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Peter van Veggel, Business Manager

I dare to say it, but one-size-fits-all, perfect relationships only exist in Hollywood. Disagreements happen. I believe that unless you’re involved in severe problems, you do not need to throw away a relationship just because you have hit a rough patch. Listening and researching to so many stories about why marriages fall apart over the past few years has really opened my eyes to what makes a marriage thrive and what makes it deteriorate. Seeing a psychologist should not be viewed as an admission of failure in a marriage, but rather as a tool to help you to work on your communication. Whether you’re in therapy to mend your relationship after a conflict, explore communication tools and techniques, or something in between, a multidisciplinary approach to couples therapy should be all about what you and your partner want. Your psychologist should be supportive of this. In taking an interdisciplinary approach, I do not just follow a strict protocol therapy, but rather I open the purpose of our meetings to other models which may be supportive of your goals. Like many successful psychologists, my approach to couple’s therapy does not mean thinking outside or inside the box, but about thinking without a box. In fact, we believe that properly trained psychologist in couples therapy should be multidisciplinary in setting a specific plan rather than setting an ambiguous goal, such as to “improve communication between the two of you.”

One of the largest prevailing themes I notice in couples in conflict relates to when couples get into heated discussions that ultimately give rise to anger. This particularly happens at approximately the five-year mark, where these couples do not ‘fight fair’ and anger becomes dangerous and destructive emotion for couples because it is linked to hostility and aggression. I am not saying that it is not perfectly normal for couples to express irritability and frustration at time, but we must be aware of when emotions such as these interfere with one’s marriage to the point where divorce seems to become a common discussion and/or option. In all actuality, it may even be harmful for psychologists to attempt to get couples to not show any expression of anger.

Dr. John Gottman, an expert in marital therapy and a researcher, believes that anger itself is not so bad, but that the way in which anger is expressed is crucial. In fact, Dr. Gottman ‘s research suggests that fighting in and of itself is not the problem. Furthermore, his research suggests that couples who do not fight at all are more likely to end up divorced- who would have thought!

Dr. Gottman’s marital therapy techniques aim to help couples learn to manage conflict by changing the balance between positive and negative exchanges before, during and after martial conflict. In addition, the Gottman Method Couple Therapy attempts to help couples overcome the negative influences created in the exchange of criticism, defensive behaviours and disrespect of one another. This method also helps couples manage conflict by learning that there are differences between the individuals in the relationship that will never go away and that the individuals must learn to adapt to these differences.

According to Dr. Gottman, when anger is combined with the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, the result is toxic and can escalate the negativity in your relationship. The ‘Four Horsemen’ of Gottman’s model are:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

The superior fundamentals of a relationship are communication skills, which includes conflict management skills. Conflict management is about partners learning to communicate with your spouse in ways that do not make them defensive and in ways that make you feel as if your opinion in being heard. Moreover, in couple’s therapy, it is essential that both partners are heard without inciting a powerful argument or total closure. Unique to the Gottman Method of Couple Therapy is the use of “soft startups”. The use of soft startups refers to the avoidance of using the ‘Four Horsemen’, and specifically criticism when discussing problem-solving discussions of sensitive issues, such as couple differences. The Gottman Method urges you to take responsibility for your behaviours, build a culture of appreciation and follow the aftermath with some psychological self-soothing or taking a break when needed. A therapist trained in the Gottman Method of Couple Therapy can also help you learn techniques to soothe your spouse.

Lastly, collaboratively with a trained therapist, this method can be used to help you tackle a solvable problem, by looking at the problem and then looking for common bases for agreement.

It can be easy for individuals to find themselves with disagreements that lead to arguments and/or conflict. Communication challenges often lead to relationship troubles. Resentments and hostility can turn into anger, and anger can be a very dangerous feeling. Learning to neutralize anger with compassion for your partner can help work towards forgiveness. However, forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting, and the conflict usually still must be dealt with. Partaking in couples counseling services can help couples proactively end conflict avoidance, by empowering them with the skills needed to build pro-relationship language and thoughts to assist them in inevitable disputes. A multidisciplinary psychologist can help explore the reasons why communication issues occur and assist in working through any difficulty that occurs as a result of frequent communication issues. Counselling services can also help you identify the ‘Four Horsemen’ you may unknowingly engage with. The goal of using the Gottman Method in this way is to cultivate a greater understanding of the conflict process, while paying close attention to the common barriers to communication and their antidotes, such as the ‘Four Horsemen’.

Depending on one’s specific situation, those in need of professional support, from a psychologist who specializes in marriage guidance, can benefit from couple’s therapy where a trained couple’s therapist can help individuals examine communication strategies and encourage conflict management skills. Couple’s therapy can facilitate the improvement of communication and conflict management skills, leading to more successful conflict-resolution in relationships. This can be very helpful in dealing with resolvable conflict, whereby you can learn how to efficiently compromise. Marriage guidance can also help give the term forgiveness a new meaning and change your life. In working with a psychologist trained in the Gottman Method of Couple Therapy and other psychotherapy techniques, you can learn how to work towards practicing forgiveness so that it leads to a long-lasting healthy relationship.


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