Since launching my psychotherapy practice, I have had the privilege to work with a growing number of couples. In the process, I continue to develop a list of insights regarding couples’ conflict and repair.

Building on my first article on couples therapy, I’d like to share 3 additional insights that stand out for me.

These insights are also transferable to relationships between siblings, friends, or business partners.

Insight #1: Conflict Incidents Are Rarely Analysed Properly.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
– George Bernard Shaw

During my couples therapy sessions, I often invite my clients to share a recent conflict they had. Then, I will ask them to treat it like a movie, and break it down, frame by frame.

Specifically, I want to know:

  • How was each person feeling throughout the day, both physically and emotionally, prior to the conflict?
  • What was happening for each person right before the conflict began?
  • What was the first trigger that set off the conflict?
  • In excruciating detail, what was the sequence of events after the trigger?

For each movie frame, I ask what each person’s thoughts and emotions were in that moment. This gives my clients the opportunity to reflect on their process: how they move through their thoughts and emotions, to behaviours.

Then we move to “Best Self Rescripting”. During this process, I ask my clients: in that movie frame, if you were the best version of yourself, what would you have done differently? Their answer becomes the rescript.

Some clients express a concern that they don’t know what their best self looks like. In these cases, I immediately take them through a Core Values exercise to help them create a clear vision of their best self.

I have not yet met a couple who analyse recent conflict incidents in this manner. And why would they? Frame by frame analysis is not a skill we are ever taught in life.

Insight #2: Letting Go of Being Right.

The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.
– Carl Jung

In my clinical work, I often find that one or both members of the couple will try to persuade me that they are right and the other is wrong. Or that they enjoy “information superiority”; that is, if the other party could just possess the same information that they do, everything would be fine.

Couples say things such as:

  • “You see what he just said? It’s obvious he doesn’t get it! And that’s why we are here.”
  • “She is too sensitive. If she could just relax and have a positive perspective, we would be fine.”

One of the questions I always ask the other party is: What role are you playing in their persistent lack of understanding?

The response to that is usually confusion: “I don’t believe I’m playing any role in my partner’s problems.”

In my experience working with couples, I can confirm this: all of us play a role – whether active or passive – in our partners’ distress.

And therein lies a mind-blowing fact: you will almost never experience repair and growth with your partner by proving that you are right, or that you possess superior information.

In my experience, you will achieve repair and growth only when you make sense of your partner’s mental and emotional map, and connect with them there.

One of the key tools I used to help couples make sense of their partners’ maps is called Communication via Primary Emotions. You can read more about primary emotions in this article or listen to my podcast episode on emotions here.

Insight #3: The Importance of Simulated Scenarios.

Anyone who has studied martial arts knows that there is no amount of punching pads or kicking shields that prepares you for the ring as much as actual sparring does. It soon becomes obvious: the punching and kicking drills are critical as a foundation, but the raw event of sparring produces immediate and sustainable transformation in one’s fighting approach.

It is the same with couples therapy.

When I work with couples, I go beyond having them rescript their recent conflict incidents. I also go beyond having them engage in exercises featuring Communication via Primary Emotions.

To create accelerated and long-lasting transformation in my couples, I ask them to simulate real-life conflict. I ask them to reproduce the anger, contempt, or disappointment they experienced toward each other previously – right there in the therapy room.

Then, I invite them to leverage their newfound interpersonal awareness and communication skills, and apply them to the real-time experience.

This approach often produces giggles, awkwardness, and in some cases, long pauses, as couples struggle to execute this new way of being. That is why I am there, as a couples therapist, helping them “spar” toward greater empathy, understanding, and connection.

Next Steps

It is important to note that every couple’s journey through conflict is unique. The dynamics of each relationship are shaped by many factors: personal histories, communication styles, individual emotional processes, and environmental stressors.

To that end, the insights I share the above only as a starting point for exploring couples’ conflict and repair. If you decide to practice these approaches with your partner, ensure you do so in small steps.

If you are experiencing significant relationship conflict, the safest option is to work with a couples therapist in your area (you can also search for a couples counsellor or a marriage counsellor).

I hope you find this helpful.

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