When Marriage Counseling Doesn’t Work

There is an method of marriage counseling that remains popular among therapists working with couples in conflict. This approach assumes that the key to marital contentment lies in learning better communication skills. A satisfying relationship, according to this view, is the result of better listening, increased empathy, and a focus on conflict resolution techniques.

Here’s the truth: You can be a master at conflict resolution and still be miserable in your marriage.

I experienced a particular a-ha moment while attending graduate school, watching the video of a counseling session in which a couple’s marital dissatisfaction was being addressed using this conflict resolution method. The session was being presented as an example of good technique, but I was struck by an awareness that after all their counseling, the wife seemed to be no more connected to her husband than before. They had learned how to manage conflict without learning to experience connection.

There is, of course, benefit to learning how to fight better. No one would argue the benefits of controlled anger, empathetic listening, or problem solving. But the benefit of learning these skill tends to be disappointing after a while as a couple realizes they still feel lonely in their marriage. The removal of conflict does not assure the renewal of love.

Psychologist John Gottman is a leader in marriage research and has spent decades studying the characteristics of marriages that flourish and of marriages that fail. His concludes that there is no evidence to support a belief that good marriages are built by learning particular communication styles. A focus on CONNECTION is more important that a focus on communication when it comes to experiencing a healthy marriage.

Simply stated, the question of How can we enhance or friendship? has far greater importance than the question How can we resolve our differences? Rather than focusing on your spouse’s inadequacies (and wanting to change them), give attention to the shifts you might make to encourage a more intimate connection. And if you need help, find a counselor that will guide you toward the changes that really matter.

For more information on John Gottman’s research and conclusions, read his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Tim Tedder

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