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2006 September/October

2006 September/October (5)

Friday, 26 December 2008 13:26

The Art and Science of Love

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The Art and Science of Love

Can the Gottmans Bring Empirical Rigor to the Intuitive World of Couples Therapy?

By Katy Butler

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in a specially outfitted studio apartment in Seattle that reporters nicknamed the "love lab," mathematician-turned-psychologist John Gottman videotaped ordinary couples in their most ordinary moments--playing solitaire, chatting, kissing, disagreeing, watching TV, cooking dinner.

Sometimes Gottman, then a professor at the University of Washington, asked them to discuss an area of conflict while monitors strapped to their chests recorded their heart rates. Sometimes he sat them on spring-loaded platforms to record how much they fidgeted. He looked at how they brought up painful subjects, how they responded to each other's bids for attention, how they fought and joked, and how they expressed emotion.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, he and his colleagues studied newlyweds, men who battered their wives, couples who shouted a lot, and others who beat around the bush and never raised their voices. He used an elaborate coding system to track not only their verbal exchanges, but less obvious indicators of emotion: flickering facial expressions, sighs, clammy hands, rolling eyes, and galloping heartbeats. He followed some of the couples for more than two decades, recording who got divorced, who established parallel lives, and who stayed together--more or less happily.

He then took his data and translated them into numbers, quantifying an area of human life usually relegated to the psychotherapist and the novelist. Using complex computer models, he found that he could predict divorce with 91-percent accuracy, simply by analyzing seven variables in a couple's behavior during a five-minute disagreement. What he discovered made him famous. He appeared on network television and was immortalized by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. Most of what we reliably know about marriage and divorce in its natural state comes from his work.

In the course of studying more than 3,000 couples, Gottman discovered that most of them fought, and that even the most happily married couples never resolved 69 percent of their conflicts. When they returned to his lab at four-year intervals, the issues and even the phrases were essentially the same. Only their clothing and hairstyles changed.


What was crucial, Gottman learned, wasn't whether a couple fought, but how. Among those couples whose marriages survived well, whom Gottman and his colleagues came to call the "masters of marriage," wives raised issues gently, and brought them up sooner rather than later. Neither husbands nor wives regularly became so upset with each other that their heart rates rose above 95 beats a minute. They broke rising tension with jokes, reassurance, and distractions. They didn't escalate their arguments.

Faced with a request or complaint from their wives (and 80 percent of the complaints did come from wives), the successful husbands didn't play king or cross their arms like rebellious teenagers. Instead they changed their behavior--doing more dishes, working fewer hours, giving more than lip service to their wives' dreams, or taking an older child to the park to give an exhausted new mother a break. When news of these findings hit the newspapers in the late 1990s, my boyfriend at the time called it the "yes, dear" path to marital harmony.

Perhaps most notable, the master couples made at least 5 positive remarks or gestures toward each other for every zinger during a fight ; in calmer times, their positive-to-negative ratio was an astounding 20 to 1.

The "masters of disaster" in Gottman's study group--those who eventually divorced--fought differently. Wives raised issues harshly--especially when their husbands ignored them or put them down. (He named the wives' openers "harsh start-ups.") The husbands got upset more easily during arguments like these and had a harder time calming themselves down. And 94 percent of the time, conflicts that opened harshly didn't get any better as they went along.

Rather than complaining about specifics, the wives frequently globalized their criticisms, using phrases like "you never" and rhetorical questions like "What's wrong with you?" The husbands, for their part, frequently shut down, playing emotional possum or becoming as blank as a cement wall. The reverberation between them was so toxic that Gottman named criticism and stonewalling as two of his Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse. (The other two are defensiveness and contempt.) The presence of the Four Horsemen alone, he found, combined with pulse rates that rose above 95 beats per minute during a disagreement, were highly reliable predictors of divorce.

The background music of the less successful relationships, not surprisingly, was halting. In both happy and unhappy couples, partners made plenty of subtle bids for attention, closeness, or reassurance. But the partners headed for divorce responded to each other's bids only 33 percent of the time, while the happy couples' response rate was 86 percent.


Finally, Gottman's research showed him that it wasn't only how the couple fought that mattered, but how they made up afterward--what he called a "repair," echoing the language of engineering. In a longitudinal study of 130 newlywed couples published in 1998, Gottman found that 83 percent of marriages initially exhibiting the Four Horsemen became stable over time, as long as the couple learned to reconcile successfully after a fight.

Then in 1994, John Gottman went canoeing in Puget Sound off Orcas Island with his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, an experienced clinical psychologist in her own right. Mindful of the dismal showing of most existing couples therapies in outcome studies, he suggested that they combine his research and her therapeutic wisdom to fashion a science-based couples therapy.

They began writing a manual that night. Later they organized weekend workshops and started a Seattle clinic eventually staffed by 16 clinicians. In 1998, they began leading advanced trainings for therapists. By 2004, 4,000 couples had gone through their workshops or their clinic. By 2006, more than 3,000 therapists had taken a basic training workshop with them, 65 therapists had been certified in their approach, and 600 more were well on their way to certification.

The Gottmans call their new approach Gottman Method Couples Therapy. It braids together classic therapeutic skills with two new elements: scientific dispassion and scientific authority. The dispassion comes from their extensive use of assessment and feedback, a legacy of John's research training. More than 30 pen-and-paper questionnaires are methodically administered to each partner before therapy begins; videotaping and heart-monitoring are part of therapy itself. The authority comes from the research showing that therapists using this approach can decisively stop their clients from exercising the Four Horsemen of contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. They can teach their clients the behavioral skills used by Gottman's "masters of marriage," including little kindnesses that build a strong marital friendship, and tools to regulate conflict. Perhaps most important, the dispassion, structure, and authority of the approach act as counterweights to the discouragement and chaos often generated by couples in trouble--emotional storms that blow many a therapist into taking sides or losing control altogether.

Last April, Brian, my almost husband, and I flew from San Francisco to Seattle to attend a two-day weekend couples workshop with the Gottmans called "The Art and Science of Love."


Starting Out

An old joke says that women marry expecting men to change, and men marry expecting women not to. Even though we aren't yet married--we're both long divorced from other people--Brian and I fill that bill. I want him to dress better, set limits with his adult sons, and change his job. He wants me to lighten up. After seven years together, he still leaves me notes saying how much he loves me, and I still bring coffee and the newspaper up to our bedroom on Saturday mornings. But much as I hate to admit it, if John Gottman installed a video camera in our home, he'd sometimes catch us cohabiting with the Four Horsemen. I'm a master at the harsh start-up. I've ambushed Brian with pressing concerns when he's still half-asleep, rolled my eyes contemptuously during arguments, and couched my complaints as variants of "What's wrong with you?"

Brian, for his part, has often promised to consult me before inviting his sons to stay with us--and hasn't. I moved into his house six years ago, and I still sometimes feel perched there, overwhelmed by free-floating testosterone. He doesn't always keep agreements, and when I want a straight answer, he can fend me off with stonewalling and an evasive Irish-American jokiness that drives me up the wall. By the time we flew to Seattle, we'd begun avoiding some of our most tender differences rather than risk a fight.

That, in a nutshell, is our shared emotional climate at 9:40 a.m. on a windy Saturday last spring. We sit together in the front row of a huge conference room, packed with couples in similar straits, not far from the old Seattle World's Fair Space Needle. John and Julie Gottman are standing in front of us, warning us about the Four Horsemen, and suggesting that instead of tackling our most upsetting issues head-on, we start obliquely, building a "culture of appreciation" for each other. In sum, they want us to improve our background music.

"If you make a very small correction," John Gottman says, "doing stuff that seems natural and small, over time, it'll make a big difference." The idea is to fiddle with thousands of tiny daily interactions--things so seemingly trivial that it's hard to imagine they'd make any difference at all--as if we're fine-tuning a complex carburetor.


"You build romance and passion and great sex through little moments," he goes on, citing tidbits of his research showing that unhappy couples often respond positively to each other--just not often enough. He's 64 and slight, with a white beard and luminous eyes. He's wearing a bright-red tie and a yarmulke, but there's something about the way he sometimes throws out terms like "vasoconstriction" and "chance levels of prediction" that makes it easy to imagine him in a white lab coat.

I wonder if Brian is getting bored.

John's wife Julie, who's the copresenter of the workshop, is 55, zaftig, humorous, and easy, with long, curling, black-gray hair and the full, low, soothing voice of a practiced psychotherapist. She wears sensible shoes and a therapist-as-priestess black and white kimono, banded with images drawn from Haida Indian totem poles.

Joining Brian and me in the audience are about 200 other couples from many states in the union, in varying states of wedded bliss and distress. Most have paid $600 to be here. Some women lean forward, their expressions hopeful, rapt, or desperate. Some men sit back with their arms crossed, like attendees at a weekend traffic school.

Sometimes I poke an elbow into Brian to underline a point. Every now and again he whispers to me, "Let's acknowledge the men!" amazed that so many have agreed to be here on the opening weekend of the NBA basketball playoffs.

On our laps are melon-colored, three-ring binders entitled "The Art and Science of Love." What differentiates this workshop from others on the market, the binder says, is that it's grounded not in idealistic notions of what marriage ought to be, but on "solid research on what actually works in relationships that are happy and stable."

Embedded in this sentence is a clinical hypothesis: that unhappy couples can be taught to do what happy couples do. This assumption underlies not only this workshop and Gottman Method Couples Therapy, but also aspects of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the Positive Psychology movement, and Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavior Therapy.


The hypothesis assumes that unhappy couples have the maturity and the emotional wherewithal at least to try to treat each other differently. I wonder if that's true for me.

There's another difference between this and other couples approaches that the binder doesn't mention: the Gottmans' work is men-friendly. Some of the language that their therapy uses--"relationship repair," "overrides," and "harsh start-ups," for instance--could have come from a car-repair manual. It's a dirty little secret that men are often dragged to couples therapy, and feel emotionally illiterate or ganged-up-on once they get there. The exercises in our binders, however, look doable, practical, and circumscribed, rather than like an endless dive into the amorphous emotional depths.

The workshop's goal is to help us learn to imitate Gottman's long-married master couples. The bedrock of their successful relationships, it's explained, is marital friendship, built granule upon granule, through tiny rituals of courtesy, kindness, humor, and appreciation. Successful couples, have large "cognitive maps" of each other's worlds. They're curious about each other's inner lives, and they don't stint on expressing their appreciation for each other. When one of them makes a subtle bid for attention--something as simple as "look at the pretty boats"--the other one usually responds positively.

This system of mutual stroking, according to the Gottmans' model, produces "positive sentiment override"--an emotional tipping point that allows spouses to think, in tense moments, "My sweetie must be having a hard day" rather than "What a jerk!" or "He doesn't love me." And that makes it easier to disagree without being disagreeable.

It all seems eminently doable, but I'm not convinced. For me, the complex weather of human relationships conforms more closely to the dynamics of chaos theory than to Newtonian physics. The Gottmans' structure seems too linear and mechanistic. But maybe, I think with a glance at Brian, who's paying close attention, it's an image that works for men.

In unhappy couples, the presenters continue, the relative dearth of positive feedback engenders a destructive cognitive shift over time to "negative sentiment override"--essentially, assuming the worst about one's partner. This leads to what John Gottman calls the "fundamental attribution error"--a default setting of blame, in which all the problems in the relationship are the partner's fault. Fights escalate and become a contest of wills, replete with the Four Horsemen. Both partners get painfully flooded with emotion and sometimes withdraw. Over time, this can result in a cascade of isolation, distance, loneliness, parallel lives, and eventual divorce.


When I hear this, I think of the morning 15 years ago, not long before my marriage ended, when my former husband sat opposite me at our kitchen table and gently stroked my head with the tip of a three-foot dowel, like a lobster using his antenna to groom a mate he dared not touch.

But that was a long time ago. Today, in a series of unthreatening exercises, I have a chance to do things differently. During the weekend, the Gottmans explain, Brian and I will be taught how to put deposits in our joint "emotional bank account" and engender "positive sentiment override." We'll learn to soothe each other and ourselves. And finally we'll develop ways to manage the conflicts we can't resolve, honor each other's dreams, and create a life of shared meaning.

No longer drifting in a river of emotion, I find myself looking at our relationship dispassionately, with the mind of a scientist. I realize how often Brian pays me compliments, and how seldom I compliment him. I ask myself: Why not be nicer? Where's the risk? "I don't give as many small things," I write in my notebook. "I need to criticize less. I need to learn softened start-up. I need to listen when he's overwhelmed. I need to learn when I'm overwhelmed."

And when John Gottman says how important it is for men to make cognitive room for their wives' dreams and accept their wives' influence, I think of times I've felt run over or ignored, and I give Brian an elbow-poke.

A few minutes later, the introductory lecture concludes and the Gottmans send us out to adjoining breakout rooms for the "Love Map," our first partner exercise. We find two chairs facing each other and begin. One by one, Brian and I turn over cards we've taken from a plastic pocket in our binder and guess the answers to questions like, "Who is your partner's best friend? What are his or her dreams and aspirations? Who is his or her favorite poet?"

I miss his favorite magazine-- Mother Jones --but get both of his second choices right-- Rolling Stone and Time. He gets all of my magazines right except The New Yorker. I name his best friend and he names mine, but I realize there are two women whom I talk to daily whose names he doesn't even know. These women are aware that I dream of selling my house in Mill Valley and building a straw-bale house from scratch in the dairy country near Tomales Bay, and going there to write. I've never told Brian about this dream. Mired in our day-to-day struggles, I realize, we seldom talk about our larger hopes and aspirations.


I miss his favorite poet--John O'Donohue--but get the next two right--Uriah Mountain Dreamer and Mary Oliver. He misses my favorite poet--Mary Oliver--but gets the next one right: Jane Hirshfield.

We feel close and happy. This is fun. Brian loves the exercise. He says he wants us to do this once a month when we get home.

So the day goes. Every hour or so, after a minilecture and a role-play from the two Gottmans, we stream out of the auditorium with our binders into adjoining breakout rooms to do little exercises with our partners. Along the walls stand roving therapists certified (or close to being certified) in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Every now and again, a distressed or confused husband or wife holds up a small red card--like the penalty card in soccer--and a clinician quietly moves in like a therapeutic AAA truck to coach them.

Now we pick from a deck of "opportunity cards" that suggest ways we can turn toward each other. Brian nixes the notion of spending an evening discussing what I'd like to change about the interior of the house, but promises to plan a weeklong getaway when we get home. He turns down my offer to bring flowers home, but asks me to surprise him with tickets to a concert. We look down a list in the binder and circle things like "doing a favorite activity together," "playing together," "taking vacations together," and "time to make love." It's shocking to realize how hard we work, how long it's been since we went biking together in the country, and how much we'd like to do it again some time.

We're working behaviorally, moving up stair-steps like the itsy-bitsy spider, building the foundation of what the Gottmans call our "sound relationship house." The structure resembles Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs--starting with a solid friendship, proceeding to negotiating conflicts, and then to higher-level relationship needs. The Gottmans' goal isn't for couples to achieve a relationship rivaling Antony and Cleopatra's, but rather to learn how to have a good-enough marriage. A marriage is good enough, John Gottman once wrote, "If the two spouses choose to have coffee and pastries together on a Saturday afternoon and really enjoy the conversation, even if they don't heal one another's childhood wounds or don't always have wall-socket, mind-blowing, skyrocket sex."


The day proceeds. Between exercises, we take breaks for tea and pile little paper plates with grapes and slices of cut pineapple. The Gottmans don't drag any of us onstage to open our hearts in front of strangers. They don't deliver any aren't-I-smart paradoxical interventions, tell us that men are from Mars, or teach us how to exchange quid-pro-quos, like "I'll do the dishes and stroke your back if you'll have more sex with me." They don't suggest that marriage is a sexual crucible, as David Schnarch holds, or that it's a God-given opportunity for deep emotional healing, as Imago's Helen Hunt and Harville Hendrix contend. They just want us to create small, gentle changes in the trajectory of our relationships--ones that might create big payoffs if practiced over time.

A good Gottman marriage, I start to think, is a bit like a 16-foot scale model of an ocean liner made from 194,000 toothpicks and seven gallons of glue. They don't want to us to remake ourselves from scratch. They're handing us toothpicks, some glue, and a blueprint.

Struggling to Open Up

The next exercise, after lunch, is a step more intimate. We turn to a checklist in our binders, choose three positive qualities we see in our partners, and tell each other about them.

Brian checks that I'm "thrifty," "creative," and "a great friend," and writes comments like "you know your limits . . . smart bright writer and teacher . . . I trust you."

I'm touched.

I decide he is "virile," "committed," "protective," and "playful," remembering how he took care of both of our airline boarding passes and insisted we squeeze in a ferry ride on Puget Sound before the workshop began.

He smiles.

Like many couples, we come back to the big room hand in hand.

Next, after Brian takes a break, hovering around the tables laid out with tea and cut fruit, comes practicing a "stress reducing conversation." Learning to buffer our relationship from the stresses of the world, the Gottmans say, is critical to maintaining closeness over time. This means being Brian's ally, his sympathetic ear, his cheerleader, and not his educator, coach, critic, or mentor--a big shift for me.

For once, I simply listen and accept when he tells me he's so stressed by his job that he doesn't have the energy to change it. Instead of giving him a checklist of things to do, I take in his exhaustion and fragility.

When it's my turn, and I talk about wanting to drop a work responsibility, he says, "What stops you from doing something about it?" I feel reprimanded. I ask him to just listen. Then I speak not only of my own driven work habits, but of my difficulty saying no and of the day long ago when my beloved father beat me badly when I was caught after running away.

Brian takes my hand, looks in my eyes, and tells me he's never before really "gotten" what my childhood was like. He has tears in his eyes.

What we've just done together sounds so innocuous--a standard-issue exercise in reflective listening. I've done things like it before, although never with someone I'm so close to. And we've gone deeper than I expected. This isn't territory the Gottmans warned us about. I wonder if there are hidden reasons why Brian and I don't treat each other better, and marvel at how easily intimate partnerships can reawaken the hurts of our first deep connections. For a long time--perhaps since the end of my marriage, perhaps since childhood--I've been Miss Hard-Boiled, making sure I didn't risk too much closeness. Now that I've been more open with Brian (and vice versa) my heart hurts.

As it turns out, I'm not alone. Others in the rooms here seem to have emotional reasons--far deeper than mere ignorance or lack of skill--for not being able to "act as if" and do what happy couples do. A man to my left spends big chunks of time either reading the New York Times sports section or sitting with his eyes half-closed. To my right, before another exercise, one woman stays behind in the auditorium, hanging onto her husband and sobbing inconsolably. I wonder about her story: what long-ago childhood betrayal or recent affair fuels her tears? Another man and woman stand outside smoking in the courtyard, not talking, not touching, just staring into space. Are they too far down the "distance and isolation cascade" to turn back? Around the breakout rooms, red cards fly up. Two sets of chairs away from us, a man points to his wife accusingly. "I saw it!" he says. "You rolled your eyes! That's contempt!"


That night, Brian and I have a lovely dinner at an Italian restaurant across from our hotel. We bemoan the fact that we didn't set aside a few extra days just for fun, and swear we're going to come back to Seattle again sometime without work obligations. As we look over the bill and recap the day, Brian casually says, "I don't know about the love maps. What difference does it make if I know who your favorite poet is?"

This strikes one of my enduring vulnerabilities: my fear of never being known or understood. Quicker than thought, I say harshly, "You're missing the point." In his eyes, I see reflected the altar boy he once was, being reprimanded by a nun. For a moment, the good feelings of the day are scattered like toothpicks.

We've been here before: what the Gottmans would call my "harsh start-up" has hurt what I'd call the little boy inside my man. Brian starts a slow, sustained, invisible burn. It's little comfort to me that Gottman found many couples like us when he did his research: sensitive couples who easily got hurt; men incurious about their partner's life; women who felt ignored and therefore hit their men over the head with a rhetorical two-by-four to make a point. Those were the couples who often ended up getting divorced.

Later that night, we lie side by side on a huge king-sized bed. We aren't touching. It's a smoking room: the little hotel is full of couples from the workshop, and by the time we signed up, this was the only room left. The smell of smoke is in the air, especially now that we've closed the windows against the evening cold. Brian is on his side, turned away from me, angry.

"Nothing's ever good enough for you," he says.

I think of the toxic effects of the Four Horsemen, and that gives me the wherewithal to tell Brian that's a criticism rather than a complaint. Then, borne on the stream of the workshop, I reach out my hand and stroke his back. I hear two sets of footsteps, and a door open and close down the hall.


I stroke Brian's back and shoulder for a long time, as the light in the room fades. I wonder whether his heart rate is over 95 beats a minute, remembering John Gottman's remarks not long before the workshop day ended about the physical flooding or "diffuse physiological arousal" that often occurs when couples fight: cortisol is secreted, the heart races and the blood pumps, perceptions narrow, and the processing of new information virtually ceases. Men respond more intensely than women to a stressor, like a gunshot; they're more likely to sustain angry thoughts after a fight; and their hearts take much more time to slow down again. Through the years, this recurrent neurological cascade can damage men's immune and cardiovascular systems. This gender difference may help explain why women often are more wiling to engage in emotionally upsetting conversations than are men.

As I lie there, I also remember Julie Gottman telling us, in her soothing, therapeutic voice, that it isn't the fight that matters so much as how the couple repairs things afterward. So I murmur, doing my best to own my part in things, and to nudge Brian gently to forgive me. I'm not in a rush, happy simply stroking him, simply feeling his skin. Finally he makes a joke--the kind of thing Gottman says that his master couples do to break tension. He turns to face me, and when he's naked like this, his bright eyes and grey beard somehow remind me of the battle-scarred Ulysses returning, almost unrecognizable after 20 years, to his faithful Penelope.

Finally, after hours of closeness, we sleep.

Learning How to Fight

On the morning of day two of the workshop, the Gottmans show us that they, too, fight, and not always gracefully. They've been married for 20 years. Both were married before, they've told me, and both came from painful, though decidedly different, family backgrounds.

John was born in the Dominican Republic to poor Jewish refugees from Vienna who had lost 24 members of their extended families to the Holocaust. Julie was raised in Portland, Oregon, where her father was a successful doctor and her mother a depressed incest survivor. Her early family life was so painful that she often slept in the woods.


John found a refuge at MIT, in the precision of mathematics and science. He admits he was "clueless" about male-female relationships as a teenager, and later decided that since he wasn't succeeding at relationships, he might as well study them. Over the years, he slowly learned to imitate what his master couples did. Julie, by contrast, had visions in the woods calling her to become a healer. She became a clinical psychologist, working with trauma survivors and Vietnam veterans, and she served long apprenticeships with two American Indian medicine women. I sometimes I wonder how they ever learned to respect, much less integrate, their different ways of being.

The fact that it's not always easy is laid bare on Sunday morning, when they reprise an old fight and role-play "repair." Julie begins by describing how she'd woken up one morning having dreamt that John had been flirting with other women. Already anxious about an upcoming speech, she'd wandered into the bathroom, where John was brushing his teeth. She'd told him her dream. He'd murmured reassuringly and hugged her for what seemed to her like a few seconds and what seemed to him like a long, long time.

He'd turned away--abruptly, Julie thought--and she'd gotten into the shower, feeling even more alone.

Now John takes up the thread, describing how he'd thought to himself, Wait a second! He'd apologized to Julie for things he'd done in a dream --things he hadn't actually done and wasn't thinking of doing. Hadn't he been cleaning up around the house lately, the way she asked him to, without much acknowledgement? Hadn't he been cooking her lots of great fish dinners? She has some nerve, having this dream about me being a louse, he said to himself. Don't we have enough problems during the day without her making up new ones at night?!

Then before he knew it, John said, he was snapping at Julie, and she was standing in the shower in tears.

I glance down at the page in my binder entitled "Aftermath of a Fight or Disagreement" and its subheads: Share Your Subjective Reality, Find Something in Your Partner's Story that You Can Understand, Are You Flooded? Admitting Your Own Role, and Making It Better in the Future.


I think of times, in my marriage and in long-gone relationships, when I, like Julie, wanted reassurance and had gotten none. At such times, I'd usually decided that I'd picked the wrong man to be with. The Gottmans don't go there. I feel almost naughty listening in on their argument, as if they've raised a black curtain and I'm watching them pole-dance or violate some other cultural taboo. In this culture, very little gets said about the years after the honeymoon, the years that fairytales call "Happily Ever After" and Joseph Campbell called the "spiritual ordeal" of ordinary marriage. If Brian and I had an interchange this painful--and we did just last night, and haven't fully recovered yet--I'd be tempted to tell nobody for fear of hearing, "What a jerk! Why do you put up with him?" or "Why does he put up with you?"

Modeling imperfection for us, the Gottmans show the normality of relationship angst--even recurrent angst. On the surface, they're teaching us behavioral skills and evidence-based techniques--how to understand your partner's equally valid reality, and how to reconcile. But on the metalevel, what they're teaching doesn't come from John's research. It's wordless and embodied--a normalizing of the fact that little things can set off surprising ambushes of hurt in intimate relationships. After watching the Gottmans in action, Brian and I don't look so odd to me.

"My subjective reality is that I come from a background where I was beaten up," Julie goes on as they model the process of repair. "I don't have a lot of self-confidence, especially when I have to give speeches to powerful people."

"I dream symbolically," she continues. "The person in the dream becomes the symbol of someone who's hurting me."

"So I become . . . .?" interjects John.

"You're not supposed to talk now," Julie says quickly. "As a good little psychologist ( Do I detect contempt, humor, or just anxiety here? I wonder fleetingly), I thought you'd understand that my dream is sym-bol-ic. I needed you to be by my side, and you couldn't be, and I felt very alone."

Then Julie softens, moving to find something in her partner's story that she can understand. "You try so hard to be a good husband--and you are a good husband." She starts to sniffle.


"Are you flooded?" John asks gently.

"Yes I am," she says. She turns away and takes a few deep breaths.

"I'm a little flooded, too," says John. "Let's take a minute to calm down."

"I have been taking you for granted," Julie goes on after a pause. "Perhaps I haven't made time for good things between us because we're both so darn busy. And you have been making some fabulous fish dinners"

Now it's John's turn to share his subjective reality. "Things haven't been going the way I wanted them to at work," he says, referring to a major federal grant that hadn't come through. He adds, "I haven't had time to play music, and when I don't, I'm mad at the world."

A little while later, as they move toward making it better in the future, John asks, "Next time, would you tell me that your dream is symbolic, so I'm not expected to be a psychologist all the time?"

"What if I say, ´I'm so raw, so vulnerable, I really need a good long hug?'" asks Julie.

John hesitates, pauses, and agrees, without enthusiasm.

"Okay," says Julie. "We're done."

"No we're not," says John. "What's one thing you could do differently?

Julie cocks her head.

"I could start by saying, ´This dream isn't really about you,'" she says.


"That's great!" says John, with apparently genuine enthusiasm and surprise. "Okay! Are we buddies?"

If only it were that simple, I think.

A Fight That Deepens Connection

Now it's our turn. We stream out to the breakout room again. Brian takes an inordinately long time getting slices of pineapple and tea.

Our assignment is to take a minor, resolvable conflict and process it the way the Gottmans did. The binder tells us "there is no absolute 'reality' in a disagreement but rather two ´subjective realities.' "We are to practice "softened start-up" and making I-statements.

I glance over the cheat sheet in the binder's back pocket called the Repair Checklist. It contains suggested lines: "I feel defensive. Can you rephrase that? How can I make things better? Let's compromise here." I'm game.

I fetch Brian from the refreshment table. It dawns on me that he looks pale, and that he's not quite as enthusiastic as I am to go on. In the middle of the night last night--after hours of touching--he'd jumped out of bed, having dreamt that I was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him.

I open my binder to the appropriate page and ask him to look over my shoulder at the Chinese-menu list of relationship differences for us to choose from. Yesterday we'd added "television" and "whether or not to get married" to the list, on top of "handling finances" (I'm more frugal), "how to raise and discipline children" (I have none and he has two), and "alcohol" (he likes it and I don't).

"Can we just cool the jets?" he says. It's too much, he goes on. He wants us to sit this one out.

I don't want to say yes.


We raise our red card. A therapist comes over and suggests we try "television." That seems too trivial to me, while everything else seems impossibly sticky. As we wander desultorily toward the breakout room, Brian hangs a few steps back.

I want to do the exercise. I'm afraid that if we don't, I'll miss out, we won't learn how to reconcile after a fight, and my article won't pan out well. I'm thinking, Okay, I get it, Brian, you're overwhelmed. Now can we just please go ahead and do the exercise, please?

But now I'm stuck in an Escher-like paradox. In order to do the exercise, I'd have to violate the spirit of the exercise, which is to honor my partner's reality and be willing to compromise. In the Gottmans' lingo, I need to maintain an up-to-date cognitive map of Brian's inner world. At this moment, his inner world is flooded by a neurohormonal cascade of cortisol and adrenaline spawned by last night's fight and his subsequent nightmare. I ponder the strange fragility of men, especially this one particular man. This bearded guy, six feet two inches tall, who loaded all my luggage into the car in Mill Valley, is now blanching at the notion of having a 15-minute argument? This guy who bicycles and jogs and took protective care of my airline boarding pass--he can't stand to look at a cheat sheet and try out expressions like "This is important to me. Please listen?"

Could it be that when it comes to emotional discussions, men are the ones who strain to lift the bags, and women are the triathletes? Could it be that men who tell us in so many words to back off are expressing their vulnerability, not their callousness?

These, of course, are afterthoughts. At the time, I wanted just to forge ahead, like the obedient subject in the Stanley Milgram experiment who continued to administer "shocks" to an allegedly helpless fellow subject who appeared to be in pain.

Not knowing what else to do, we recruit two more therapists, a man and a woman, from the back wall. Brian runs through his story of feeling overwhelmed again as if it belonged to us both. My stomach tightens, and I interrupt: I'm not overwhelmed. He is. I want to go ahead.


I wonder if we're too weird for this workshop.

The four of us sit down together, Brian and I facing each other with a therapist on either side, our chairs forming a rough square. The woman therapist turns to me and suggests we two take a break. The male therapist, who's "shadowing" the woman, as part of his certification process, says nothing.

I lean forward, my hands on my knees. I don't want listen to her. I open the binder. I decide to make this current disagreement--over whether or not to do the exercise --the subject of the exercise. At the top of a page I see, "Find something in your partner's story that you can understand." I ask Brian, a bit mechanically, to tell me how he feels. I say back that I hear that he feels overwhelmed, that he needs a break. Merely repeating back what he's saying makes me realize that it's true: he really is overwhelmed. The odd thing is, I'm trying to do that old therapeutic stand-by, reflective listening--this is something that John Gottman says successful couples don't do during fights.

Now I take a turn to share my subjective reality: how important it is for me to follow the rules, to move forward, to be obedient, to get things done. Saying this in the presence the two therapists, who essentially are just tracking what we're doing without commenting, somehow loosens my hold on having to get my own way. And this, in turn, makes it easier for me to do what John Gottman calls "accepting influence from one's partner"--realizing dimly that it's not only men who refuse influence from their partners, not only men who sometimes bullheadedly play the king and cross their arms like adolescents.

I feel heard by the two of therapists, whose names I barely know. And I've heard Brian. Although the exercise isn't officially over yet, I'm ready to stop even though it means not following the rules. Brian and I walk outside to the courtyard and breathe the fresh air until a bell sounds to bring us all back.

During the next minilecture--on how to handle "gridlocked" perpetual conflicts--Brian whispers to me that he's decided to leave after lunch, instead of taking a plane at 3 p.m. as he'd originally planned. I'm sorry, but for once I feel no need to push him or lay out all the good, logical reasons why he should stay with me.


It's a paradox: I feel far more connected to Brian, and yet my hands aren't clenched. Before the workshop, I'd assumed that I was a failure--and our relationship was a failure--if we didn't solve our conflicts, once and for all, the way I had in mind. I don't think that way anymore.

Flying home the next day, taking care of my own boarding pass and my own luggage, I remember the cautionary words of Wendell Berry in an essay on marriage that capture some of what I learned in the workshop. "Some wishes cannot succeed. . . . Because the condition of marriage is worldly and it's meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. . . . When you unite yourself with another, you unite yourselves with the unknown."

I return to the chaos of the quotidian. Tulips touched with orange fire droop in a vase on our kitchen table and the weekend's newspapers are piled around it. In the living room, my 25-year-old stepson Zack is checking his email with his best friend, Ned, standing by, and both of them, to my surprise, are planning to spend the night. If I ever needed proof of one of the Gottmans' most basic propositions--that 69 percent of what couples argue about doesn't change--this is it.

In the months since the workshop ended, I've found such Gottmanesque statistics oddly comforting--and surprisingly therapeutic. When I raise something with Brian and feel awkward, I remind myself that women raise 80 percent of the issues in relationships, and I feel normal again. When I can't get a straight answer, I cite Gottman's research on the importance of men's taking influence from their wives. And when I'm irritated, I remember that 96 percent of the time, people who use a "harsh start-up" find the conversation doesn't go the way they'd hoped.

As I write these words, it's been four months since the night Brian and I lay on that impossibly wide bed in Seattle. For a month or so after we got back, we consciously had "stress reducing conversations" in the evenings, but lately we've slacked off. I haven't yet, as I promised, surprised Brian with music tickets. (He surprised me.) Brian didn't find us a place this summer for a getaway as he'd promised. (I did.) But he and I did go kayaking last weekend on Tomales Bay, much to our joint delight.


Things between us seem different--gentler, warmer, closer, more fun--and not so different, since we have the same old conflicts. But we discuss more and argue less. Brian never invites his sons over anymore without checking in with me (if I weren't typing this right now, my fingers would be crossed). If John Gottman had a hidden camera running in our house today, he'd see a lot less of the Four Horsemen. I wouldn't yet classify us as being among the masters of marriage, but I've become much better at the softened start-up. When I'm grateful or admiring of something Brian has done, I'm far likelier to say it out loud.

Describing things this way seems too pat, though. Not even the most complex computer model could disentangle the variables of our lives together, or even of our weekend in Seattle. When I look back, I don't remember statistics. Instead I remember leaning into Brian's arms and looking out at the dark blue of the bay on our ferry ride; I remember stroking his back in bed at the Hotel Marqueen; I remember the two therapists who sat and witnessed us.

In the realm of numbers and words, the world of the intuitive human community will always be at a disadvantage. Yet quantification always leaves something out. Our weekend was a union of science and intuition, and it's far easier to write about the science. But a mysterious alchemy takes place when a person lets go of old moorings and casts off into the unknown--as I did, when Brian showed me his vulnerable face and I didn't turn away. If he and I hadn't happened upon those two therapists that morning, I might not have dared do that. They held me while I moved into a new experience of accepting Brian as he is. John Gottman's research and all the weekend's little exercises may have prepared the ground for that experience, but they didn't take me there.

I look over my notes at Gottman's percentages and I still find them oddly comforting and reassuring. But it isn't the same comfort that I get from remembering how, in a smoky hotel room one Saturday night in Seattle, I reached across a huge king-sized bed and Brian turned to meet me.

Networker Features Editor Katy Butler was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2004. She's written for the New Yorker and The New York Times . She's teaching creative writing at the Networker's Symposium West in San Francisco in October and memoir writing at the Esalen Institute in December. Contact: or


Friday, 26 December 2008 13:22

Are You There for Me?

Written by



Are You There for Me?

Understanding the Foundations of Couples Conflict

by Susan Johnson

On the first day of a clinical placement in my doctoral program during the early 1980s, I was assigned to a counseling center and told by the director that because of unexpected staffing problems, I'd be seeing 20 couples a week. I'd never done any couples therapy, but I did have considerable experience as a family and individual therapist with emotionally disturbed adolescents--a tough, challenging group of clients if ever there was one! So my first thought when given this new assignment was, "After what I've done, how hard can this be?"

I plunged in and almost immediately was appalled by how hard it actually could be! People who seemed perfectly sane and reasonable often became totally unglued with their partners--enraged and aggressive or almost catatonically mute. I was in way over my head, with no idea what to do with these couples.

I remember one wildly angry pair, whose fight escalated to the point that they threatened to kill each other in my office. What I didn't know at the time was that while I was trying to prevent a double homicide, the clinic's director and staff were poised on the other side of the door, debating about whether someone should come to the rescue. "Do you think she can handle it?" one whispered to another. At that moment, they all heard me break into the melee and shout at the top of my lungs, "Shut up, both of you!!" In the ensuing stunned silence, the director said to the worried assembly, "I think she'll be just fine."

In spite of my complete befuddlement and frustration, I found the dramatic, intricate, baffling dances these pairs did with each other enthralling, and wanted to understand better what was going on. Clearly though, I needed some tool in my toolkit other than "Shut up!" if I wanted to make any headway with them. The drama enacted in front of me by a couple was so powerful, so emotionally compelling, and yet so complex and ultimately confusing, that I felt chronically lost. I desperately needed some sort of map that would help me make sense of what I was seeing.

I remember one woman, who mostly communicated with her husband by screaming at him, sitting in my office one day describing in gruesome detail all the horrible things she was going to do to the husband's body as he lay asleep in bed that night. As usual, he ignored her completely, except to occasionally yell back, "You're absolutely crazy! You belong in a nuthouse!" Sometimes a wife would sob to her husband, "I love you, I love you--you have my heart in your hands." Then a minute later, she'd be screaming at him, "You bastard! I'll never let you touch me again!" Partners wept, made outrageous threats, and sat sunk in depression, all the while knowing perfectly well they were destroying their relationships, but unable to help themselves. I had no idea how to help them, either.

So I began a frantic search of all the books I could find on couples therapy and tried to put into practice some of what I learned. I read books by analysts about collusion, projective identification, and the need for insight. I read books by behaviorists, who defined marriage as a kind of bargain or exchange in which each partner sought to maximize profits and minimize losses. Couples needed to learn communication skills, these books said, so they could better negotiate with each other--so they could become better friends.

But my couples weren't impressed with any of this. They didn't care about insight, and even if they understood what they were doing to themselves and each other, they couldn't seem to stop. Their communication skills were generally just fine--with me--but they couldn't seem to access the skills with each other. They didn't want to talk calmly and rationally about money or sex or children, and doing communication exercises was just going through the motions and made them angrier. They certainly didn't seem ready to become "good friends." In fact, many of them would complain about exactly this. "We're just friends--roommates," they'd say when I asked them what was wrong.

Feeling stuck, I went back to what I had learned from Carl Rogers--particularly his belief in the importance of empathically understanding a client's emotional experience and reflecting it back in a way that orders and distills it. I also reconsidered Salvador Minuchin's insights about how family members engage in patterned cycles of interactions. I took home session tapes and studied them over and over, focusing on the process rather than the content--keeping my eye on the game the couples were playing rather than following the ball, the particular subject they were arguing about. As I watched and listened to all these couples, it became stunningly clear that they'd sought therapy because they were in a state of anguish and terror. Possibly the most important human relationship in their lives--with each other--was dying, and everything they did or tried to do just seemed to make it die faster.

When I quit trying to provide "insight" into my clients' problems or teach them skills, and, in good Rogerian fashion, just followed the emotional currents, reflecting back to them what I saw and heard, and helping them slow down enough to fully experience and explore their own feelings, I'd occasionally make progress. It seemed then that something shifted emotionally within the couple. New emotions would emerge; anger would give way to sadness or fear. For a moment, I could see and hear them tentatively begin to reconnect with each other, and sense the relationship quiver delicately back to life.

With one couple, for example, every time the man--who completely avoided his wife and wouldn't sleep with her--tried, in a kind of embarrassed mumble, to justify himself, she'd respond, "That's ridiculous! You're just so incompetent!" After slowly helping them uncover and experience the emotions beneath their interaction, however, I noticed that he began to talk about his feelings in a different way--more openly, straightforwardly, without his usual awkward embarrassment. For the first time, he was really able to look at her, and say that it wasn't that he didn't care about her, but that he was so afraid of her rejection that he felt paralyzed. Again she responded "That's ridiculous," but her voice was softer, and as he repeated his message, she began to look at him with puzzlement--seeing something that had been invisible before. "I never knew you were afraid," she continued softly, looking him full in the face.

The look she had at that moment I now know well. I call it the "dog and recorder" look. It's named after the cocked-head and deeply nonplussed look my dog sported the first time he heard a human voice come out of a recording machine. Its best translated as: "What new thing under the sun is this?" I knew by that look that my dismissing client had begun to see her husband differently. It was moments like these, in which primary emotions were spoken clearly and pulled out new responses from a spouse, that seemed to make the difference in my sessions. What was going on here? I wondered.

Once when I was still pondering these issues, I went to a conference and got into an after-hours bar conversation with an eminent researcher in the field, who argued that getting and staying married was like entering and sticking to a bargain. I disagreed, saying, "The only time marriages are like a bargain is when the relationship is already as good as dead and all hope of intimacy is gone." Then I heard myself adding, almost without conscious thought, "Marriages aren't bargains. They're emotional bonds."

At that moment, it felt as if a door had suddenly opened in my mind and I could begin to truly see what was happening with my couples. I realized what should have been the most obvious truth of all: marriages were primarily about the emotional responsiveness that we call love; about fundamental human attachment. These bonds reflected deep primal survival needs for secure, intimate connection to irreplaceable others. These needs went from the cradle to the grave. How had we ever decided that adults were somehow self-sufficient?

I then began to be struck by how often the couples I saw talked about their relationships in life-and-death terms, as if they themselves were in danger of dying. Like mountain climbers suddenly caught on a narrow ledge in a stiff wind over a 2,000-foot drop, their thinking brains had effectively shut down--all that was left was raw emotion, mostly fear, and a frantic need to reestablish the safety of their connection, without the least idea of how to do it.

It seemed to me that what I needed to help these couples was what, paradoxically, couples therapy had always neglected: a systematic theory of adult love. But how could anybody even study such a nebulous concept? During the '70s and even into the '80s, in the halls of academic psychology, love was no more than a disreputable four-letter word, and the subject of "emotion" wasn't regarded with any more favor. When I first considered getting a doctorate in clinical psychology, I remember telling the head of the department that I wanted to study emotion, the nature of human connection, and how people change in therapy. He looked at me and said flatly, "We don't do any of that. We do measurements, personality, statistics." So, I went into counseling psychology instead.

And yet, I wondered, if we didn't have a theory of adult love and emotion, how could we truly understand what marriage was all about, let alone help couples make any real changes? Furthermore, even if we began to understand more about how love actually played out in marriage, what could we possibly do, as therapists, to bring it back into the process of therapy with troubled couples?

Relationships that Heal

Today, 20-odd years later, there's been a seismic shift in the way we think about emotion, particularly love. The powerful attachment bonds we form with others are now bona fide subjects for scientific research in psychology, physical medicine, neurobiology, and sociology. We now know how important attachment is throughout the life span for mental and physical well-being.

The scientific evidence is overwhelming: research has shown unequivocally that people in secure relationships have better cardiovascular health, stronger immune systems, lower mortality rates from cancer, and less depression and anxiety, and that they face psychological trauma with more emotional resilience. Research tells us that social isolation is more dangerous for health than smoking or lack of exercise. And when the relationship with our partner becomes distressed, we're likely to become clinically depressed, highly anxious, and more susceptible to physical illness. In short, those closest to us have a direct impact on our ability to regulate not only our own emotions, but our physiological processes.

We've also seen a virtual revolution in the way we treat couples. Once a kind of sideline to the main business of therapy--treating individuals and families--couples therapy focused primarily on getting partners to reduce their mutual bloodletting and achieve a reasonable degree of peaceful coexistence. Today we have a clear, coherent, researched theory of adult love, which provides an extraordinarily informative map to guide us through the otherwise impenetrable wilderness of a couple's relationship. This map enables us to identify the significant emotional moments that define an ailing relationship and, even more important, create in therapy the moments that can redefine and transform a relationship.

In the course of this process, therapists and couples often experience shifts that seem almost magical The power of attachment emotions and needs are such that even partners who've never known safe loving responsiveness from others, or have been violated by those they depended on, will still risk reaching out for care. And even if partners see their lover as scared and vulnerable, they can access a protective empathy that even they didn't know they possessed. But it took us a while to figure out how to create a step-by-step approach, so that we could predictably lead people into these moments of profound shifting with each other.

Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the systemic, empirically supported model of therapy I've developed during the past 20 years, allows us to understand what happens at these key moments of change and make these moments happen. We know how to bring about specific, highly emotional interactions between partners that predictably result in moments of deep bonding between them--bonding that lasts. This means that we can not only heal relationships: we can create relationships that heal. When we help forge new, loving connections between partners, we've found that the clinical depression or anxiety in one or both partners lifts.

EFT work is preeminently a therapy of key moments. Marital therapist and researcher John Gottman argues that marital satisfaction depends on a higher ratio of positive to negative emotional incidents between the spouses. But I believe it isn't the quantity of positive interactions and negative interactions that defines the relationship, but the quality of certain moments, which themselves may seem incidental and relatively unimportant, that reveals the status of the entire relationship. Critical key moments define a failing relationship, and critical key moments can heal it.

Consider a couple who comes into my office for an early session, clearly distant and estranged from each other. As it turns out, he's usually the pursuer-blamer, and one of his tactics is to demand sex from his wife almost daily as "proof" that she really loves him. When she refuses, he gets angry, bangs about, and tells her she's "cold" and "unwomanly." This makes her feel inadequate and hopeless, so she defensively shuts herself down and shuts him out. She becomes the withdrawer-resister in the continual dance they do.

The previous night, the two of them had gone to a party. On the way, he'd brooded about the fact that she'd once again turned him down sexually. He noticed in the rearview mirror that his hair was thinning and that he was developing jowls. He didn't feel very good about himself when he got to the party, so he immediately went to the bar and had a few stiff belts to "calm himself down." Then he set out to find his wife and walked into another room, where he saw her engaged in an apparently intense conversation with an attractive man dressed in a beautifully cut suit and sporting a head of thick, glossy, black hair--"looking like a stupid male model from the front of Esquire. " He marched over to his wife and snarled, "Are you going to flirt and whore around all night with this idiot?" She replied coldly, "Yes, because he's so much more pleasant to talk to than you are." The husband stormed out and drove home by himself in a fury, and they hadn't spoken until they came to the session.

This is a classic defining moment in their marriage--a microcosm of the misery he feels and the resentment she feels. Unable to regulate or honestly express his fear of losing her, he turns to reactive rage, which elicits a response from her that confirms his anguish and fear. In therapy, I frame this event as an example of a critical moment of the couple's negative pattern. Then I slow the process down and help him focus on the event, second by second, including the initial cue--seeing his wife with the glossy-haired guy. What did he see when he looked across the room at his wife? What was his body saying? What was going through his mind? How did he feel?

At first, he doesn't have any answers. "I don't know what I saw exactly," he says. After a few minutes, though, he cops to feeling angry that his wife was wasting time talking to "that pretty boy." He recalls that his heart was beating fast, he was breathing hard, and his face felt hot. Then, slowly, as I softly repeat the questions, giving him cues--"Gosh, you said you remember breathing hard, you must have been upset"--I notice that his eyes are beginning to show signs of tears, and I mention it. "Those aren't tears," he says in annoyance, "my eyes are just watering!"

Gradually, he begins to focus on the memory and what was happening for him. "It was the way she was looking at him," he finally mutters. I follow up this cue. "Could you help me understand what you mean? What was it in the way she was looking at him that made you feel so bad?" Suddenly, his eyes brim over with tears and he says in a choked voice, "She doesn't look at me that way any more."

Eventually, we get to the heart of this defining moment: he saw his wife with the other man, his heart sped up, and he felt deep terror--the basic panic response wired into us at the threat of abandonment and isolation. He saw in a flash of agony that she was lost to him. But a second later, he'd bypassed those terrible feelings and flipped over into a secondary coping response of rage, which left him feeling less frightened and insecure, and perhaps a bit more powerful.

What I see in this little tableau is separation protest. This man is, in fact, terrified that his wife doesn't love him--that he's losing the most vital human attachment in his life. He's reacting in the primal way that frightened, desperate human beings have reacted throughout the entire history of our species: he fights to get her back, becoming ever more aggressive, demanding, and angry. In a much less dramatic but entirely complementary way, she, too, acts out the kind of primal terror that afflicts human beings when their most precious connections are threatened. Of course, she doesn't see his tirades and insults as evidence that he wants and needs her; she experiences them as evidence of his contempt for her as a wife and woman. She feels not only rejected but deeply afraid that, one day, he'll simply leave her in disgust. Rather than engage him, she shuts down, withdraws, and assumes a posture of aloofness to prevent an escalation that'll end the marriage. Its a poor strategy, but like the freeze response of a terrified animal, it's an instinctive, immediate response to impending catastrophe.

Attachment Theory

All of this talk about broken attachment bonds and separation protest probably has a familiar ring to anybody who remembers from graduate school the pioneering work of British psychiatrist John Bowlby, the founding father of attachment theory. Most therapists know his basic premise: the human need to love and be loved is innate, physiologically determined, instinctual, and evolutionarily adaptive.

Bowlby and the attachment researchers who followed him demonstrated unambiguously that babies and young children who didn't get the dependable, trustworthy, attuned response they needed from their mothers became angry and aggressive in an apparent attempt to make the mother respond. Because disconnection, isolation, and loneliness are so unbearable, the children acted as if any response was better than no response--which, in these dire and traumatizing circumstances, is true: any response is better than no response. Children who learned that they couldn't get their attachment needs met finally gave up in despair, becoming apathetic and depressed, sometimes even appearing indifferent, though, in fact, their bodies showed measurable physiological signs of serious stress.

Bowlby's work profoundly influenced the way we think about child psychology. But he believed something that was ignored by psychologists for years: attachment behavior--the biologically based imperative of a young creature to seek and maintain an intimate connection with a dependable, accessible, responsive other--stays with us for life.

After all these years of working with couples, I now understand that the heart of the matter, the central issue in the marriage, rarely concerns the content of a couple's arguments, but almost always concerns the strength and responsiveness of the attachment relationship they have. And the bottom-line test of that relationship is in the answer to a fundamental question each is, in essence, asking the other: Are you really there for me? Do I really matter to you enough that you'll put me first when it really counts--before your job, before your friends, even before your family? Partners in troubled relationships feel that on some basic level the answer to these questions is "no," or at best "maybe." All couples fight, but the fights that really define a relationship are always about the same thing: whether the partners feel they have a safe, secure connection with the other.

So my overriding goal in therapy with couples became to help them regain (and sometimes gain for the first time) a secure attachment bond with each other. But how would I go about this? I'd already tried conventional means--exploring their individual childhoods for clues about their attitudes toward love, teaching them what to expect in marriage, and trying to improve their communication skills--to little effect. Then I realized that if the basis of attachment was emotional cues and responses, than emotion would have to be the royal road to better, more secure marital attachment. Any successful approach would have to focus on helping clients experience, develop, and differentiate their own emotions in the here and now with their partners.

The importance of working with couples at the deepest emotional level can't be overemphasized. Emotional cues and responses are the music of the attachment dance, providing the tones, rhythms, and melodies that suffuse every interaction between partners, defining their relationship. If the underlying music remains a jarring, disturbing cacophony, no amount of skills training will ultimately heal their relationship.

It follows then that the therapist using an EFT approach mustn't be frightened of clients' extreme emotional upheaval, but must learn how to regulate and use it to create new interactions. The EFT therapist is neither a skills coach, nor a wise creator of insight into the past, nor a strategist employing paradox and problem prescription. Instead, we think of ourselves as collaborators with our clients, genuinely curious and fascinated by them, able to feel their sadness, fear, and rage, giving our all to imaginatively inhabit their emotional world. Sometimes I think the key to this kind of therapy is to remember something Bowlby himself believed: no matter how bizarre a person's behavior, it'll seem perfectly reasonable once you understand his or her attachment story.

I grew up in Britain as a pub-keeper's daughter. My mother had an expression for customers, and there were many, who seemed to go a little crazy after a few beers: "He's just having a funny five minutes." I think this kind of gentle tolerance provides a good model for a couples therapist faced with the inevitable, extreme responses people exhibit when facing what feels like the life-threatening loss of an irreplaceable relationship. In a sense, the therapist is almost a surrogate attachment figure, whom both partners can trust to guide them through the shoals of reactivity, risk, and the restoration of trust.

EFT in Action

If the failing marriage is defined by key bad moments, the goal of EFT therapy is to create in therapy key good moments--moments of intense emotional engagement between partners, which become major change events, with the power to transform their entire relationship. Getting the couple to the point at which they can engage in such key moments with each other doesn't happen instantly and easily, but it can happen dependably, even in marriages that might seem lost to all intervention.

The first major step is helping the partners tell their stories to the therapist, rather than to each other. This obviously requires that the therapist forge a bond of trust with each spouse. During this first part of therapy, as a couple grows to trust the therapist, they become more emotionally engaged with each other and begin to explore the fears, sadness, longing, and loneliness that lie beneath the often obnoxious and repellant behavior that fuels the negative cycle of their relationship. After about five sessions, my goal is to help each spouse understand that the "enemy" is the cycle itself, rather than the other person, and begin to "soften" toward the other. By this point, with any luck, they feel a little more hopeful, they've become somewhat gentler with each other, and they're ready for the next, huge step--talking to each other about deeper feelings and attachment needs.

It might be asked why, if the partners have already spilled the beans about their sadness, feelings of failure, and so forth to the therapist in front of the spouse, they must now turn to that spouse and tell him or her basically the same thing. It's because, while it reduces the mutual anger and resentment for one spouse to hear the other reveal such feelings to me, it's absolutely vital that the partners share them with each other--face to face. If a client tells the therapist how much he hurts as his wife stares at the floor, she may feel less angry and a little softer toward him, but nothing important will change. Only a direct emotional connection between the two--eye to eye, face to face--can begin to rebuild a genuine bond of emotional responsiveness between them.

Elvera and Samuel, a couple in their late thirties with two young children, came into therapy with me because both partners had been diagnosed with depression and, after years of individual psychoanalytic psychotherapy, had come to believe that perhaps their rather distant marriage might have something to do with it. Though they considered themselves "good friends," they'd begun to wonder if this "friendship" was enough to sustain a marriage. Beneath their obvious decorum and restraint, I saw the anxiety and sadness in their eyes.

Highly educated and intellectual people, they'd been raised by severely religious and emotionally distant families in Europe. Samuel's parents, who were wealthy and socially prominent, had left their son almost exclusively in the care of nannies and servants. Elvera had been raised to believe that a woman should be a modest helpmate to her husband, a responsible mother to her children, and a dignified figure in society. For her to have, much less admit to, sexual and emotional needs would have been considered entirely inappropriate and shameful by her family of origin.

When I inquired more closely about why they'd come to see me, Elvera dropped her bombshell: this couple was quite literally "out of touch" with each other--they hadn't held hands, hugged, placed a companionable hand on the other's arm, kissed, or had sex in more than four years. It was only after a good friend had told Elvera that it was really quite odd for a couple not to display any physical affection for each other that they'd come to see me.

With every couple, I try to intensify, crystallize, and heighten what I see as the key emotional issue. In this case, I started to talk about the distance and the loneliness in their marriage. We talked of the importance of touch for human beings--playful, loving, safe--and how vital it is for a marriage. I said that I had a vision of a good marriage, and it was one in which warm, loving touch, as well as verbal expressions of love and emotion (which they didn't share, either), played a vital role.

When I began talking about touch and emotion, both partners became quiet and attentive. I've found almost invariably that if I can connect with people emotionally in the process of asking about their feelings, they're fascinated and eager. They may find it scary, but they also love the fact that they're being truly seen and felt. So I asked Elvera, as I was trying to evoke with each in turn the fundamental reality of his or her emotional experience, "Could you please help me understand? Could you tell me how you're feeling as you say these things about your marriage?"

She answered flatly, "I don't know what you mean."

I replied, "When I listen to your voice, you sound calm, reasonable, and detached, but when I look into your face, I'm absolutely blown away by the sadness in your eyes."

At this point, she burst into tears. As it turned out, she'd originally been the "pursuer," demanding more affection from Samuel. When he wouldn't respond, she'd shut down and become increasingly distant and cool. Finally, she'd given up in despair.

After helping them reveal to me, one at a time over several sessions, the feelings beneath their carefully maintained detachment and begin to take small risks with each other, they were ready to turn to each other and, with some guidance from me, begin to talk directly about their deepest emotions. Having gradually put together, made sense of, and expressed their desperate loneliness and neediness to me, they could begin to reveal these feelings to each other.

I always encourage the more withdrawn partner to come out into the relationship first--this is part of the road map of the EFT process. Samuel had been able to piece together his despair at all the apparent rejections he'd experienced and how he'd numbed himself to hold onto his wife and his family. But now he couldn't bear the "emptiness" in the relationship, or tolerate the distance between them, he said to his wife. He wanted to learn how to be close, and he wanted Elvera to take that risk with him. His ability to listen to his emotions connected him with his attachment longings, and he was now emotionally present and reaching for his wife.

The moment in their therapy I remember best was when I pointed out that Elvera was caught between her longing for connection and her fear and shame. It was so hard for her to ask to be touched or held. At this point, she looked at her husband, obviously trembling, with tears in her eyes, and said, "Yes, I can't breathe right now, and I'm shaking. I'm so scared--I can't ask you to hold me." We explored the catastrophic fear she felt and she was able to tell him that one part of her was "sure" that she was too ugly and too difficult to love. If she asked him to hold her then, his face would show the disgust and rage that she deserved. At this point, she was able to put her ambivalence and fear into words, and at the same time, to weep with grief at her sense of loss. She'd never asked anyone to hold her--never.

I asked Samuel whether he could see his wife's desperation, and whether he could help her with her fear. He then looked into her eyes as she wept, put his hand out to her, and said, his voice full, "I've spent four years longing to touch you, and I, too, have been so afraid. If you come to me, I'll be there. I want you so much. I don't want you to be afraid and alone." He then stood up and she reached for him.

We call this type of event, which is the culmination of a hundred little realizations, risks, and new perceptions, a softening. Once this occurs, both partners are accessible and responsive to each other. They can stay with their emotions, tolerate the other's protests and upsets, and formulate their own needs and put them out in an attuned way with their partner--a way that helps their partner respond. Once this occurs, a new safety and a new connection begin to blossom. The couple can do what securely attached partners and children can do in relationships: they can accept and articulate their attachment vulnerabilities; they can ask clearly for their needs to be met, rather than attack or withdraw; and they can take in another's love and comfort, and translate that love into a sense of confidence in themselves and in others.

Of course, EFT isn't the only therapy to encourage partners to talk about their feelings. But with EFT, therapists have a specific approach to help partners discover and engage with key attachment emotions, and to translate this process into compelling enactments that redefine the quality of emotional responsiveness in a relationship. Elvera had never walked around feeling her fear and shame before. She'd labeled these emotions from an emotional distance. She'd never really listened to them and heard their message about how much she needed reassurance and holding. She'd certainly never acted on the longing and grief that accompanied them.

When Samuel and Elvera left my office that day, I noticed from my window that they were walking to their car hand in hand. This is what I expected. These bonding moments are exquisitely reparative because they home in on the most painful and wounding issues in the marriage and, in doing so, heal them by creating new bonding events. Each partner emerges from such an event getting from the other precisely what he or she yearns for and needs most. What we see is that each partner is personally strengthened and empowered by this process, not only in his or her relationship, but in life in general.

Why It Works and When It Doesn't

It's sometimes asked why and how these relatively few moments of marital therapy can actually turn a relationship around after years of marital decline. I think that these critical moments are like laser beams, striking directly into powerful emotions wired into us for millions of years. In therapy, people find the concentrated, distilled experience of deep emotional bonding intoxicating, dramatic, and sufficiently intense to shift the entire relationship off its old axis. The freedom each partner feels at not needing to defend him- or herself against the other, who has now become the source of utmost safety rather than danger, is exhilarating and life-changing. Real emotional connection is like a life-affirming drug for us all.

Of course, there are couples whose marriages just can't be saved by EFT. This method won't work if the therapist can't create a basic sense of safety in therapy for both partners. During the first session with one couple I remember vividly, the husband described his wife in words so full of contempt and hostility that they took my breath away. Over the course of several sessions, before I terminated therapy, I couldn't get him to see what he was doing to her, much less own up to it or stop doing it; nor could I get the wife to understand that his attitude might have something to do with her severe depression. Under these conditions, I couldn't risk drawing her into self-revelations that he'd only use to torture her further.

But even when EFT can't "save" the marriage, it can provide substantial benefits to the marital partners. Late one hot Friday afternoon, a tall woman strode into my office ahead of her wispy-looking husband, fairly yelled at me that I was the eighth therapist they'd tried, and then, pounding on my desk for emphasis, announced that she'd left her whole family in another country and ruined her life to marry a man who was proving to be a terrible husband. He didn't love her, didn't pay any attention to her, didn't care whether she lived or died. Both in their fifties and never married, they'd recently met on a cruise, and married almost on a whim. He, a longstanding bachelor who liked chess, computers, and bird-watching, had fallen into marriage with an emotionally volatile woman who terrified him. He said nothing during her long tirade, but when I looked into his eyes, I saw his mute cry, "Help me!"

At the end of the session, the wife told me that a few nights previously, she'd said to him that, having realized how hopeless both her marriage and her life were, her only course was to commit suicide. Whereupon, she'd gotten a rope, gone down to the basement, thrown the rope over a beam, put the noose around her neck, and made noises as if she were hanging herself. While doing this, she'd timed him to see just how long it would take him to come "save" her. It took him a full six minutes to make it down the stairs. She, of course, wasn't dead; on the contrary, she was very much alive and in a state of near-psychotic rage.

This first session with them wasn't my finest hour. It'd been a long week, I was tired and hot, and as she shrieked and banged on my furniture, I found myself mentally thumbing through possible DSM diagnoses and wondering why I'd taken up this line of work. That evening, over a drink (when EFT fails, I turn to gin), I berated myself for not responding with the kind of empathy and compassion my own model demands, and vowed that the next time I saw the couple, I'd do better.

When the couple came in the following week, I said I felt I hadn't really heard them last time, and I was sure they'd picked up on that. "I just remember," I said, "a story about a strange-sounding drama that might have had to do with testing a spouse, and I didn't know what to make of it. Could you help me understand?" To the woman, I added, "I think perhaps you were telling me that you were doing something that took incredible courage--courage I don't think I'd have had under the circumstances. Really, it sounds to me as if, in your actions, you were framing a vital question to your husband: ´If I were dying, would you come to me?''

The woman began to cry and said, "Yes, that's what I was doing." She wept for about 20 minutes, dried her eyes, and then said sadly, "I know he can't be my husband. He's a good man, really, but he's not ready to be anybody's husband. I just can't find a way to accept that. And I needed somebody to hear me."

In a sense, this is the fundamental story of our lives--we all need someone to really see us, to hear us, and to be there for us when it really matters. When we can't make sense of our own experience, we desperately want somebody who can make sense of it for us. In good, secure relationships, we get all this from our mates, or some other beloved figure, and it saves our lives. But when we've lost those connections, the power of a therapist to offer validation--to be the eyes and ears and receptive heart for the deepest emotional yearning of each partner--can help them learn how to do the same for each other. To be seen and affirmed, by the therapist and by one's partner, is often a life-transforming event. It's the corrective emotional experience that we were all once taught was the heart and soul of change in psychotherapy.

Susan Johnson, Ed.D., the main proponent of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, is professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and Centre for EFT. She's also a research professor at Alliant University in San Diego, California. The EFT website is Contact:


Friday, 26 December 2008 13:19

When Three Threatens Two

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When Three Threatens Two

Must Parenthood Bring Down the Curtain on Romance?

by Esther Perel

Sex makes babies. So it is ironic that the child, the embodiment of the couple's love, so often threatens the very romance that brought that child into being. Sex, which set the entire enterprise in motion, is often abandoned once children enter the picture. Why does parenthood so often deliver such a fatal blow?

The transition from two to three is one of the most profound challenges a couple will ever face. It takes time--time measured in years, not weeks--to find our bearings in this brave new world. Having a baby is a psychological revolution that changes our relation to almost everything and everyone. Priorities shift, roles are redefined, and the balance between freedom and responsibility undergoes a massive overhaul.

Eventually, most of us come to recognize ourselves again within this new context of family. For some of us, this is when romance starts to work its way back into the fabric of our lives. We remember that sex is fun; it makes us feel good, and it makes us feel closer.

But while some couples gravitate toward each other again, others slowly wander off on a path of mutual estrangement. Reclaiming erotic intimacy is not always easy. The case is often made that American parents today, regardless of class, are overworked and overwhelmed. We constantly sort conflicting demands into their appropriate hierarchical slots: The Crucial, The Important, The Dreamt of, The Ought-to. Sex often remains firmly at the bottom of the "to do" list, never fully relinquishing its last-place status to other, more mundane tasks.

Why is it that our erotic connection with our partner winds up so demoted? Does it really matter if the dishes aren't done, or is there something more beneath our mysterious willingness to forego sex? Perhaps eroticism in the context of family is simply too difficult for anyone to embrace.

Parenthood, Inc.

Safety and stability take on a whole new meaning when children enter the picture. For children to feel confident enough to go out into the world and explore on their own, they need a secure base. Parenthood demands that we become steady, dependable, and responsible. We plant ourselves firmly on the ground so that our kids may learn to fly.

We do it for our kids, but we also do it for ourselves. Facing the great unknown of parenthood, we try to establish as much security as we can. We seek to contain the unpredictable by creating structure. In the process we cast aside what is frivolous, immature, irresponsible, reckless, for these clash with the task at hand: building family. "I got rid of my motorcycle when Jimmy was born. I'm not allowed to die in a bike crash anymore." "It was all spur-of-the-moment for us before the kids. I'd call Dawn at the office at 5:15 to tell her about a band that was playing at 9:00, and she'd always meet me there. Now we buy season tickets but wind up giving half of them away."

Family life flourishes in an atmosphere of comfort and consistency. Yet unpredictability, spontaneity, and risk are precisely where eroticism resides. Eros is a force that doesn't like to be constrained. When it settles into repetition, habit, or rules, it touches its death.

Many of us become so immersed in our role as parents we become unable to break free, even when we might. "I knew we were in trouble when I couldn't even think about having sex until all the toys were put away," my patient Stephanie reluctantly admits. "And then there are the dishes, the laundry, the bills, the dog. The list never ends. If someone were to ask me, What would you rather do, mop the kitchen floor or make love to your husband?' of course I would pick sex. But in real life? I push Warren away and grab that mop." It's easy to disparage the mop. Like a lot of mothers, Stephanie resents cleaning, even while she feels compelled to pursue the tidy household as an icon of successful motherhood. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to cleanliness, as if order on the outside can bring peace on the inside. And, to some extent, it does. These are activities with immediate and measurable results, far more manageable than the open-endedness and terrors of childrearing.

Children are a blessing, a delight, a wonder. They're also a minor cataclysm. These cherished intruders fill us with a profound sense of vulnerability and lack of control. We dread the thought of something terrible happening to them or worse yet, of losing them. They hold us hostage to constant anxiety. We love them so much, and want to protect them at all costs.

Before Jake was born, Stephanie worked as an office manager in an international shipping firm. She had always planned on returning to work after her maternity leave, but Jake's birth changed that. She couldn't bear the thought of leaving him and, after doing the math, realized that most of her paycheck would go to the babysitter anyway. Five years have passed and Sophia has come along. "With a five year old and a two year old, I'm on mother duty 24/7. If I have any time left, I just want it for myself. When Warren approaches me it feels like one more person wanting something from me. I know that's not his intention, but it's how I feel. I don't have anything left to give."

"When did sexual intimacy become his need only? Do you miss the connection, too?" I ask her.

She shrugs. "Not really. I keep thinking that it will come back, but I can't say I miss it."

While Stephanie's desire has remained stagnant, Warren's frustration has risen exponentially. "I've tried everything," he tells me. "She asks for help, I give her help. I do the dishes, I let her sleep late on the weekends, I take the kids out so she can have some time to herself. But, you know, I work, too. I'm meeting deadlines all day long. It's not like I'm having a picnic. She thinks all I want is to get laid, but that's not it. I want to come home and be with my wife sometimes. But all I get is a woman who's become all mother."

"Have you seen the movie Before Sunset ?" I ask him. "At one point the main character, Jesse, says that he feels like he's running a daycare with someone he used to date."

"Exactly!" he snaps.

Eros Redirected

Stephanie bursts with creativity: art projects, nature walks, trips to museums and fire stations, puppet shows, cookie-cutting, cookie-baking, cookie-parties. If we think of eroticism not as sex per se, but as a vibrant, creative energy, it's easy to see that Stephanie's erotic pulse is alive and well. But it no longer revolves around her husband. Instead, it's been channeled to her children. Regular play-dates for Jake but only three dates a year for Stephanie and Warren: two birthdays, hers and his, and one anniversary.

Which brings me to another point. Stephanie gets tremendous physical pleasure from her children. Let me be perfectly clear here: she knows the difference between adult sexuality and the sensuousness of caring for small children. She, like most mothers, would never dream of seeking sexual gratification from her children. But, in a sense, a certain replacement has occurred. The sensuality that women experience with their children is, in some ways, much more in keeping with female sexuality in general. Female eroticism is diffuse, not localized in the genitals but distributed throughout the body, mind, and senses. It is tactile and auditory, linked to smell, skin, and contact; arousal is often more subjective than physical, and desire arises on a lattice of emotion.

In the physicality between mother and child lies a multitude of sensuous experiences. We caress their silky skin, we kiss, we cradle, we rock. We nibble their toes, they touch our faces, we lick their fingers, let them bite us when they're teething. This blissful fusion bears a striking resemblance to the physical connection between lovers. In fact, when Stephanie describes the early rapture of her relationship with Warren--lingering gazes, weekends in bed, baby talk, toe-nibbling--the echoes are unmistakable. When she says, "At the end of the day, I have nothing left to give," I believe her. But I also have come to believe that, at the end of the day, there may be nothing more she needs.

The Cult Status of Children

The sensuous pleasure of caring for small children is natural and universal. It is also wise from an evolutionary standpoint--the mother's bond to her child is a powerful physiological response that has been selected for since humans were apes. The infant's survival depends on it. However, I'd like to make a distinction between the parent-child bond, on the one hand, and a recent culture of childrearing that has inflated that bond to astonishing levels on the other.

Stephanie's intense focus on her kids is not a mere idiosyncrasy of her mothering style. In fact, this kind of overzealous parenting is a fairly recent trend that has, one hopes, reached its apex of folly. Childhood is indeed a pivotal stage of life whose future repercussions are indelible. But the last few decades have ushered in an emphasis on children's happiness that would make our grandparents shudder. It's a far cry from the days when children were considered principally as economic assets to the collective, and women gave birth to many in the hope of keeping just a few. We no longer get work out of our children; today we get meaning.

Meanwhile, American individualism, with its emphasis on autonomy and personal responsibility, has left us between a rock and a hard place when it comes to family life. On one hand, we have children vested with sentimental idealization and a culture of childrearing that demands considerable emotional and material resources. On the other, we have a society notably lacking in the public support necessary to complete this fundamental project. We are left with isolated domestic units: overworked parents deprived of extended families, kinship networks, or real institutional assistance.

The magnitude of childrearing, coupled with the scarcity of resources, affects mothers in particular, who carry the majority of the burden in heterosexual couples. And it doesn't end there. For this unprecedented child-centrality is unfolding against the backdrop of romanticism that underscores modern marriage. Not only do we want to be perfect parents, to give our children everything, we also want our marital relationships to be happy, fulfilled, sexually exciting, and emotionally intimate. Indeed, in our culture the survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple. But cultivating the ideal relationship requires care and attention, and this competes directly with the "full-contact" parenting many of us embrace.

Warren Wants His Wife Back

Stephanie and Warren embody a common marital configuration: she is wrapped up with the kids, exhausted, and uninterested in sex; he is frustrated and lonely. Warren feels displaced, and claims he's been fed a litany of excuses for years. By the time they come to see me, they're locked in a pattern. He initiates, she rebuffs, he feels rejected and withdraws, she feels emotionally bereft and even more distrustful of his sexual motives. They blame each other for their sexual unhappiness, and each holds the other responsible for making it better.

I am worried about them, and I let them know it. I am worried not because I think that a couple without sex can't have a viable relationship--the absence of sexual desire, when it's mutual, is not necessarily an indicator of dissatisfaction. However, and this is a big "BUT," if one partner really misses sex, and can't engage the other, a pernicious downward spiral is set in motion.

What Stephanie fails to see is that behind Warren's nagging insistence is a yearning to be intimate with his wife. For him, sex is a prelude to intimacy, a pathway to emotional vulnerability. She responds to him as if he's one more needy child, and doesn't realize that this is not just for him but for her, too. She's so mentally organized in terms of what she does for everyone else that she is unable to recognize when something is offered to her.

What Warren finds intolerable is that his approach is having the opposite effect of what he intends. He is desperate for a flicker of desire from Stephanie, but he wants it just to be there, sudden and whole, the way it is for him. I explain to him that expecting our partner to be in the mood just because we are is a set-up for disappointment. We take their lack of desire as a personal rejection, and forget that one of the great elixirs of passion is anticipation. You can't force desire, but you can create an atmosphere where desire might unfurl. You can listen, invite, tease, kiss. You can tempt, compliment, romance, and seduce. All of these help to compose an erotic substrata from which your partner can more easily be lifted.

Even before having children, Stephanie's sexuality was always more receptive than initiating, and she rarely experienced spontaneous desire. In those days, Warren's role was lavishly complementary: her coyness was dissipated by his assertiveness. He not only made her feel desired and desirable, he also made her feel desirous. He would entice her slowly, gradually awakening her senses, and she would eagerly respond. This responsiveness, so marked in the early days of their courtship, temporarily masked her long-standing lack of sexual agency (a characteristic shared by many women). I point out to him that she might be more receptive today if he paid attention to cultivating her desire rather than simply monitoring it.

"Stephanie needs you to take the lead, but you can't just buy her a ticket, you have to get her interested in the trip." I tell Warren." You play an important role as the keeper of the flame. Right now, all she feels is pressure. She experiences your come-ons as abrupt and intrusive. She thinks all you want is sex. Prove to her you don't."

Looking for Stephanie

It was harder for me to reach Stephanie, for neither she nor I could easily separate ourselves from the abundance of ideological pressures that lurked beneath the surface of our conversation. Validating her husband's needs could easily be construed as denying hers. How to invite a woman to reconnect with her body and her sexuality, separately from her children, when she's completely uninterested in either, or when she feels undeserving or too maxed out? How to avoid the pitfall of swinging back and forth between her children's needs and her husband's needs, leaving her own perennially unattended?

What I said to her was this, "You'll never hear me say that you should force yourself. Nothing is more deflating erotically than sex on demand. But I do believe that sex matters: for you, for your marriage, and for your kids. I am puzzled by your willingness to forego such an important part of yourself. How did it come to be that, on the extensive list of things your children need, parents who have sex isn't one of them?"

Together we probe the elusiveness of her sexual agency. We explore her sexual history, how sexuality was expressed in her family growing up, and what her earliest experiences were like. She tells me how awkward her own mother was around the subject of sex, never speaking frankly but only making veiled references to morality and sin. She has never conceived of her mother as a sexual being, and it doesn't escape me that history might be repeating itself.

We talk about how her sexual identity changed as the result of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and motherhood. Putting her personal experiences in a broader cultural context, we discuss how the politics of motherhood, the chastity myth, and the medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth all conspire to denude motherhood of its sexual elements. I recommend the gem of a book Sexy Mamas by Cathy Winks and Anne Semans, which discusses the topic of sexuality and motherhood in an accessible, down-to-earth, and sex-positive way. I suggest she leave it in plain view on her bedside table.

Together we explore how she might reclaim a right to pleasure, with its inherent threat of selfishness, in a way that doesn't leave her feeling like a bad mother. One upshot of these discussions is that Stephanie does something radical (for her)--she goes on a weekend retreat with her sister, leaving Warren and the children to their own devices. Getting to that point took a lot of work, but I sense that before she can open herself to sex, she needs to expand the domain of personal pleasure altogether.

I'm not big on homework in therapy, especially when the list of domestic tasks is already endless. At the same time, action is a prerequisite for change. So I ask Warren and Stephanie, at the end of one session, to each do one thing differently in the next few weeks. They need not talk about it, for their effort will not be measured by its success but only by its intention. "I'd like you to stretch, to do something, anything, that takes you a step further than usual." To Warren I say, "At one time you pursued Stephanie with great creativity, but no more. There's an assumption--and you're not alone--that we need only pursue what we don't yet possess. The trick is that in order to keep our partner erotically engaged we have to become more seductive, not less."

At this point, sex has been relegated to what Warren wants and what Warren misses. Stephanie has shifted from being receptive to being reactive. It is a passive stance in which her main power is that of refusal. To her I suggest, "Keep in mind that there's something limiting about an absolute no. What really hurts him is categorical rejection. You might find more freedom in "maybe" or "let's kiss" or even "talk me into it." Warren, more than anyone else, can help you to reconnect with the woman inside the mother. Can you imagine recruiting him rather than pushing him away? Invite him to invite you, and see what happens."

Stephanie, consumed by motherhood, was too quick to dismiss the inherent value of Warren's persistence. With him, and through him, she potentially can begin to disentangle from the symbiotic bond with her children and transfer some of her energy back to herself and her relationship. When the father reaches out to the mother, and the mother acknowledges, redirecting her attention, it serves to rebalance the entire family. Boundaries get drawn and new zoning regulations get put in place delineating areas that are adult only. Time, resources, playfulness, and fun are redistributed, and libido is rescued from forced retirement.

My work with gay and lesbian couples has led me to recognize that this dynamic is replicated whenever one parent takes charge of the kids, gender notwithstanding. What I see over and over is that the person who takes on the role of primary caretaker almost always undergoes changes similar to Stephanie's.

The role of the more autonomous parent is to help the primary caregiver disengage from the kids and reallocate energy to the couple. "Leave the toys for now, nobody is going to give you a medal, go take a nap." "The nanny is here, let's sit down for ten minutes and share a glass of wine before she leaves." It's a different approach to the traditional "division of labor," one which emphasizes shared responsibility and mutuality and honors the interdependent agency of both partners.

Lifting the Erotic Embargo

When Warren asks, "Want to?" and Stephanie finally answers, "Convince me," their dynamic begins to shift. It puts a halt to the grinding antagonism and introduces an overdue mutuality. The couple is headed in the right direction, but the forces of eros are not yet aligned. Warren's most elaborate seduction rituals are thwarted, repeatedly and pitifully, by an unaccommodating home life.

If Warren and Stephanie are going to get their groove back, they need to free themselves from the disproportionate focus on their kids, both emotionally and practically. As much as spontaneity is desirable, the reality of family life demands planning. Couples without kids can initiate sex on a whim, but parents need to be more practical. Be it a regular date night, a weekend away every few months, or an extra half-hour in the car, what matters is that the couple cordons off erotic territory for themselves. When Warren and Stephanie balk at the idea of premeditated sex, I respond, "Planning can seem prosaic, but in fact it implies intentionality, and intentionality conveys value. When you plan for sex, what you're really doing is affirming your erotic bond. It's what you did when you were dating. Think of it as prolonged foreplay--from twenty minutes to two days."

Not only do their rendezvous help maintain the emotional connection so critical for Stephanie, they also help her to make the transition from full-time mom to lover. "For so long, my thinking about sex was about how to avoid it. Knowing that Warren and I have a date has helped me to anticipate it instead. I pamper myself. I take a shower, shave my legs, put on make-up. I make a special effort to block the negativity and to give myself permission just to be sexual."

My work with them isn't finished. Things have definitely improved, but for this couple, and for this woman, caring for small kids doesn't agree with eroticism. I suspect that when they reach the next life stage--when the kids are both in school full-time and Stephanie is back at work as she plans--new energies will be released. In the meantime, thinking of it as but one phase in a life-long relationship helps them remain patient and hopeful.

Sexy Mamas Do Exist

The liberation that so bolstered women's sexuality has yet to cross the threshold of motherhood, which has not lost the moralistic aura of sanctification it always had. The desexualization of the mother is a mainstay of traditionally patriarchal cultures, which makes the sexual invisibility of modern, Western mothers seem particularly acute. Perhaps it's our Puritan legacy that strips motherhood of its sexual components, convincing us that lustfulness conflicts with maternal duty.

Of course, there is not one America, and cultural differences abound within this vast country. My friend June is quick to remind me that not all Americans came here on the Mayflower. "Black people are certainly not spared our share of sex problems, but we're definitely a lot less hung up than you white folks," she says. "Sex is a natural part of life, not some big dirty secret. My kids know I have sex; I knew my parents had sex. They'd put on Marvin Gaye, shut the bedroom door, and tell us we better not knock." My Argentinean girlfriend jokes about how her husband calls her "mamita" in bed--what better way to co-opt the taboo? My Spanish colleague Susanna tells me that, in Madrid, her greatest sexual asset is her beautiful three-year-old son. "In New York it's my accent, my hair, my legs, but definitely not my son." My American patient Stacey, a white woman who lives in Brooklyn with her daughter, knows her demographics. "The only men who flirt with me are the West Indian pediatrician, the Russian dentist, the Italian baker, and the Puerto Rican grocer. The white guys? Forget it. If I'm with my kid, they look right past me."

Despite the pervasiveness of this mindset, there are plenty of women who mount daily insurrections against the denial of eros. For them, motherhood heralds a newfound sexual confidence, a womanliness, and even the restitution of a wounded body. One day, I had back-to-back sessions, first with Stephanie, then with Amber. The realities of their daily lives shared an uncanny resemblance, but their experiences couldn't be farther apart. Amber told me, "I used to say no to sex as a matter of course, who knows why? Denial of any desire, even hunger, was modeled for me by my 105 lb. mother. Before I had kids, whenever my husband asked me if I wanted to eat, I also said no. I refused out of habit, before actually registering the question.

"Now I know far more profound reasons to say no to sex: the desperate fatigue of new motherhood, the seemingly bottomless rage at my 2 1/2-year-old for waking up his sleeping infant brother, the bitterness of feeling unsupported, a workhorse for our home and children. And yet I am the one who feels hungry for sex, who demands it, or mopes about not getting it. I give all day in very physical ways: nursing, cooking, stooping to pick up toys, carrying children, changing diapers. After a few days of peanut butter sandwiches and Wiggles CDs, when I am a participant in my children's world to the exclusion of my own, I want my glass of sherry, my music, and my man."

For Renee, pregnancy ushered in a self-acceptance she had never felt. "Pregnancy was a healing experience for me. I was sexually abused as a child, and had always loathed any signs of womanliness in my body. I'd been at war with my thighs for twenty-five years. I was hospitalized for an eating disorder the year before I got pregnant. In fact, I was so skinny I didn't even think I could get pregnant. I hadn't had a regular period in years. But the minute I saw that plus sign in the ept everything changed. It was the first time in my life that food became decontaminated. I relished watching my body grow ripe. For once in my life my breasts were naturally round and I was so proud. Most of my friends complained of the discomfort and weight gain. But for me, I felt like it was finally okay to look like a woman. I gave birth naturally; it was powerful. I was amazed by what my body could do and what it could endure. I was capable of so much more than I thought. Ever since, when I make love, I pursue that intensity."

When Daddy Sings the Baby Blues

For every man like Warren, who feels sexually abandoned when his wife becomes a mother, there is a man like Leo, whose libido makes a break for it on the way home from the delivery room. Dwindling desire in mothers is, in some ways, old news. We might not like it, but we can at least make sense of it. But what are we to make of the father who can no longer eroticize the mother of his children? This story, though just as common, is admitted far less frequently.

When Carla and Leo came to see me, she was at wit's end. They'd been together seventeen years: the first six a frenzy of the flesh, the next four the chaos of babyhood, the last seven a sexual desert. She went from talking to pleading to screaming to compensating. She had a number of flings and then a serious affair. He found out, she threatened divorce, he suggested therapy, and here they are.

She says, "I am so sick of the excuses. It's his work, it's the stress, it's his dying father, his back hurts, it's my breath, it's my weight, it's his weight. I took it personally for so long, but now I'm done. I love this man, I'm prepared to stay, but I can't live like this."

He says, "I always considered myself to be very competent sexually. We kid around that we broke furniture when we first started dating; there was a lot of passion. I never looked at the kids as a defining moment in my life sexually, but obviously something switched somewhere deep inside."

I learn that Leo had begun to withdraw physically when Carla became pregnant with their first son, and they had no sexual contact at all during the last trimester. Leo just came home later and later from work. Carla knew something was up, though they never discussed it openly.

"What changed for you when she became a mother?" I ask.

"Her significance," he answers. "Her whole being turned from being my lover, my partner and wife, to being the mother of my son. And then the mother of my other son. For a while they needed her completely, and that was really okay with me. I thought it was the most awesome thing in the world to have our babies sleeping next to us, for her to nurse them through the night. I wasn't jealous at all. I'm a very loving, nurturing father myself."

"What's it like to suck the breast of a woman who's been nursing a baby?" I ask him.

"It was weird," he answered. "The whole physical thing was a little weird. I watched her give birth, twice, and I gotta say it was not so great for our sex life."

"I know it's supposed to be this magical moment, the miracle of life and all that, but no one seems to want to acknowledge the yuck factor," I reassure him.

"I became different with her, more cautious, not as free. I guess it stopped me from being aggressive or passionate or desiring her in that way--really giving myself to her, or taking her, when normally that's how we were together. It was definitely a shift."

"Couldn't do that to the mother of your children?" I ask.

"Apparently not," he answers.

"Let's talk about this whole Madonna/ whore business," I continue. "It has deep psychological roots. A lot of men find it difficult to eroticize the mother of their children. It feels too regressive, too incestuous, too Oedipal. What you need to remember is that she's their mom, not yours. At this point, I recommend anything that can introduce a little healthy objectification. Anything that might distinguish her from The Mother."

Carla had been quiet for much of the session, but the following week I had no doubt she'd been paying attention. Laughing, she told me the story.

"I really wanted to let go with Leo. I wanted to give him an involved, prolonged, great blow job. Not just the compulsory head, not just the polite head. But I knew there was this thing with the wife, The Mother. Would he let me? So I initiated this game and said, [bullet]You know, we can have a couple different kinds of sex and you can call it what you will, but if you want this blow job to continue it's gonna cost you.' I said, "A hundred bucks if you want that kind of head. A hundred bucks." I thought the money would be fun, but I was really into seeing if Leo could de-role that mother. Well, you don't pay the mother of your kids for a blow job, do you? You don't pay your wife for a blow job. It was a lovely experiment, that's all I'm going to say."

"Maybe you could start taking credit cards. Keep a credit card machine by the bed," Leo jokes.

Carla's playful erotic intervention has stayed with me for years. In one gesture she cleverly captured and subverted the whole dilemma: how to retrieve the lover from the mother. Leo feared expressing the rawness of his desire to the mother of his children, a woman too worthy of love and respect. Carla took a risk, interrupted the pattern, and invited him into an erotic complicity.

Escaping the Siege of Family Life

Having a child is a pure, life-affirming act. How cruel it is to see it erode the force that brought it into being.

There is no question that children make the erotic connection more difficult to sustain.

For many parents, the idea of a secret garden inspires everything from acute guilt and anxiety to the more benign gradations of embarrassment. We are afraid that our adult sexuality will somehow damage our kids, that it's inappropriate or dangerous. But whom are we protecting? Children who see their primary caregivers at ease expressing their affection (discreetly, within appropriate boundaries) are more likely to embrace sexuality with the healthy combination of respect, responsibility, and curiosity it deserves. By censoring our sexuality, curbing our desires, or renouncing them altogether, we hand our inhibitions intact to the next generation.

There are so many reasons to give up on sex that those who don't are champions in their own right. The brave and determined couple who maintains an erotic connection is, above all, the couple who values it. When they sense desire in crisis, they become industrious, and make intentional, diligent attempts to resuscitate. They know that it is not children who extinguish the flame of desire: it is adults who fail to keep the spark alive.

From Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel. Copyright © 2006 by Esther Perel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Esther Perel, M.A., is on the faculties of the New York Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, and the International Trauma Studies Program, New York University. She's a visiting faculty member at the Minuchin Center for the Family and is in private practice in New York City. Contact:


Friday, 26 December 2008 13:08

From Research to Practice

Written by



From Research to Practice: Scoreboard for Couples Therapies

Which are the Winners in the Latest Research?

by Jay Lebow

Couples therapy is on a roll. Whereas a mere 20 years ago, surveys showed that consumers didn't think much of it, today it's become increasingly accepted by the general public. Indeed, to end a marriage without benefit of some sort of marital therapy or counseling is now widely viewed as somehow irresponsible--as if the couple were remiss for not making that last-ditch effort to put themselves back together again. And whereas, two decades ago, the most prominent models of therapy focused almost exclusively on individual work, today as many as 70 percent of therapists here and abroad treat couples as part of their practices, according to a study conducted by prominent psychotherapy researcher David Orlinsky of the University of Chicago and his colleagues around the world.

Yet the research about couples therapy, as well as research about couples themselves--why some marriages succeed and others don't--hasn't kept pace with the growth of couples therapy. The slow pace of research on couples is partly due to the fact that relational distress isn't considered a "mental disorder" by DSM-IV, and thus doesn't usually qualify for government funding. In addition, researchers and clinicians have only recently recognized how important couples therapy can be in the treatment of such individual mental health problems as depression and anxiety. Even now, those researching the behavior of couples and couples therapy treatments have been limited to a small group of investigators dedicated enough to continue their work despite sporadic funding.

In spite of these handicaps, a considerable body of information has emerged that tells us a great deal about what works and doesn't work, both in couples' relationships and in couples therapy. The two strands of research inform each other: learning the specific differences between the ways couples interact in satisfying and unsatisfying relationships serves to pinpoint helpful behavioral, cognitive, and affective skills that therapists can encourage in their clinical work.

Research on Interactive Processes

What do we know from research about interactions between spouses that either promote or undermine good marital relationships? One fact that's been established is the not entirely surprising finding that satisfied couples manifest in their exchanges much higher rates of positive behaviors than of negative ones. Researcher John Gottman, now of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington, one of the leading authorities on couples' behavior, who's meticulously documented the interactions of couples for more than 30 years, has been famously quoted saying that the ratio of positive to negative behaviors is at least 5 to 1 in satisfied couples. The types of behavior to which he's referring vary--remarks to each other, body language, helpful vs. challenging acts, and so forth. But this finding from his research with Julian Cook and several other colleagues in 1995 has been widely replicated in studies since then by him and others.

Gottman reports that if this ratio falls below the 5-to-1 level, couples are likely to be dissatisfied with their marriages. In those likely to divorce, the ratio hovers around 0.8 positive acts for every negative one. Gottman adds that really happy couples typically have ratios of positive to negative behaviors even higher than the 5-to-1 level.

This research has made therapists more aware of the importance of helping couples understand the long-term impact of their everyday, moment-to-moment interactions. They can then be taught to monitor their own remarks and behaviors and find ways of increasing the ratio of positive to negative exchanges with their mates. In fact, teaching this skill has become an essential ingredient of a variety of couples therapies, such as Douglas Snyder's Affective Reconstruction Treatment and Mona Fishbane's dialogical approach.

Satisfied couples communicate well and approach problems in a spirit of collaboration rather than antagonism; unhappy couples just continue being angry about the same old problems, while new ones accumulate. Numerous studies have pointed to the relationship advantages of direct communication and developing successful methods of problem-solving. Most couples therapies therefore build in a didactic-experiential set of interventions to help couples learn or regain their abilities to communicate and tackle problems. For example, couples are taught to clearly state their desires and complaints, to listen even when emotionally aroused, to brainstorm potential solutions that bridge differences, and to be sure to follow through on decisions.

Gottman reminds us, however, that even in satisfied couples, many problems are never actually "solved" throughout the duration of the marriage. Arguments often arise over the same issues throughout the course of a 40-year marriage. Spouses may never share the same interests, political perspectives, or social proclivities, and may repeatedly revisit differences over such issues as neatness and promptness. Nonetheless, the couple can learn how to "agree to disagree"--accept each other and certain differences, show respect, friendship, and love, and work around their problems without undue conflict, even if the issues in question never are finally resolved.

Another hallmark of satisfied couples is that they argue successfully and have ways of resolving differences. Gottman's research is especially relevant here since the general public often believes that happy couples simply don't argue. Not at all! In fact, being able to argue effectively--express differences in a way that doesn't sidetrack the discussion into old grudges and conflicts, or devolve into personal attacks--seems to be an essential skill of satisfied couples. Those lacking this skill fall prey to the accrual of unresolved issues and resentments, leading to patterns of defensiveness and contempt that undermine connection.

This research into the importance of knowing how to argue has generated treatment interventions that teach fair fighting and authentic repair--how to make up with each other. One means of making arguments fairer and less toxic to a relationship is the process of "softening," highlighted by couples therapy researcher Susan Johnson, psychology professor at Ottawa University. Teaching couples to achieve a moment by moment opening up and lowering of defenses in the face of conflict, which Johnson believes is critical for putting antagonistic relationships back on track, is a key component of her Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.

Not ambushing the other person also makes fighting more productive. Gottman's couples therapy helps partners find alternatives to the overly rapid start-up of disagreements, in which one partner, more or less without preamble, blasts the other with his or her grievance, which generates emotional flooding and overwhelming states of arousal in the other.

Another feature of satisfied couples is that they accept each other and display what Gottman calls "positive sentiment override," referring to the overall positive regard they have for each other. This well of positive feeling shapes the way they approach potentially difficult marital issues and tends to immunize them against automatic patterns of blame and counterblame. Following the implications of this notion, several recent approaches, such as Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, developed by the late Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen, now emphasize mutual acceptance more than behavior change. In this model, couples are taught to distinguish between problems that can be changed and those that can't, or aren't worth the effort. Partners are helped to find ways to live with the unchangeable issues by engaging in self-talk that emphasizes the other's positive intent and the feeling of love that overrides the annoyance of the problem--that he or she can never learn to be less messy, for example.

Satisfied couples have secure attachments with each other that still allow room for the other to be him- or herself. Research indicates that those with secure attachments earlier in life are more likely to be able to create such attachments in marriage. Susan Johnson has found in more than 20 years of couples research and therapy that good marriages are based on deep, mutually dependable, responsive, accessible connections between partners--reflecting the secure attachment bonds of a mother and infant. Such bonds, she argues, give couples (and very young children, for that matter) a safe emotional base from which they can freely and without anxiety explore their own individual personalities and pursuits.

Satisfied couples share expectations, but only to a "good enough" extent. What matters for marital happiness is that the two partners share some overlap in their expectations of what a successful marriage "should" be and of what each owes to the other. But beyond that basic agreement, happy couples can be close or relatively distant from each other--passionately involved in each other's lives or living almost separately. Individual partners may be high powered and success oriented or low key and laid back--oriented to material rewards or spiritually inclined.

By contrast, the most distressed couples display high levels of defensiveness, criticism, contempt, belligerence, and stonewalling with each other. In the longitudinal research of Gottman and his colleague Robert Levinson, these characteristics during interactions between spouses, often displayed nonverbally in expressions and gestures of one partner toward the other--rolling eyes, disdainful sneer, arms folded across the chest, sarcastic tone, tight lips, narrowed eyes, etc.--emerged as the best predictors of divorce and of intractable marital distress.

Research Assessing Couples Therapy

The research on couples' relationships has helped identify the key focal points in marriages that should be the targets of therapeutic interventions. In parallel, a second set of investigators has begun to develop a significant body of work assessing whether couples therapy works and, if so, which interventions work best. The findings from these studies show that couples therapy is generally effective in reducing distress in relationships. The metanalysis produced by William Shadish and Scott Baldwin, for example, finds effect sizes for couples treatments to be in the same range as those for individual therapy--typically helping three out of four couples.

Couples therapy, both alone or in combination with other interventions, also has been demonstrated to be effective for treating several individual disorders. such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Two quite different factors appear to account for this result. First, partners can play a useful role in encouraging and supporting treatment in a partner. For example, Barbara McCrady of Rutgers University and the team of William Fals-Stewart from the Research Institute on Addictions in Buffalo, N.Y., and Timothy O'Farrell from Harvard Medical School have shown that one partner can help the other more fully engage in treatment, and encourage him or her to behave in ways that reduce the likelihood of substance abuse. The second factor stems from the remarkably high rates at which marital distress occurs along with individual disorders. In a recent national study of comorbidity, Mark Whisman of the University of Colorado found that 28 percent of individuals in distressed marriages also suffered from anxiety disorders, 15 percent met criteria for a diagnosis of depression, and 14 percent for

substance-use disorder. Thus, for a subset of individuals with these disorders, it's an open question whether the more pivotal problem is the individual disorder or the marital distress.

Following this logic, two different research groups--Steven Beach and Daniel O'Leary, then of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and Neil Jacobson and colleagues--each found that a behavioral form of marital therapy was an effective treatment for individual depression affecting partners in distressed marriages. And whereas individual treatment in these studies also was shown to have an effect on individual depression, only the marital therapy had any effect on the marital distress. Marital therapy thus emerged as the treatment of choice for those with both depression and distressed marriages.

Research has shown that vastly different forms of marital therapy have a positive impact, and each has an overall level of impact similar to the other treatments. As in every form of treatment research, there have been demonstrations of the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral approaches, but there also have been numerous studies demonstrating the impact of Susan Johnson's Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. Additionally, two of the best studies in this field have focused on the psychoanalytic-intergenerational treatment called Insight-Oriented Marital Therapy, developed by Douglas Snyder, and a treatment focused on acceptance of one's partner, Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson's Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy.

The cognitive-behavioral therapies accentuate learning and engaging in more skillful marital behaviors, such as communication and problem-solving. Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy centers on building secure attachment between partners through uncovering and nurturing the soft feelings of vulnerability and connection that lie beneath conflict. Insight-Oriented Marital Therapy helps couples understand partners' experiences in their families of origin, and how their family background affects or promotes difficulties in their relationships. This mode of therapy ultimately challenges engrained patterns of interaction. Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy accentuates developing skills for living with one's partner and accepting the aspects of the other's behavior that can't be changed. Each method shows success in approximately 75 percent of couples. As Alan Gurman of the University of Wisconsin has suggested, it seems clear that there are many routes to the goal of changing the experience of being a couple.

Another finding is that aspects of treatment related to the process of therapy, such as the generation of a positive therapeutic alliance, play a crucial role in the treatment's success. Couples therapy is notoriously difficult. Clients often seek help only after problems have become nearly intolerable. By the time a clinician sees them, one of the partners may have pretty much written off the entire marriage, which undercuts his or her motivation to establish a strong, working relationship with the therapist. Thus, alliances between clients and the therapist are fragile early in treatment.

Studies by Lynne Knobloch-Fedders and William Pinsof of the Family Institute at Northwestern, like other investigations, demonstrate that early alliance predicts treatment outcome. Their findings suggest that therapists must be especially sensitive to what Pinsof calls the split alliance, in which one person feels allied with the therapist and the other doesn't.

In general, research data--even from a small body of studies--make a powerful case for the effectiveness of couples therapy. Yet the same data provide clear indications of its shortcomings.

Most studies show that the impact of these therapies on couples can be limited. When the treatment is successful, couples frequently don't reach a level of genuine marital well-being characteristic of genuinely happy unions, even though they're less dissatisfied, and their marriages work somewhat better. Then treatment isn't always successful, so the relationships of a significant percentage of couples in most studies simply don't improve at all. It appears that with enough bad feeling and erosion of John Gottman's "positive sentiment override," couples have a hard time making real progress in therapy. In addition, even when couples experience a positive outcome, the effects may not last. The few studies that have conducted follow-ups of clients over several years frequently find regression in levels of marital satisfaction over time. This has been the case particularly with Behavioral Couples Therapy, the approach with the most follow-up studies. These findings suggest that long-term marital distress has many of the properties of a chronic condition, and may be similarly resistant to treatment.

Yet some approaches show promise of generating positive outcomes that do last. The study by Snyder and Wills of Insight-Oriented Marital Therapy showed remarkable stability in the positive effects over a five-year period. This suggests that spouses who develop insight into their problems may have better results over the long haul.

Others approaches appear to be effective even with couples who have a long history of unhappiness in their marriages. The study of Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy by Christensen, Jacobson, and colleagues showed a clinically significant impact on an extremely distressed sample of couples. Couples included in this study displayed a high degree of marital distress in a three-step screening process and had experienced marital discord for many years. Surprisingly, 71 percent of these couples improved following treatment, moving into the range of couples in nondistressed marriages on the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, the most widely used measure of marital satisfaction.

Despite these findings of effectiveness, surveys sometimes have shown a low regard for couples therapy. In a 1995 survey conducted by Martin Seligman, Consumer Reports asked readers who'd undergone therapy, either individual or marital, for their opinion of its impact on their lives. The results demonstrated that individual psychotherapy clients were almost universally satisfied, while clients of marital counselors had the highest rates of dissatisfaction--approaching 50 percent of the sample.

It may be that this finding reflects the results for clients who'd simply entered marital therapy too late and/or under duress, for whom treatment probably would have been short-lived and unsuccessful. It also may be that what respondents described as marital counseling may have little connection with what we now think of as marital therapy. However, to the extent that such negative attitudes are still held today, the field needs to find ways to make even those couples whose marriages aren't helped feel that seeing a marital therapist is worthwhile on some level--if only because they learn something about themselves individually or about why their marriages failed.

In sum, there are now four empirically supported methods of practice for which positive outcomes have been demonstrated: Behavioral Couples Therapy, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, and Insight-Oriented Marital Therapy. We also should highlight, as Al Gurman has for many years, that there are many forms of couples therapy, such as Bowenian and narrative therapy, which may be effective but haven't been studied yet.

The totality of this body of research offers us the security of knowing that what we do as couples therapists truly does make a difference. However, there's a great deal that we still don't know about what can help couples improve their relationships most effectively and about how to foster changes that last.


Gurman, Alan S., and Neil S. Jacobson (eds.). Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. 3rd edition. New York: Guilford Press, 2002.

Jacobson, Neil S., and Andrew Christensen. Acceptance and Change in Couple Therapy: A Therapist's Guide to Transforming Relationships. New York: Norton, 1998.

Johnson, Susan M. The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection. 2nd edition. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2004.

Snyder, Douglas K., A. M. Castellani, and Mark A. Whisman. "Current Status and Future Directions in Couple Therapy." Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 57 (2006): 317-44.

Whisman, Mark A. "Marital Dissatis-faction and Psychiatric Disorders: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 108, no. 4 (November 1999): 701-06.

Jay Lebow, Ph.D., is a contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and clinical professor at Northwestern University. He's also senior therapist and research consultant at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. Contact: Letters to the Editor about this department may be e-mailed to


Friday, 17 October 2008 17:41

A Complicated Grieving

Written by Ari Rosenberg


A Complicated Grieving

Death, guilt, and anger are an explosive mix

By Sameet Kumar

Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make it any easier to go through. Even so, grief often resolves itself. It may never entirely fade, and the loss that caused it certainly won't be forgotten, but it almost always changes and becomes incorporated into life, so the grieving person can move on.

There are times, however, when grief doesn't take this relatively straightforward path toward resolution. What we call complicated grief typically results from complex and often ambivalent relationships, leaving in the survivor unresolved feelings of guilt, shame, anger, and regret that can fester, sometimes for many years. For therapists, negotiating the troubled waters of complicated grief can be difficult because one partner in a complicated relationship has died or is unavailable for some other reason. In effect, were challenged to find a solution to an equation with only half the factors at our disposal.

Tracy and John comprised such a difficult equation. I first met Tracy while she was in the hospital receiving an intense form of chemotherapy for her metastatic melanoma. She was a 58-year-old woman, the cornerstone of her family and community, who'd risen from being a waitress to being the manager of a popular local restaurant. Her husband, John, visited her in the hospital regularly, while her children and grandchildren, who all lived at a considerable distance, came to see her as often as they could, and gave her their unflinching support.

Tracy showed a remarkable ability to tolerate her grueling chemotherapy regimen, which required regular hospitalizations. Typically during this kind of chemotherapy, people experience intense fevers, rigors or uncontrollable shaking, chills, and nausea, followed by complete exhaustion for the next week. However, Tracy had remarkably few side effects. She attributed this to sheer willpower. When I set my mind on something, you can consider it done, she said on numerous occasions. As proof, she reported that her restaurant had been losing money when she was given her management position, but became extremely profitable within a year of her taking over.

I saw Tracy intermittently for the next two years. Her busy schedule at work and at the cancer center made regular sessions difficult to schedule. Usually she'd see me when starting a new treatment modality or when faced with difficult treatment choices. I was both her therapist and coach, helping her navigate the maze of the medical system, while encouraging her innate fighting spirit.

As the months passed, even though she was trying various interventions, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, and in spite of her formidable willpower, her melanoma continued to advance, though much more slowly than expected. It spread from organ to organ, finally invading her brain, liver, and lungs. Throughout this time, John was at her side whenever she was at our treatment center.

While many people at our center suffer and die alone, regardless of family size, income, and social standing, others seem to be blessed by a caring and dedicated network of family and friends. We can usually tell when support is genuine and when its superficial. John's support was consistently identified by all team members as selfless and commendable. He and Tracy appeared to be an ideal couple. His care of his wife seemed to draw on an inexhaustible well of a good feeling generated by a long, happy marriage.

John wasn't just emotionally supportive: he also grasped the fine details of Tracy's disease and treatment options. During one visit to our cancer center, he confided privately to me, fighting back tears, that he knew it was only a matter of time before Tracy died, and that he felt it was his duty to make sure that her quality of life was the best it could be for whatever time she had left.

Broken Trust

Then one day, Tracy asked to meet with me alone, an unusual request since our meetings had always coincided with one of her treatments. By now, she was much sicker than when we'd first met. During this session, I was shocked to learn that she and John were living apart, and had been separated for two years. Sensing my surprise, Tracy further revealed that their separation was a secret, known to their adult children, two sons and one daughter, their closest friends, and a few others. Most of their grandchildren weren't aware of the separation, and she didn't want me to reveal my knowledge of the situation to anyone, not even their kids.

She said she'd asked John to leave the house when she discovered that he'd had an affair with another woman almost 20 years previously, and had fathered a daughter who was now 18. The affair had lasted a year and a half, and John had sworn to Tracy that he'd been faithful ever since. John himself had revealed this information to Tracy only after her melanoma diagnosis. At that point, she'd asked him to leave their home.

Now that she was ill and her health had continued to decline, she was unsure about the separation. She wanted to explore the issue in therapy. As a devout Roman Catholic, she felt deeply torn between her religious obligation to forgive John and her anger at him, as well as her desire for justice. She couldn't bring herself to agree to live with him again, feeling that the bond of trust between them had been irrevocably destroyed. By now her eldest son, Geoff, who was 35, and her 14-year-old grandson, Bobby, were living in her house, so she didn't need John's constant attention at home. As she said to me, her mind was made up--she wouldn't let him come back, and there was no changing it.

Whatever her affection for John, Tracy felt she couldn't love him as her husband anymore, and didn't want to spend her final weeks or months living under the same roof with him. Moreover, she was adamant about never wanting to meet his adult daughter. I asked her if I could talk to John about this meeting, should the need ever arise after her death. She said yes.

As the session continued, it became evident that she wasn't emotionally prepared to work toward the forgiveness she felt obligated to offer John. She simply couldn't do it, and didn't feel bad about it. Tracy's last words to me on the issue were, "He made a bad mistake, and I guess he has to suffer the consequences. Why should I be the one who has to do all the work?" At this point, it became clear that our therapy focus was going to be preparing Tracy to die while keeping the rift in her family manageable, rather than finding a way to heal her relationship with her husband in the short time she had left.

Shortly after this conversation, the decline in her health began to accelerate. Each week, she developed a serious new symptom, requiring more frequent blood transfusions and hospital care. Through it all, John was by her side. During her final week, I saw her one last time. After she thanked me for the help I'd given, we shared a tearful goodbye. She died two days later, surrounded by her husband, their children, and her closest friends.

A Family in Shambles

The week after her funeral, at John's request, I met with him and their three children. Although I frequently meet with family members after the death of their loved ones, this was a particularly difficult session for me to anticipate, since I knew that there was going to be an elephant in the room with us--one that John and the kids didn't know I knew about. I wasn't completely sure what the purpose of the family meeting would be or what direction it might take.

Not surprisingly, just as he was dedicated to Tracy in life, John was now shepherding their clan through grief. Meeting privately with John prior to the family session, before I mentioned my meeting with Tracy, he disclosed their separation, talking about his guilt over his affair, as well as his anger at being exiled from his home during her final illness. Although he was relieved to know that Tracy had attempted to work through this issue with me privately, he was distraught at his wife's inability to forgive him. His own lingering guilt about his long-ago affair was almost overshadowing his grief for his wife. I asked John what would ease his guilt and his pain. He said that it would help if his children could have a relationship with his daughter.

When I met separately with all three children, it was clear that they all had considerable anger toward their father, which partially masked their grief for their mother. Just as my goal with Tracy was to keep the rift manageable around the time of her dying, my goal now became restoring cohesion between John and his children. It didn't seem fair to me that John would be sidelined from the family for a mistake he'd made so many years ago, and at the time when they all needed each other more than ever. I've seen many families disintegrate after the death of a parent. I didn't want to see this happen to Tracy's family.

In order to facilitate cohesion, I began to describe in detail the care that John had shown Tracy, even after he'd been exiled from their home. He'd been given every opportunity to leave the relationship, but had chosen to stick with Tracy to the degree she allowed. Surely, this counted for something.

Indeed, the three adult children were able to factor this into their feelings. Looking at the big picture, they were all able to forgive their father for his mistake. Still, none of them wanted a relationship with their half-sister. Like Tracy, they were set in their ways regarding this matter, and there was no budging them. It was as if their anger toward John was being transferred to their half-sister. They didn't think this unwillingness to have a relationship with her was a problem, and therefore saw no need to discuss the issue further. Even so, I felt that helping them find some measure of forgiveness for John was important to have attained. The relationship with the half-sister could wait. After all, their mother had died only days before.

By contrast, when the entire family met, it was obvious that John desperately wanted to normalize things quickly by bringing his daughter into the family. I didn't think this was realistic. It was clear that the family potentially was heading toward an explosive impasse; in fact, the children refused to discuss the matter with John in the room.

As the weeks went on, the impasse continued. They all came to weekly sessions for three weeks. Each of the children grieved in his or her own way. The middle child, a 30 year-old son, was almost completely disengaged from the family, and was unwilling to come to therapy after the third session. The youngest, a 25-year-old daughter, began drinking heavily again, and I referred her back to Alcoholics Anonymous. I then began to meet with the eldest son, Geoff, and John, individually and together, every two weeks. At this stage, they'd become fixated on Tracy's favorite grandson, Geoff's son Bobby, telling me that he was having a particularly difficult time grieving.

When I met with Bobby, however, it was clear that he was grieving in a reasonably normal manner. Certainly, he was doing better than some of his older relatives, despite his father and grandfather's concerns. When I asked him what the hardest part of Tracy's death was for him, he replied, I miss having a grandparent. This one comment seemed to provide a clear therapeutic goal for both John and Bobby. Since Bobby had been so close to Tracy, he really hadn't developed a relationship with John.

Turning Toward Life

Rather than seek to unify the family by bringing in John's other daughter, it seemed much more attainable to nurture a relationship between John and Bobby. In meeting individually with John at the end of my session with Bobby, I gave him homework to spend more time with his grandson, perhaps even doing some of the same things, in his own way, that Tracy had done for the boy.

Two weeks later, when we all met together again, I found that John had plunged into this homework with genuine dedication. He'd attended several of Bobby's baseball games, something he hadn't done when Tracy was alive. They'd even managed to carve out some quality time alone together, going fishing in one of the many canals that crisscross south Florida. Bobby loved this particular activity, commenting to me that Tracy was loath to fish and his father never seemed to have the time. In many ways, it seemed, John was now caring for his grandson, just as he'd cared for his wife.

When John and I met individually in this session, it proved to be one of our most intense meetings. When I asked him what the past two weeks had been like, he became teary eyed. It wasn't because he missed Tracy, even though he did miss her terribly--he was crying out of love for Bobby. I can see why she loved this kid so much, he told me. When I asked him directly about bringing his other daughter into the family, his answer surprised me. I can do that on my own. I need to focus on the family Tracy and I built together. I owe it to her.

As the session continued, we explored John's guilt toward Tracy. I disclosed to him that Tracy had tried to work this through in therapy but had been unable to genuinely forgive him. He didn't sound surprised. I don't know if I can ever forgive myself, he said. Sensing that a breakthrough moment was at hand, I encouraged him to continue, using his earlier comment about owing it to her as fuel. If you can't forgive yourself and she couldn't forgive you, you're pretty much stuck. If you're so weighed down with this heavy burden, how can you ever possibly make it up to her, and to the family?

In this moment, after spending more time with Bobby during the past two weeks, the answer seemed obvious. John had already articulated it, but now he knew it deeply, and so did I. I have to focus on the family Tracy and I built together. I have to be a better father and grandfather. I could almost feel the burden lift off him as the elephant of his guilt left the room.

For John, the better he felt about his ability to meet Bobby's emotional needs, the less anger and guilt he experienced about his complex relationship with Tracy. He reported that he'd been largely absent from Bobby's life before Tracy's illness, but now felt that nurturing a relationship with his grandson allowed him to atone for his past mistakes in his marriage. In many ways, Bobby had become a receptacle for the love he bore Tracy. In caring for Bobby, John was able to continue loving Tracy, while finding a sense of forgiveness after her death that had eluded him while she was alive.

John's relationship with Bobby was both redemptive and mutually rewarding. Bobby gained a grandfather at the same time that John was relieved of some of the burden of guilt he carried. By focusing on the immediate tasks of being a good grandparent, John's grief became transformed from pain and complicated guilt to a sense of meaningful engagement.

Working with Tracy's family touched on many of the issues of complicated grief. When a loved one dies and issues of guilt and anger color the already difficult, meandering path of grief, healing lies in the world of the living. Reinvesting in relationships often helps give meaning to incomplete or distressing feelings that can complicate grief. The pain of grief is intense, almost cruel at times. Yet for everyone experiencing grief, complicated or otherwise, the lesson is usually the same: life is short and precious. Nurturing life, nurturing relationships, and finding meaning in our ability to do so taps into our innate capacity for healing. These are the paths to explore in grief, and in life.

Case Commentary

By David Treadway

Complicated grief, involving varying degrees of guilt, anger, relief, and blame, separates people who might otherwise draw closely together after the loss of a loved one. That family members often grieve in very different ways may cause conflict among them, which can actually block the grieving process itself.

Sameet Kumar's case presents an excellent example of how delicate and difficult it is to address complicated grief. He does a superb and tender job of holding all the family members, despite their conflicts. Then, by sidestepping the impasse over John's daughter and triangulating in the grandson Bobby, he provides a connecting link that keeps them together despite their many unresolved issues.

He also shows the power of taking here-and-now action steps to promote healing, rather than being overly dependent on the sharing feelings method that most of us therapists are biased toward. Tears of joy in discovering a relationship with his grandson are just as healing for John as tears of sadness, perhaps more so. It seems clear that slowly, over time, the family will reunite and forgive their father.

Nicely done.

It's very important for all of us in the therapeutic community to respect the different ways people have of grieving and to guard against our own biases about what's the right way to grieve. In the last few years, four of my clients have had a child die during the course of our therapy. In the face of this unbearable tragedy, each grieving parent has struggled to survive in very individual ways, and each couple has shown profound differences in how they've coped. The essence of my role with each of them has been to provide support in whatever way of grieving seems to work best, and to avoid projecting onto them my assumptions about psychologically healthy ways of expressing grief.

In considering Kumar's case, I realized yet again that the simple principle of respect for differences that we apply to grieving families is just as important in how we understand each others approaches to therapy. Kumar did an exceptional job with this family, enabling them to find closure and healing. And yet, simply because I'm not Kumar, I probably would have handled the case using other approaches.

Here are a few aspects of the case I think I might have done differently.

Long before Tracy brought up the affair, I'd have initiated ongoing couple and family meetings, as well as meetings between Tracy and each of her children. I'd have encouraged family members to write to Tracy, describing what she'd meant to them, the memories they had of her, and other things that were on their minds. I'd have strongly recommended that Tracy write them also before she got too sick.

Once Tracy brought up the affair and separation, particularly if I already had a therapeutic relationship with John, I might have asked John and Tracy to meet together with me, even if there was only time for just one session. I'd have supported her need not to forgive and to stay separated. I'd also have encouraged John to really try to understand and fully acknowledge what his profound betrayal had done to Tracy. Not only had he harmed his wife by having the affair itself, but by keeping it a secret, he'd probably soiled for her, as she neared death, the memory of all the intervening years when she hadn't known. John's acknowledgement of how he'd harmed her might have allowed him to feel that at least he'd done everything he could do to make amends to his wife before she died.

Assuming I'd had a good working relationship with the family members before Tracy's death, I might have tried to keep the alcoholic daughter and the distant son engaged in the treatment, because their complicated grief was just as central as John's.

Because I'd have been more involved with all three siblings, I might have triangulated the family around responding to the sisters alcoholism after she started drinking again. Of course, this might well have been much less effective than Kumar's focus on the John/grandson relationship, which turned out so well. I can only too easily imagine the family and me sinking into the substance-abuse quicksand pit rather than walking around it.

So these are some of the differences in how I might have approached the case. Even with 20/20 hindsight, it isn't at all clear that my way would have ended up being as good as or better than Kumar's. Who knows? This is truly the nature of therapy, despite all our attempts to replicate evidence-based treatment models.

We therapists truly practice an arcane art. Every day, we have to risk giving our hearts and minds freely to those in our trust, without certainty that we can help them or even avoid doing harm. Sometimes it feels like the blind leading the blind. Despite that, like Kumar, we reach out our hands to our clients and, side by side, walk along with them together for a little while.

Sameet Kumar, Ph.D., is in private practice providing individual, group, and family therapy to cancer patients and caregivers. He also provides palliative care psychotherapy and bereavement therapy to patients with advanced cancer. His first book is Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss. Contact:

David Treadway, Ph.D., is director of the Treadway Training Institute in Weston, Massachusetts. Hes the author of Intimacy, Change, and Other Therapeutic Mysteries; Dead Reckoning: A Therapist Confronts His Own Grief; and Before It's Too Late: Working with Substance Abuse in the Family. Contact:

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