Archive for the ‘Basic Info’ Category

The challenge of providing marriage help

Friday, August 20th, 2010

What is the biggest challenge to helping married couples build strong relationships? Over the last several decades, researchers have discovered many new findings about what makes relationships work, and we now know quite a bit about what couples can do to establish happy partnerships that will last a lifetime. But, it is not enough simply to know what couples need to do to have good relationships. The biggest challenge is getting couples to actually do the things that are best for their relationships. Even when people know about what they can do to make their relationships stable and strong, they often fail to do those things. I have seen this time and time again in my work as a marriage researcher and clinician. If I give a couple some advice about something they could do to make their relationship better, they often respond by saying, “That’s a great idea,” or sometimes they say, “Of course, I knew that all along.” But, it is somewhat rare for a couple to actually follow the advice they receive.

This is, of course, just part of human nature. As humans, it is normal for us to fail to do things that we know would be good for us. This is especially true when it comes to building a lifetime partnership with one’s mate. Even though a good relationship can be an essential part of a life that is meaningful and rewarding, we often take our relationships for granted. There are three primary reasons that couples often fail to do the things they need to make their relationships great.

First, many couples neglect their relationship simply because they are not currently experiencing any relationship problems. This is unfortunate, because the best time to work on one’s relationship is at the time when everything seems to be going great. It is much easier for happy couples to learn the skills they need to keep their relationships healthy for a lifetime than it is for distressed couples to fix a relationship after troubles have already developed. The problem is that, when couples are not experiencing any problems, they do not feel motivated to work on their relationship.

The second reason that many couples fail to work on their relationship is actually the opposite of the first. Many couples neglect their relationship because they ARE having problems. Couples often wait until after they have begun having some difficulties before they recognize the need to work on their relationship. But, once problems have developed, the work becomes harder. To build strong relationship skills, partners need to take an objective look at their own thoughts and actions, show understanding for each other, and develop tactful forms of communication. These are all things that can be extremely difficult for partners to do when they are angry with each other. Once problems develop in a relationship, many couples find that they are too upset to do the things that would make their relationship better.

The top reason that couples fail to work on their relationship, however, is that for many people, it simply feels too awkward or threatening. As humans, we like to think that we are valued and admired by others, and that we have excellent relationship skills. As a result, it is natural for us to feel somewhat threatened by the possibility of discovering areas in need of improvement. In addition, relationship work often involves trying out new ways of communicating that may seem silly or unnatural, or it may involve discussing uncomfortable topics. Sometimes, people think that, if they are working on their relationship, it must mean there is something wrong. For many couples, then, the process of working on their relationship simply feels too strange or too intimidating.

To build a strong relationship, couples need two things. First they need information on what they can do to make their relationship the best it can be. Second, they need the motivation to do those things. Although both parts are important, the most difficult part is having the motivation to take action. Of course, this is something that each person has to decide for himself or herself. The tools for building strong relationships are available to many couples, but only some will choose to use those tools.

Conflict Management: Four Parts

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

There are four basic parts to good conflict management. This post provides a very brief overview of these four parts. The Couple Conflict Consultant provides an extensive bank of information for each of the areas listed below.

The first part of conflict management is being able to identify underlying concerns. When couples have conflict, underlying concerns are the real reason they feel upset. The concern is the fuel that keeps their conflict burning. This means that, if they resolve the underlying concern, they will have resolved the conflict. More often than not, couples are unaware of their true underlying concerns, and this makes it extremely difficult to resolve conflict. When you have conflict, do you know what your primary underlying concerns are?

My research has found that most conflicts boil down to only one of two basic underlying concerns. These concerns are called perceived threat and perceived neglect. A perceived threat is when you think that your partner is criticizing you, or blaming you, or trying to control you. A perceived neglect is when you think that your partner not showing enough commitment, or is failing to make a desired contribution to your relationship. To resolve conflict, couples need to be aware of their concerns and they need to find a tactful way to express them.

The second part to conflict resolution is being able to manage your emotions so that your emotions help your reach your goals. My research has identified three types of emotion that are especially common during conflict. I call them hard emotion (feeling angry) soft emotion (feeling sad) and flat emotion (feeling bored). During a conflict, each emotion motivates you to take a different course of action, and each emotion communicates a different message to your partner. It is easiest to resolve conflict, then, when you experience the best emotion for reaching your goals in a given situation. To do this, you need to be aware of your emotions and you need to be clear about your goals. Importantly, the point here is NOT to eliminate emotion. Indeed, humans are emotional creatures. This means it would be both unrealistic and foolish to ignore your emotions. Rather, the thing to do is to manage your emotions so they work for you rather than against you.

The third part to conflict resolution involves communication. To resolve conflict, couples need to express thoughts and ideas tactfully, and to carefully listen and understand what the other has to say. I call this type of communication collaborative engagement. In contrast to collaborative engagement, there are three types of communication that often add heat to conflict interactions. The most common is called adversarial engagement, where couples are critical, blaming, attacking, and defensive. The final two types of communication include retreat, where couples try to avoid conflict, and passive engagement, where couples use an indirect communication to address a conflict. It is important to note that it is normal for couples to use all four of these types of communication. Even the happiest couples use adversarial engagement from time to time. Moreover, each type of communication may have a time and a place where it is appropriate. On some occasions, passive engagement may be the best option. At the same time, if couples want to resolve a conflict, at some point, they will likely need to begin using collaborative engagement. Without collaborative engagement, conflicts are unlikely to reach a satisfying resolution.

The fourth part has to do with the thoughts couples have during conflict. When you have conflict, you are likely to have many thoughts running through your mind. There are three types of thoughts that are especially important. The first is called negative attributions. These include thoughts where you blame your partner for causing a conflict. The second is called negative expectancies. These are where you make a prediction that your partner will do something bad in the future. The third is called partner understanding. This is a positive type of thought where you see things from your partner’s perspective. All three of these types of thoughts can have a powerful force in determining the course of a conflict. So, it is important to be aware of your thoughts, to evaluate your thoughts, and to change your thoughts when you want to do so.

As you can see, there are several important parts to conflict resolution. It takes a substantial investment of time and effort for couples to learn about each of these areas, and to develop skills in each of these areas. But then, things that are worthwhile rarely come easily.

Marital Advice

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

What is the best advice for married couples? What do couples need to do to make their relationships strong? I answer these questions from the point of view of a clinical research psychologist, having conducting more than 20 years of studies with thousands of married couples. In contrast to many popular books on relationships that are currently available, my advice is not “one-size-fits-all.” Relationships are complex, and every couple is unique. This means that good advice for one couple may be bad advice for another. To give good advice to married couples, I need to ask them three basic questions.

Question 1: Is your relationship mostly satisfying, or is it currently distressed?

At one point or another, well over half of all relationships go through a stormy season of distress. If you are happy with your partner, then realize you have something precious and take good care of it. If you are experiencing some distress, the first step is to determine whether you are experiencing a major relationship trauma. Major traumas includes things like: (1) problems with alcohol or other drugs, (2) physical violence in the home, (3) one partner no longer wants to stay in the relationship, (4) an affair, and (5) problems with clinical depression. These types of traumas demand immediate attention, and they need to be addressed (possibly with professional help) before a couple can make progress in other areas of their relationship. Of course, couples can become distressed without a major trauma. The good news, here, is that when couples make a commitment to work together on their relationship, and if they stick with it for a sufficient period of time, it is relatively common for unhappy relationships to recover.

Question 2: What do you do to make things good in your relationship?

Most relationships are naturally exciting when they first begin. If a couple wants to maintain a lifelong partnership, however, each partner needs to take responsibility to do things that make the relationship strong and healthy. These are the things you do, and the contributions you make, to keep your relationship fun and rewarding for both you and your partner. This takes work, and will not always come naturally. In addition, it requires negotiation. The things that are important for one person may not be important for another, and each couple needs to decide for themselves what they value most. Are you intentionally doing things that make your relationship good for both you and your partner? If yes, then keep up the good work. If, however, your efforts do not seem to be paying off, or if you are not sure what to do, then my advice is to discuss these issues with your partner. Or, if you are simply not making a sincere effort in this area, it would be good to figure out why. Often, couples lose motivation to work on their relationship when they have problems with an unresolved conflict. In this case, an important piece of the equation is to develop better conflict management skills. This leads us to the third question.

Question 3: Are you using conflict as a tool to make your relationship better?

Notice that this third question is not asking whether you have conflict in your relationship. Indeed, all relationships experience conflict from time to time. What is important, then, is not how much conflict you have, but rather, how you manage the conflict you do have. Conflict is actually essential for producing intimacy in a relationship – without it, a relationship would be dry and shallow. When a conflict is resolved well, it brings two partners closer together, it results in a deeper, shared understanding between them, and it produces mutual respect and appreciation. Unfortunately, when conflict is not managed well, it can tear a relationship apart. So, what does it take to manage conflict?

There are four basic parts to good conflict management. These include (1) being aware of your true underlying concerns during conflict, (2) managing emotion, (3) using good communication, and (4) monitoring your thoughts. If you are not familiar with these four basic parts of conflict management, the first step is to learn about them.

Also, when you have conflict, it is important to get feedback on how you are doing in each area. The same thing would be true for an athlete in training for an important sports event. Several different skills are needed to become an outstanding athlete, and an athlete needs continual feedback from a coach to develop these skills. Each athlete may have different strengths and weaknesses. A coach helps the athlete know what is working well, and where he or she needs improvement. In this way, the athlete can create an individualized training program that capitalizes on strengths, builds up weaknesses, and produces the best results possible. The same thing is true for developing good conflict resolution skills. Couples develop the best skills if they get feedback on how they are doing in each area. In this way, they can create an individualize plan on were to focus their efforts. Just like an athlete in training, results do not happen overnight. It takes time to build outstanding conflict resolution skills. It is possible to become highly effective at resolving conflicts with your partner, but this requires getting repeated feedback over a long period of time, and it requires making a long-term effort toward honing and refining your skills. For couples that invest this effort, the payoff can be great. These couples are able to resolve their conflicts, and this leads to greater intimacy, better communication, and a stronger relationship.

Additional resources

See the post: Four Areas of Conflict Resolution

The Couple Conflict Consultant provides a large resource bank of information on conflict resolution, and it offers thorough, scientifically-based assessments and feedback. You can learn more about the areas of conflict resolution, assess your skills, develop an individualized plan, and track your progress over time. Everything is provided entirely free of charge as part of my research program. If you have not yet tried it, all you need is an e-mail address to begin.