From Thin-Skin to Win-Win: How Couples Counseling Helps

From Psychology Today

Couples counseling addresses three levels of issues.

Couples counseling strengthens marriages in three ways.

What if you and your loved one are living the opposite of happily ever after? Do your marital issues leave you feeling less than loved and loving in your partnership? Are your disagreements creating tensions and distance between you instead of leading to mutually satisfying solutions?

If your partnership is yielding too much negative energy, maybe it’s time to reverse the trend. How can couples counseling (link is external) help?

While couples counseling encompasses a wide range of philosophies and techniques, three levels of interventions stand out for me as critical for successful outcomes.

1) Skills coaching

An effective marriage therapist will coach the two of you in the skills that enable couples to succeed as partners in life. The therapist also hopefully will guide you in using win-win conflict resolution skills to guide you to new solutions on the issues about which you tend to spin your wheels or fight.

2) Look backwards at the sources

A good marriage counselor can help you to glance backwards to understand how your problems developed. Was there a period of time when your lives became too stressful and you began to turn against each other instead of staying united against the problem?

Also, did you learn to argue from how your parents interacted?

3) Emotionally hyper-sensitive issues.

A potent therapist can help you to identify and clear the subconscious trapped emotions that make strong emotions like anger and anxiety seem to erupt out of nowhere.

The terminology I like best for these three aspects of couple treatment come from my therapy colleague Matthew LeBauer (link is external): How-to, How-come, and Landmines. Thanks Matt!

To illustrate the three levels of intervention, here’s a case from my practice: Jerry and Nora–names changed, of course–sought therapy to end their chronic bickering.

Level I: How-To

Marriage is a high-skilled activity. Technique for communication in relationships (link is external) matters. Jerry and Nora needed coaching to upgrade their skills in four arenas. They learned how to:

1) Talk and listen cooperatively instead of becoming adversarial

2) Keep their interactions in the calm zone, with zero emotional escalations

3) Resolve their differences with what I call the win-win waltz

4) Sustain a steady flow of loving appreciation, affection, and pleasure

Over a series of sessions, plus home practice on my (link is external) website, Jerry and Nora found that as they knew better, they began to do better.

Level II: How-Come

Pulling up old habits by their roots helps make changes permanent. Where had Jerry and Nora learned to bicker? In a household where parents speak English, the kids learn English. If they speak fighting, the kids learn the language of arguing.

Jerry learned in his family to be insistent; whoever hung in there the longest got his way. Nora’s parents were too swamped to listen to the specific preferences of any of their seven children. Nora learned to give up before even saying what she wanted, and then to issue criticisms to vent her disappointment.

As a married couple, Jerry and Nora triggered each others’ skill glitches. Jerry insisted on his way; Nora criticized; Jerry felt judged and snapped back, inviting further criticism from Nora, and round and round they went.

In sum, Nora and Jerry’s conflict patterns stemmed both from the habits they’d learned from their families of origin, and from interaction cycles they’d developed in response to each other.

Level III: Landmines

Identifying and clearing landmines–deeper emotional well-springs of negative feelings–completes the therapy process. Deeper, as described by psychologist John Norcross, refers to subconscious feelings that occurred historically earlier in life, and/or that are less accessible to conscious awareness.

To access clients’ landmine issues, I listen closely:

Clients’ repeated or metaphorical words of distress: “I felt hijacked.”
Thoughts that trigger intense negative feelings: “She doesn’t treat me like number one!”
Specific situations that disturb them unusually strongly: “I hate being interrupted!”
Jerry’s wife’s critical tone of voice could trigger in him a geyser of resentment. While no one likes to receive criticism, Jerry’s hyper-intense response to feeling unjustly accused stemmed from having been the recipient of unjust accusations in his youth. Similarly, Nora’s anger surged when she experienced Jerry as not listening to her.

My favorite techniques for neutralizing landmines are a depth dive, which I describe in my book From Conflict to Resolution (link is external), and energy therapy strategies from Bradley Nelson’s The Emotion Code (link is external).

Jerry and Nora completed all three levels of treatment: How-to, How-come, and Landmines. While they still experience occasional bumps, overall they now enjoy a vastly more collaborative, affectionate and bicker-free relationship. Mission accomplished!