Journey to a Better Relationship
Four Things to Pack
Couples often seek counseling to improve their relationship. The general goal is something like satisfaction, which can be quite vague unless you flesh it out with some specifics. But that’s where things can get pretty negative if couples and therapists aren’t careful.
Getting to relationship satisfaction can be an arduous and discouraging process of identifying areas where each partner is unhappy. The usual culprits are ways of spending our money, spending enough time together, enjoying sex, sharing responsibilities, and agreeing on parenting strategies.
Enter Jen Ripley and Ev Worthington—two experienced couples’ therapists from the Eastern U.S. I’m reading their recent book, Couple Therapy for a book review I’ll be sending off in a few weeks.
My focus in this post is on four goals they suggest for couples’ counseling. What I like about these ideas is how they fit with trends in psychology I’ve found helpful in the past couple of decades. More about these trends as I list the four goals. The authors refer to the couple counseling experience as a journey so I’m suggesting we think of these four ideas as things to pack for the journey.
FOUR RELATIONSHIP BUILDERS
Relationships need warmth. The authors are referring to a warm and loving bond between the partners. Years ago I was supervised for my license by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Julianne Lockwood. She and her colleagues at the University of New Mexico had studied child attachment. The goal was to discover the nature of the attachment relationship between parent and child. Since then many studies have focused on understanding attachment between partners in couples, among family members, and between individuals and God. People in relationships characterized by warm and secure attachments enjoy spending time with each other. The journey to a better relationship includes activities that build warmth.
You might wonder what virtue has to do with couple’s counseling. But consider how we respect people who live virtuous lives. And notice how disappointed we are when we discover the failures of close friends. I’m not necessarily talking about gross immorality. As the authors note, four cardinal virtues have a long history—justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. We naturally want to be around people who treat us fairly, display inner strength, demonstrate self-control, and are wise. An important influence on my own thinking has been the Positive Psychology movement with its emphasis on building personal strengths. It’s true we cannot ignore our failures and mistakes (probably why I find forgiveness so interesting) but the focus on developing virtues offers a life-long quest to become better and concomitantly learn to show respect toward others in our lives—including our life-partners.
The authors are writing about relationship health. As with any health focus, good health requires some effort to increase healthy habits of communication, respect, and caring and cut back on those opposing habits that can be so destructive (think Gottman’s four horsemen). Healthy habits require a commitment to regular exercise. If we need skills, we can find ideas in the book or from many skilled clinicians.
Happiness can be elusive. But when people are in a loving relationship they can be really happy. Sometimes you just want to sit down with your partner or enjoy a walk. Most of us prefer to be around happy people. Happiness is contagious and builds strong bonds. The authors include a quote from Les Misérables:
“The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” Victor Hugo
My only “payment” is a free copy of the book; but that came from the journal editor by way of the publisher not the authors—though you should know, I’m friends with the authors.
Ripley, J.S. & Worthington, E.L. Jr. (2014). Couple therapy: a new hope-focused approach. Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity.
*Note: This particular book integrates Hope Focused therapy with Christian spirituality. Hope-focused therapy is helpful for both secular and Christian couples.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166. Academia Link