Strategies for Couples, by David Raughton, MFT revised ©2019
Painful conflicts often occur in primary couple relationships. When painful feelings are not coped with adequately, they are then expressed in ways that are destructive to the relationship. When these feelings are coped with well, they can lead to a more empathetic and resilient relationship. Many strategies have been developed for couples with such conflicts. Here are some that I use to help couples. Also included are books that elaborate on these strategies.
1. Question your thoughts: When you notice a distressing feeling, stop and ask yourself what the thought that preceded it was. We often tend to be convinced that what we tell ourselves is “the truth,” and emotionally react accordingly. If you ask yourself “Is there another way of seeing this?” you can gain perspective and shift your feelings. A book that explores this more is Mindful Loving by Henry Grayson. He also lists characteristics of ego based relationships vs. more healthy loving relationships, which can be helpful in setting our direction and ideals.
This can be coupled with drilling down by asking “What does this thought/situation mean about me or others?” Such exploration can help get at deeper core beliefs, which can then be questioned. Core beliefs from childhood like “I’m not loveable” or “I can’t express what I need” can then be updated and healed.
2. Self-soothing: Turn toward painful feelings. Imagine you had a young child having these feelings. As a loving adult how would you want to respond? Children who are hurting mostly need caring attention – such as holding, listening, and support. Placing a hand on your chest and your belly is a physical gesture of expressing care to your hurting, wounded emotional self. The books Healing Your Aloneness by Margaret Paul and You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For by Richard Schwartz, describe approaches to self-soothing along these lines.
3. Make use of “I statements”: Often couples get stuck fighting about who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Shifting your focus to your own feelings and needs, rather than your partner’s behavior, can help unblock such gridlock. When you have distressing feelings, ask yourself “What is the need to which these feelings are a reaction? Express them as your own feelings and needs, rather than with blame or with attempts to control. Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication provides a good formula for expressing yourself along these lines. Jordan and Margaret Paul, who wrote Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You call this communicating “with an intent to learn” rather than “with an intent to protect.”
4. Let yourself be influenced: Listening deeply for what is true or understandable in what your partner is saying can do much to help resolve conflict. You are likely to be better heard if you validate some part of what the other is saying first, before going on to express your feelings and needs.
Along these lines, John Gottman in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, has observed that letting yourself be influenced by your partner strengthens the relationship. Don’t dig in. When you can provide for your partner’s needs or wishes, without sacrificing your own values or important interests, positively respond to your partner’s requests. In his books Gottman goes beyond conflict resolution to focus on building a strong “marital house” by turning toward each other, cultivating fondness and admiration, letting yourself be influenced, and other practices.
5. Mindfulness: All of the strategies discussed above are enhanced with the use of mindfulness. A good book that focuses on the use of mindfulness in relationships is ACT with Love by Russ Harris. In that book he describes defusing from negative thoughts and being with your feelings in order not to be swept away by destructive patterns. Instead he encourages expressing yourself in accord with your values, for example by communicating with compassion and clarity.
Left to our own devices, in persistent conflicts with our partner, we tend to repeat patterns that have not worked well in the past. By practicing new more productive strategies, such as the ones described in this article, we can enhance our relationship, and help ourselves and our partner to get more of what each wants.