40 Years of Research: Why Solving Your Marital Disputes is Not the Solution

Jul 06, 2020

I hear this from couples many times.

             "We just need to be able to talk and then we can compromise. But he won't even talk!"

Or -

    "It's simply a matter of solving X and Y. All of our problems will then go away. But she's too stubborn".

Or even -

   "We've been talking too much doc. We're paying here and we need solutions!"

I understand that. Many couples think this way. That they just need to be able to find an agreement, a compromise, a solution to their disagreements. And that couples' therapy is about solving their disagreements.

In fact, for many years this is how couples' therapists approached therapy as well.

Unfortunately, this approach failed and statistically, their success rates were very low. Those who did benefit from couples therapy, benefited not because their problems were necessarily solved, but for entirely different reasons.

So, it makes sense that couples still come in assuming that I will be solving their problems. This is the therapeutic wisdom that had been disseminated for decades.

But the field of couples therapy research has changed dramatically. In the last 40 years, Dr. John Gottman, Dr. Leslie Greenberg, and Dr. Sue Johnson, to name a few major names have made real breakthroughs, having studied many thousands of couples, watching them closely in action, on live cameras, video, behind one-way glasses.

Guess what?

One of Gottman's findings is that about 70% of our disagreements as couples, never get solved! And this is true not only for failing couples, but for the very successful couples as well!

Well then, as a couples therapist, I must ask myself – "If 70% percent of their disagreements are anyway unsolvable, why am I sitting in this chair? What the heck am I doing here??" 

Of course, this finding among others, requires a major shift in the focus of couples therapy. We've been missing the point for years.  Therefore, when couples come to me, very early on I make it my business to clarify my role to them – "Sorry guys, I cannot solve your disputes. I'm not a judge, nor am I an arbitrator. I am not even a mediator…"  

"Huh?? So… what exactly do you do?"

"I am a therapist".

(Eyes rolling) "You don't say…"

But seriously now, the answer is that as a therapist, I can help them reach such an emotional bond that makes the issue of solving problems redundant, a non-issue. Once they have this bond, they will not necessarily need me to solve their problems.

Perplexing? Let me explain.

Another very interesting finding of the research is that couples with a successful relationship can hurt each other just like other couples do. Whether through criticism, full out contempt, defensiveness, or complete disregard.  True, successful relationships have less of these hurtful moves. In fact, a lot less. But they are not picture perfect. Couples with a great relationship can still hurt each other.

So, what's the key element that sets them apart from failing relationships? Gottman found that very quickly after they hurt each other, the successful couples…

 …know how to repair

In other words, they will approach their spouse in a softer way, look for ways to reconnect, to mend, to apologize, to make it up, to accept and to forgive, and to get back to that positive sentiment between them.

But why?

What allows them to repair like that? What is missing from the relationship of other couples who for some reason are not able to repair the hurts? Is it just merely about knowing how to apologize or forgive?

As you can imagine, the answer to that is – absolutely not! Teaching them how to apologize or forgive will solve nothing. They will still be deeply divided, distanced, hurt. The words will be superficial.

There is a very good reason why they arrived at such a difficult place in their relationship and changing their language does not address that deeper reason. Why would you want to forgive when you hate the guy? Why would you want to apologize and be soft with her when she's been making you miserable?

So, we need an underlying preliminary element to be in place before any hurtful language or behavior can change. What is it?

Well, this is where personally I like to depart from Gottman's approach and embrace the approach of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), as developed by Sue Johnson (she incorporated Gottman's major research findings into her own research, and her success rates have been steady at 73% of couples changing profoundly, and up to 90% (!) of them at least getting to a more positive and stable place).

 What EFT research has found, is that the missing element is a SECURE EMOTIONAL BOND.

This is what makes or breaks a great, satisfying relationship. What does a "secure emotional bond" mean?

It means, that when I get stressed by something or somebody, I can turn to my wife (and vice versa, of course) and know that she will be there for me in terms of emotional support, comfort, compassion. Or, as Sue Johnson like's to summarize it in the following sentence:

"ARE you there for me?"

The word ARE in this sentence is an acronym which stands for – Accessible, Responsive and Emotionally Engaged.

So if I'm in distress, the core elements of support from my partner are her being accessible to me in the moment (e.g. not on the phone), being responsive (e.g. as opposed to indifferent), and emotionally engaged with me (e.g. as opposed to responding in a technical, or even dismissive way).

If these elements are lacking, I will learn over time that I cannot count on my partner for emotional support, that she's not a safe person to turn to for my emotional needs. This is how a wedge is driven between us.

But you do not have to accept this as fate.  On the contrary. These patterns, even if ingrained through years of a downward negative spiral, can be unlearned and reversed. New patterns can be put in place.   And we're not shooting in the dark anymore. We have rock-solid research-backed powerful interventions that can profoundly change our relationships for the better.

So, to sum things up…

Learning how to problem-solve will not help us. Rather, in couples therapy we can learn how to recreate a safe, secure emotional bond between us.

This bond is at the root of everything else. Once we have it, our conversations and even our disputes look very different. We have less of a need to criticize or become defensive, and the music of our arguments changes. Even if we do hurt each other occasionally, it becomes like a momentary cold breeze on a bright summer day. We learn to rebound quickly, we repair and reconnect. The more we do it, the easier it comes.

         "Alright, I'm open to the idea. But… how do we get a secure bond going? It seems kind of hopeless to be honest… why and how exactly does this work??"

Great questions. Let's leave the answers for my next post.