Beyond Conflict Resolution
When I ask couples what they want to get from counselling, their top two wishes are usually to improve communication, and to stop arguing so much. They just want to get on better. And couples counselling can really help with that. But to make a lasting difference, it needs to go beyond conflict resolution.
Often couples have been having disputes that are so painful, they are struggling to resolve them. Words can really, really hurt, and it can be difficult to move on from things said in anger. (If that sounds like you, I have a process I can take you through together that will help you to understand what happened, learn from it, and ultimately feel ready to forgive.)
Improving communication is a fantastic goal, and therapy can certainly help. When you talk things through with an impartial third party who has the distance to see things clearly, you can both feel heard. This can free you up to be able to really hear each other, possibly for the first time in a long time.
But the secret to a happy relationship is about more than improving communication and resolving your arguments.
In fact, by aiming higher than just arguing less, you might actually find it easier to argue less. That’s why my approach to couples counselling goes beyond conflict resolution.
Happily married couples aren’t cleverer than other couples. And they don’t have to deal with any less of the difficult stuff that life throws at us than anyone else. So what is their secret?
It is totally normal to have negative thoughts and feelings about your partner. What successful couples do is this: they find a way to relate to each other that keeps those negative thoughts and feelings from overwhelming their positive ones.
How do they do this? By making efforts, every day, to understand and respect each other and their relationship.
Why work on your relationship?
You probably wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have a feeling that getting on better with your partner would make you happier. But did you know it can make you healthier too?
The stress of being in an unhappy relationship
Lois Verbrugge and James House* have found that being in an unhappy long-term relationship or marriage can increase your chances of getting ill by around 35%. It can even shorten your life, by about four years. People who are happily married live longer, healthier lives than those who are unhappy with their partners or divorced.
If you are in, or have been in, an unhappy relationship, you’ll understand why this is. The emotional stress takes a physical toll. It puts a strain on your mind and body. In the long term, that can manifest as physical problems like high blood pressure or heart disease. It can also increase levels of anxiety and depression, and even be a contributory factor to alcoholism and other addictions, self injury, violence against others, and suicide.
Improving your relationship is good for your health
Happily married couples on the other hand tend to be more health-conscious. They remind each other to go to the doctor, take their medication, eat well and exercise. All of this, on top of the psychological benefits of having someone to talk to – about the big things and the little ones – is a recipe for a happy, healthy life.
If your marriage is beyond saving, remember that a peaceful divorce is always better than a warlike marriage. What matters is that you make your relationship the best it can be, whether you decide to stay together or to move on. If there are children involved, splitting up will mean a transition in your relationship rather than its end. You can read more about my approach to separation and divorce counselling here and here.
The best relationships go way beyond just getting on ok. They are partnerships of mutual respect and support. Happily married spouses share in each other’s hopes and dreams. They build a life together which has a sense of purpose and meaning for them both.
If you haven’t been getting on well, a good question to ask yourselves could be “what are we really fighting about?”
Or if you tend more towards withdrawal or conflict avoidance, “what are we avoiding talking about?”
Often what lies beneath the horrible rows about little things are bigger pains and frustrations. You might have been feeling isolated and lonely, underappreciated, disrespected, or misunderstood. Maybe you’ve felt like your partner isn’t interested in your life or what you want from it. If that’s the case, of course it’s going to bother you when when they forget to do something they promised, or ask something of you that you just don’t have time for.
Lots of your problems are solvable
Sometimes we can get so stuck in our opposing positions, it can be difficult to see what other potential compromises there might me. This is one way that couples counselling can really help. It can be so much easier for a third party to come up with a third way.
But it is important to remember that we won’t be able to fix everything. The couple that lives in a state of complete harmony is a myth.
Many of your differences can never be completely resolved
You and your partner are two individual people and some of your disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences between you. You probably have different ideas about the kind of lifestyle you want. Your personalities are different. Some of your values will be shared, and others will probably not be.
You can fight about this stuff for years, and some things will change over time. But for the most part it is far more effective (and efficient) to work on understanding and respecting your partner for who they are, rather than on bringing them around to your way of seeing things.
Understanding and Respecting Each Other
The better you get to know your partner, the more interest you take in who they are, what they care about, and what they want from life, the less their imperfections will get on your nerves.
The better you know them, the easier it becomes to understand them, and the more forgiving you will feel of their foibles.
When you are both looking at each other in this way, respect between you will grow.
As you respect each other, and demonstrate that respect, tension dissipates. You come to enjoy each other’s company more.
The friendship you develop protects you against your adversarial feelings. The positive balances out the negative.
When you feel like this, the future looks brighter. You start to assume the best of each other’s intentions, instead of the worst.
That’s the way to get on better.
Effective Couples Counselling – Beyond Conflict Resolution
Effective couples counselling is about more than just learning to listen to each other (although doing that is invaluable). And it goes beyond conflict resolution too.
It’s about understanding what is really going on. Making sense of what is upsetting you.
It’s about remembering what you liked about each other in the first place.
It’s about getting to know each other as you are now. And learning to respect and value each other, even if neither of you is exactly who you first thought they were.
Sometimes when you are in the thick of it, it can be difficult to tell the difference between solvable conflicts, and genuine differences between you. It can be difficult to see how to solve the solvable ones. And it can be really, really hard to work out how to live with the differences between you that just aren’t going to change.
What To Do Next
If you come and see me for couples counselling, I will help you to resolve your solvable conflicts. But we will go beyond that, looking at what else is going on between you. I will help you to shift your focus from each other’s shortcomings to your own feelings and needs, how you can express them more clearly and get them met.
By working on developing the friendship that is the foundation of your partnership, we will go beyond conflict resolution to see how you can make your relationship the best it can be for you both.
If you are interested in going beyond conflict resolution to make a lasting difference to your relationship, give me a call on 07428 396671 or get in touch using the contact form here. If you found this article helpful you can also join my mailing list here.
*From The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, which is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to get on better with their partner.