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What Couples Need in Therapy — 8 Proven Steps to Lasting Love
By Jon Meyerson, LCSW, and Beverly Meyerson

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
James complains that Paula continually criticizes him. When we ask, “What is she proud of you for?” he looks puzzled. He doesn’t remember one appreciation she had given him during the previous year. When we see Paula privately, she has a list of what she likes about James but quickly follows it up with her complaints. “If I compliment him, he will think he is perfect and he will ignore my needs,” she says.

Au contraire, we tell her. Everyone needs daily doses of appreciation to help our relationships grow. She must hit the delete key on her complaint list and use the insert key to offer as much praise as she can muster. Bombarding our partner with criticism does not encourage cooperation.

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
Charlie tells us that “Susan never wants to move from this area because her parents live nearby. She’s so stubborn that she won’t even talk about moving.”

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
Eric tells us thatMelissa is on the phone with her mom so much, I’m beginning to visualize her ear as a piece of plastic. She tells her mom about every argument we have, and I feel I am fighting a war against Melissa, her mom, and every girlfriend she speaks with.”

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
Robert tells us, “My partner, Paul, is always playing golf, planning his golf game, or watching golf on TV. We no longer have romantic walks, and our conversation is limited.”

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
fade if too much time is spent apart. Ideally, partners should find common interests, but this doesn’t mean each partner can’t also continue his or her own special pastimes.

Step 5: A Loving Relationship Requires Physical Intimacy
Ronald says, “Sex was great for both of us during our first two years of marriage, but recently, I’ve had to beg for months and she rarely accepts and seems bored.”

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
Carla says, “I can’t believe how he wants to waste money on a fancy car just to show off for his friends!”

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
Samantha tells us that “I don’t believe Fiona is still fussing with her art work when we have to meet friends at a restaurant in 37 minutes!”

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
When either person feels that he or she is not up to par with a partner, there is bound to be resentment. These feelings can cause anger and resentment for years. Long-term love requires a feeling of equality. This doesn’t mean equality in all aspects. Abilities differ. One may be a smooth talker at social events, the other may be quicker witted. One may be more artistic and the other more organized. But if there is a continual feeling of one person being more dominant in all ways, conflict is inevitable. When feelings of inequality are not discussed, one or even both partners may feel they are not valued in the relationship. As with many conflicts, it is necessary to discuss current feelings and decide what changes are needed.

The 8 Steps
Yes, it is possible to live happily ever after, after these steps get the serious consideration they deserve. We have found that these eight steps help couples focus on ways to resolve conflict, thus using a more conscious way of improving their relations. The eight need not be covered exactly in this order; however, it works well to begin with appreciations and end with the issue of equality.

— 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.