Helping Couples Build a Stronger Connection
Why is it so hard for couples to build successful relationships?
Imagine the following hypothetical counseling conversation between husband and wife. He says, “Every time I try to relax, she’s always complaining about something, and she never stops, even when I tell her I need some space. She keeps going on and on about an issue, but she never listens.” She says, “He never wants to open up and share what’s going on with him. When I try to get closer, he shuts down and crosses his arms. Or we end up arguing, and it never gets resolved.” Each partner sticks to their own position, trying to win the verbal feud, but it only creates more distance. They want to have a healthy, thriving relationship but don’t know how.
What’s going on here?
It may help to know that reasonable conflict is common for both happy and unhappy marriages (1), so if you’ve ever had a conflict with your partner, you are not alone. When I counsel couples, my goal is to help couples learn how to repair their negative interactions when they are having a conflict. This does not include couples that have escalated into a harmful pattern of domestic violence or abuse, which affects a partner’s safety and may require intervention or separation.
One common pattern of conflict occurs when one partner pursues and the other partner withdraws, creating an ongoing cycle (2). This causes the pursuer (who is often the woman, but can also be the man) to feel anxious, insecure, and unloved, so she pursues her partner even more. As a result, her partner feels attacked and wants to distance himself, or if the partner becomes overwhelmed with anger, may fight back with angry, hurtful words or aggressive behavior. Couples can find themselves repeating this pattern every time they have a disagreement, and then they get stuck using the same tactics repeatedly.
When these kinds of patterns occur, the couple’s emotional attachment is disrupted. The pain they feel is called attachment pain and runs deep. One or both partners may be reacting to longstanding wounds caused earlier in life that have not been healed. As a result, the current conflict reminds them of some earlier pain from childhood or past relationships. Their distress is magnified and their reaction ends up being stronger than what the present situation requires (3).
So how can we build a stronger, healthier relationship?
You can work to develop new patterns of interaction using relational skills that can be learned (3). You can stop the cycle of pursuing/withdrawing by recognizing what is happening, noticing your conflict pattern, and learning to calm yourself if you’re overwhelmed. You may have had earlier trauma or past experiences that are interfering in your relationship, but take hope that trauma can be resolved if you are willing to seek help. Many couples need help developing these skills, so don’t hesitate to find a therapist who can guide you through this process.
Is there anything we can do right away that will help?
Remember that building these skills takes time, but you can begin the process today. There is an exercise called Checking In that you can practice every day, several times a day. You and your partner check in with each other using a simple word that describes how you feel at the moment. Some check-in words to describe emotions might be accomplished, rested, stressed, overwhelmed, happy, or focused. For a really helpful tool to expand your emotional vocabulary, use this emotions wheel. Beyond a feeling, your check in can also be a goal or anything that paints a picture of your internal world. Notice how your body is feeling; usually anxiety and stress is felt in the pit of your stomach, the middle of your chest, or in your back and neck, which will seem stiff.
This exercise is most successful when each partner agrees to accept each other’s check in word, acknowledge it, and not try to fix anything. Trying to fix the other person once you hear their check-in word, or trying to fix a problem for your partner, does not build a connection. It usually makes your partner feel defensive, undervalued, or unheard. Doing this exercise can help you build a stronger emotional attachment and feel connected with your partner. You may be surprised to learn new things about your partner, and you will feel a sense of being included in their world that day. Although this won’t remove all conflict between you, it can help you toward building that emotional connection that keeps you feeling secure and loved (Warner & Coursey, 2019).
- Gottman, J. M. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Eggerichs, E. (2004). Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires, the Respect He Desperately Needs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
- Friesen, J. G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R., & Poole, M. (2013). Living Trom the Heart Jesus Gave You. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
- Warner, M., & Coursey, C. (2019). The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages: How 15 Minutes a Day Will Help You Stay in Love. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.