Steps to turn your relationship around
Written with Lauren Mays, MA
Our romantic relationships are an important source for our sense of relational value, which is the feeling that we matter to others and are worthy of love, admiration, respect and so on. Unfortunately, in the process of building and maintaining our partnerships, it is easy for vicious cycles to emerge. In Part I, we highlighted John Gottman’s work on such cycles and introduced what he called the Four Horsemen that lead to Relationship Armageddon (criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt).
If the relationship is pushed to the brink, what is the couple to do? The following series of steps is offered as a basic roadmap for turning the vicious relationship cycles into more virtuous ones, and building a more secure emotional foundation from which to operate. Derived in part out of our own experience as both therapists and partners in romantic relationships, the steps below are grounded in Emotion Focused Couple Therapy(link is external), a leading, empirically supported intervention (link is external)based in understanding how the foundation of romantic relationships are structured around attachment needs and how emotions are signals regarding those needs. This leads to the conclusion that to build a secure relationship, couples need the tools to decode these emotional communications, and teach one another how each needs to be valued in order to feel secure.*
Step 1. Commit to Adaptive Relationship Behavior. When relationships go wrong they can bring out the worst in us. Although it is easier said than done, we encourage couples to commit to adaptive relationship behavior. The most obvious examples of maladaptive relationship behavior are destructive, hostile, or even violent acts designed to hurt the individual for past infractions. We try to get couples to see that such acts inevitably deepen vicious cycles and do not result in either party getting their needs met. So, make a commitment that no matter how painful the conflict is, if you know the act is destructive in nature, move away rather than enact it.
Step 2. Take Stock and End Relationships that Can Not Be Salvaged. Relationships can get to the point of no return. If one member of the relationship has checked out, has contempt for the other, or is convinced in his (or her) heart across time and situations that the relationship is over, then it is over and the couple needs to work toward adaptive separation. Although excruciatingly painful, it nevertheless is the case that love or lasting partnerships cannot be forced. However, if both partners still can still access their loving feelings at least some times, and what has been eating away at the relationship is a cycle of negativity rather than a fundamental change in attitude about the other, then there is hope.
Step 3. Call the Field. This is the process of describing both people’s experience in the relationship WITHOUT implication of either fault or change for the other. Thus, in the example from the Part I, if we were to ‘call the field’, we would describe Mary as feeling frustrated and resentful that Phillip does not help around the house. Phillip feels both nagged and physically rejected. These are descriptive statements. What happens to couples is that when they hear these descriptions from their partner they want to quickly justify why they are not to blame for the other person’s negative feelings (e.g., upon hearing these statements, Phillip will want to say he does help some around the house, or Mary will justify why she nags him, etc.). In calling the field, it is crucial to differentiate the description of how people feel from whether or not the feeling is justified or whether or not the partner is to blame or should do something different. So, if you and your partner are having a conversation with the goal of calling the field, each person would initially describe their experience (with no implication for blame or change) and the other person would attempt to listen as openly and empathetically as possible. After calling the field, you should be able to describe deeply and accurately your partner’s state of mind and why they do what they do.
Step 4. Identify Vicious Cycles (Use the Lens of the Horseman). Once the feelings of each person are identified, then consideration needs to be given to how the couple functions as a system. In other words, the vicious cycles need to be identified. We would identify Mary’s feeling of being treated unfairly as leading to criticism of Phillip, which in turn would lead to Phillip’s withdrawal and stonewalling, which in turn only makes Mary feel angry and so on. We are still in the calling the field stage, meaning that we are not blaming individuals, just describing the relationship as a cyclical pattern. Each individual should first attempt to own what horseman they are likely to ride, and they should ask the other partner what is their sense. If there is disagreement (e.g., Mary says Phillip stonewalls, but Phillip denies it), then the disagreement should simply be noted, not argued over.
Step 5. Identify Core Issues of Attachment Security and Relational Value. Emotions organize our responses and communicate our needs. Generally, the core needs in a romantic relationship are the sense that the other person respects and loves you and will be there with you through the thick and the thin. In addition to this general sense, each person will have their own unique histories that contribute to a potential sense of insecurity or vulnerability. For example, it would be easy to imagine that Phillip had trouble successfully dating women before he met Mary and thus might be particularly insecure about his sexual attractiveness. Or perhaps Mary felt like her father neglected aspects of her and her family, and thus is particularly vulnerable to feeling ignored. In this step, each partner needs to trace their expressed emotions to their core relationship needs. The couple, as a system, then needs to reinterpret the emotions not as just another expression of negativity, but as an expression of core needs. Mary needs to feel that Phillip is attentive to her needs, and thus her nagging is an expression that she feels taken advantage of and neglected. Phillip’s distancing behavior is a signal that he fears he is not admired or desired by Mary.
Step 6. Promote Understanding, Acceptance and Compassion for the Other. One of the most difficult but important skills in effectively navigating complex relationships is the capacity to hold multiple frames of reality at the same time. It is the case that Mary did do most of the housework and Phillip did not attend to her as much as he might have. AND he distanced himself for good reasons, having to do with his own needs and his own issues. The question is, can Mary hold both her own needs and Phillip’s reality (and vice versa)? We try to teach couples that, because they are a system, it actually is not hard to understand why both members feel hurt and feel justified in that hurt. We ask couples to take time to open up psychic space for understanding, acceptance and compassion for the other, while telling them that such an attitude does not make their perspective unjustified.
Step 7. Change the Process of How Each Person’s Relationship Needs Are Expressed and Responded To. With understanding and acceptance of the feelings, needs, and cyclical horseman, the couple now needs to work on changing the dance. If, for example, there has been a withdraw-blame cycle, the withdrawer needs to be invited back into the relational space, and explore ways to invest in the relationship and express care and attention to the core relational needs of the blamer. The blamer in contrast needs to receive such changes affirmatively and express what kind of investment would be meaningful and what would not. Thus, Phillip might extend the invitation to do all the dishes or help her weed the garden. Instead of making a snide remark that that would be a drop in the bucket, Mary needs to reward Phillip for taking initiative and provide feedback about what kind of investment was meaningful and what was not. Likewise, Mary, in the more blamer role, would be encouraged to identify times when she was happy with or attracted to Phillip and communicate those feelings.
Step 8. Replace the Horseman and Consolidate Gains. By going through the above mentioned steps, the couple will ideally have decoded what their emotions mean about their core needs and understand why the strategy of criticism, stonewalling or defensiveness not only does not get their needs met, but puts the relationship on a downward cycle. In the final phase, the couple systematically applies the above frames to the patterns and cycles of negativity, learning the kinds of situations and communications that are most likely to diminish a their partner’s sense of relational value and instead replace those strategies with clearer, more authentic communication, thus increasing the likelihood that the partner will understand the relational need and rise to meet it.
Relationships are hardwork and require commitment, investment and self-sacrifice. If your relationship is on the brink, but still has a foundation that makes it salvagable, we hope you might find part of your roadmap to more virtuous cycles by following the steps offered here.
*Note, this is recommended for couples who are not in physically controlling or abusive relationships. Situations involving physical control require different kinds of interventions.