other, as teammates and friends – is a creative process. A successful marriage doesn’t happen automatically by instinct; it takes consciousness, kindness, and creativity.
When there’s trouble, we need to find a way back to being allies; and that can be a tall order sometimes. It takes a clear decision that regaining the friendship, the allegiance with each other, is the most important thing – more important than being right, more important that teaching a lesson, more important than making our partner better or fixing them…
Whenever you’re offered an apology, accept it as an attempt at repair; don’t use it as an opportunity to agree that your partner was a jerk, and then pile on with a list of other examples of just how big a jerk they are. Accept the apology – just say “thank you,” make eye contact, take it in, and let it settle into your system. That’s all you need to do.
When you’re both stuck in a negative loop, and your partner tries to introduce some benevolent playfulness to the situation, accept the offer to come out and play. If the two of you can play with an issue that you may be taking too seriously, doing so can free you both up to look at the problem together.
When we’re stuck in a negative cycle with our mate, it’s a closed loop; it’s hard to see anything but the hurt, the anger, and the perspective that fuels them.
Playfulness and attempts at repair allow you to both step outside the closed loop you’ve gotten yourselves into, to see it from a broader perspective. That’s where you can grow and learn and heal as a couple. You can’t do it by staying inside the negative loop.
One reason that I work as a Couple’s Coach, even though I’m trained and still licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist, is that couples come to work with me sooner, before they’re broken.
In nearly 40 years of working with couples, I’ve found that if two people love each other, and are committed to making their relationship work, they can make it work. Without that commitment, though, it’s pretty tough; there just isn’t the energy and the fortitude to do what it takes, unless you’re both all-in. And it’s easier to be all-in before there’s too much wounding.
When Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he was actually referring to fire prevention: taking care of hot coals when carrying them in a shovel, “for Scraps of Fire may fall into Chinks and make no Appearance until Midnight.”
In a marriage, the scald of criticism, the burn of contempt, or the silent fuming of stonewalling, unattended, spilling out in unexpected places, can reduce a beautiful emotional home to ruins.
Don’t wait the usual six years or more to pay attention to what’s not working. Catch it sooner – in four years, or two years… or right now before things are broken… as early as you possibly can.
Catch it, bring your love, playfulness, and allegiance full force; and keep the loving fire of your marriage in the hearth where it belongs.