What Couples Need in Therapy — 8 Proven Steps to Lasting Love
And they lived happily ever after.
Wow! We all wish it was so easy! If it were, the world would be quite different, and breakups and divorces would be a thing of the past.
Couples tend to believe that if love is strong, it is “meant to be” and they will live happily with minimal conflict. If not, it was not meant to be, and they must try again and again until they find their “soul mate.” If the truth be told, virtually no couple falls in love and lives happily ever after without a fair amount of conscious work.
As therapists, we need to guide couples to overcome rough spots in their relationships and teach them the skills to create lasting love. But how?
We have seen hundreds of couples in therapy and found that if they overcome eight major areas of conflict, in a step-by-step process, they can achieve a lasting, joyful relationship. Some couples already know how to manage a few of these conflicts, but most need to learn the steps to deal with all eight.
Step 1: A Loving Relationship Requires Appreciation
Appreciation builds positive energy (the spoonful of sugar), where complaints deplete positive energy, unless delivered in a language that can be heard.
In our office, clients are asked to mirror appreciations. This helps them take in the full joy from both the analytical (neocortex) and emotional (limbic) parts of the brain, thus strengthening their love bond. Complaints are also mirrored, empowering the sender who then feels heard.
Step 2: A Loving Relationship Requires Accepting Each Other’s Perspective and Feelings
We teach couples that, even when one disagrees with a partner’s opinion, it is necessary to validate their feelings. These feelings will only change, if ever, after they are accepted. Whether it is an uneasiness when driving on the freeway, worry about a friend, or anger over loud music in a restaurant, one needs to accept the way his or her partner feels.
In the office, Charlie practices listening to Susan’s feelings and beliefs. We teach couples that this type of understanding often brings them closer, generating greater trust. If couples wish to maintain a lasting, joyful relationship, this second step is not optional; it is required.
Step 3: A Loving Relationship Requires Supporting Each Other When Relatives Interfere
Melissa says, “Well, Mom understands and gives me good advice about what to do.”
Of course, we tell her, Mom only hears your side of the story and she is your mom. Speaking to outsiders—meaning anyone but your partner—usually makes things worse. A triangle of three invariably increases conflict. Understanding and resolutions begin with direct, measured, thoughtful discussions between partners, without outside interference.
Step 4: A Loving Relationship Requires Togetherness
Paul says, “Well, I love golf. I can’t change who I am.”
Long-term love requires some adjusting to meet each other’s needs. Relationships
Step 5: A Loving Relationship Requires Physical Intimacy
Clara says, “If Ronald respected me more, intimacy would be much easier for me.”
Sex is an integral part of long-term romantic relationships, except, in unusual cases, where both parties agree to abstain. Developing and maintaining a warm, respectful relationship, with minimal conflict will make it much easier to enjoy physical intimacy. However, individuals have differing levels of desires, and they receive sexual pleasure in different ways. Compromise and open communication is needed to maintain a healthy sex life.
Step 6: A Loving Relationship Requires Accepting Each Other’s Different Values
Stephen says, “I work hard for my money, so we might as well enjoy it.”
Each partner comes into a relationship with different values, shaped by his or her early family experiences and each partner’s particular desires. Partners may have dissimilar feelings about the use of money, expressing spirituality, ways to raise children, how to keep a house, and even how to load the dishwasher. It is necessary to listen and understand each other’s values, even though one’s feelings may be quite different. Therapists need to help couples express themselves fully, mirroring and validating the other’s ideas. When validated, a person is more likely to move to a common ground.
Step 7: A Loving Relationship Requires Accepting and Being Grateful for Character Differences
Fiona says, “I just got this great idea. So what if we’re a few minutes late.”
Character differences are neither right nor wrong; they are how we see the world. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator focuses on the four major differences in individuals’ character. One person may be more practical, another more creative. Some are more extroverted, others more introverted. And some people are punctual and others more laid back. This can cause havoc in a relationship until a couple realizes there are pros and cons to each type, and their relationship would be quite dull if their types were identical. Most people don’t make big changes in their character during their lifetime. Again, a full discussion of feelings and acceptance is the key to something more important: a long-term loving relationship.
Step 8: A Loving Relationship Requires an Equal Partnership
The 8 Steps
— Jon Meyerson, LCSW, practices with his wife, Beverly, a relational coach, in Bethesda, MD, and Sarasota, FL, and they are the coauthors of After the Glass Slipper: 8 Proven Steps to Lasting Love on which this article is based.