When a couple is in distress or adrift they may seek professional help to mend their relationship or get back on track to rediscover their underlying friendship, and willingness to commit to active love, in all the mundane moments as well as the grand gestures.
Whether they present with infidelity, a growing emotional chasm emerging between them due to living parallel lives, or they lack emotion regulation and communication skills, there are a set of principles that are necessary for couples to mend breaches. How these principles are implemented into their shared lives will vary. While the principles underlying interventions and treatments are the same across couples, they don’t require a strict cookie-cutter application. They can be modified to express the unique personalities of shared lives.
WHAT COUPLES NEED
When couples gift me with the honor of being their therapist. I assess the marital dynamics, of course, and especially their respective willingness to receive feedback and commit to an intentional engagement with their marriage and to take a disciplined and active application of skills training in mindfulness, emotion regulation, and active validation of self and others.
Willingness. Adopting willingness is the stance of yes toward life in general, and toward one’s own experience, as well as shared relational experience in the context of marriage. Willingness can be expressed in softening resistance toward one’s own difficult emotions and softening one’s own reactive and rigid thoughts and attitudes about their partner, and opening to a We, and seeing marriage as a shared experience between two human beings who desire to be loved and who also desire to love others.
Willingness opens couples to refreshing dynamism and energy for their relationship. Willingness is opening to truly understanding others and new learning that allows them to be agile, flexible, and responsive to one another, validating themselves and others. Willingness is also an attitudinal space from which people can be open to learning new skills to enhance their attentional (mindfulness) regulation and their emotion regulation.
Mindfulness. In learning mindfulness, couples are learning to become more acquainted with their own thoughts and feelings, within themselves, respectively, and between them and their spouse. Mindfulness helps couples to identify the many assumptions and reactive judgments they make about themselves and their partners.
Mindfulness helps them to identify their automatic and conditioned thoughts, which they tend to take as facts, even their interpretations and judgments. Mindfulness helps them to see their thoughts, labeling them as thoughts rather than letting themselves believe everything they think. Mindfulness also leads to increased slowing of one’s own old reactions allowing for new responses to emerge, a space from which the partners may actually choose their responses and as responsiveness replaces reaction, these responses also become increasingly aligned with their deep values and desires to love one another and to overcome old dichotomies and bring increasing marital synergy over old polarization.
Emotion Regulation. Couples are often surprised to learn that emotion regulation skills are absolutely necessary for improving their relationships. Couples learn that many of their relational ruptures happen in the presence of emotional flooding, and are often related to amygdala hijack.
Couples are often caught in the habit of co-escalation, as Mariah Warden calls it, rather than co-regulation, as Stephen Porges calls it. With emotion regulation, couples learn that their emotions are valid and important to how they relate within themselves as well as to one another. They learn that most of their connection, or their disconnection, has an emotional depth that laces their daily interactions with textures and layers beyond words.
Through emotion regulation training, I teach couples how emotions work in general, for survival and for connecting to one another and family, and how to dance with them in order to be effective in being guided by emotions and in turn guiding them with a focus on personal responsibility. Emotion regulation training also entails adopting lifestyle changes in daily life that increase emotional resilience. With mindfulness and emotion regulation, spouses learn how to subordinate emotions to principles. Over time, with willingness, couples join together with synergy to work toward their shared wellness, joy, and meaning.
Validation: When you feel seen, hear, and felt, you experience validation. You experience the sense of being understood and you feel as though others take you seriously. Validation is not affirmation, nor is it encouragement or compliments. These are lovely practices to exercise within a marriage, even toward oneself. Spouses need to practice validating the emotions and experiences of their partners, expressing that they are at least trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of their beloved. Likewise, each spouse is taught how to label their own emotional experiences with mindfulness practices, and come to take their own emotions as a given, whether they are driving connection or conflict.
When spouses feel validated they feel understood, and they tend to feel safe and engaged with one another. This opens space for increased shared presence that fosters trust and real intimacy over time. And it all starts with willingness.