Love Lessons: 6 new moves to improve your relationship

Some of the country's most respected relationship experts have devised an array of courses that teach couples how to manage conflict without reciprocating, retaliating, or invalidating their partner.

By Hara Estroff Marano

You and your mate have just had a fight. One of the countless minute, convoluted conversations that busy couples have every day in their push to Get Things Done, each one part spoken word, part signal code, part mind-reading, but one that suddenly flares into your own private Bosnia. A simple conversation that started out so expectantly just a second before goes off like a grenade in your hands.

Couples' arguments can be so deeply mired in the minutiae of their lives that at times mates may feel like they are locked into their own special hell. But what if most times, without paying any attention, you and your spouse were sliding into a deeply carved groove, having the same argument as countless times before? The triggers may be different. Socks on the floor. A rude remark to a father-in-law. An outsize phone bill. A diaper unchanged. A puddle of orange juice on the counter. A shrug. When the atmosphere is right, no act is too small to incite hostility.

In couples' myriad fights, despite our glorious individuality, we are all fighting exactly the same fight. Tolstoy, you see, got it wrong. Each couple may be unhappy in its own way, tripping over the particular furnishings of its own house, but every couple gets unhappy the exact same way and for the same reasons. We use the same words. We harden into the same positions. We feel the same alienation. And the same distress. The same processes overtake love in ways that marriage researchers now find extraordinarily predictable.

Yet, it is this very fact&emdash;the ritualization of revenge&emdash;that now promises to save love. Over the past 20 years, experts have been putting our intimate relationships under the microscope, studying our private reactions both by looking at what goes on between partners and inside them: videotaping every grimace, shrug, and caress, audiotaping every expletive and sigh, and monitoring physiological reactions throughout. They've come to understand why some relationships happily endure, what can make some hellholes of unhappiness, and what, precisely, precipitates divorce, which still claims half of all first marriages, usually within the first seven years.

Psychologists have seen with their own eyes that the overwhelming majority of couples start out with true love and great expectations. But mounting evidence suggests we get into trouble for a very humbling reason. We just don't know how to handle the negative feelings that, in the running of everyday lives, are the unavoidable byproduct of the differences between two people, the very differences that attract them to each other in the first place. Think of it as the friction any two bodies would generate rubbing against each other innumerable times each day.

Love Survival Skills

As a result, a growing number of researchers and clinicians have come to the conclusion that most unhappy couples don't so much need therapy as they do education. Education in how relationships work and in the specific skills that make them work well. "Having a good relationship is a skill," insists Howard Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Denver, a long-time marital researcher. Washington, D.C. family therapist Diane Sollee, M.S.W., agrees. "Marriage isn't a disease," she says, "you don't need therapy for it." Sollee is director of the recently formed Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, an organization that aims to make people aware of the new information that can change the odds for marital success. "Couples need to learn a way to stay engaged&emdash;not withdraw or attack&emdash;in such a highly stressful situation," explains psychologist Sherod Miller, Ph.D., another pioneer in couples education, who practices in Colorado.

This thinking embodies a sea change in the mental health world. For one, it formalizes the idea that the best way to help people is to teach them crucial psychological skills, so-called "psychoeducation." "Psychoeducation is nothing more than giving knowledge away to people so they can help themselves," says Sollee. In other words, courses aren't therapy&emdash;but they typically have a therapeutic effect. Psychoeducation also flatly rejects the medical model of illness&emdash;which sees problems as pathology&emdash;because it doesn't fit what are really normal problems of living, however much mental distress they may cause. In addition, it shifts value to prevention, so the development of problems that are costly to men, women, and children can be averted.

"We haven't had the revolution we need about love," Sollee insists. "Couples don't do anything different going into marriage knowing that 50 percent of them will be divorced in a few years. They think their love is so special they'll make it. They don't realize that the survival of marriage is not about love, it's about skills. It's a skill to know how not to escalate a conflict. If it isn't working it's not that you picked the wrong person. You need smart love."

For all the scientifically documentable benefits of preventing marital distress before it starts, Sollee is convinced that marital education is far and away the most romantic thing a couple can do, to stroll hand in hand into a course that will teach them how to keep their love alive. Or the best wedding present parents can give their children. Sollee has put her money where her mouth is, she has herself attended courses and given them a wedding presents to her two sons and their wives.

What couples today need to make a go of relationships is not something they could readily have picked up in their family of origin. "No one has the skills because the world is changing too fast," says Miller. Until recently, when men and women entered relationships they stepped into rigid roles precast by the culture. "We didn't see how parents made decisions in an open, constructive way," he says. "In my lifetime, couples have gone from role-taking, defined along gender lines, to role-making."

Couple Communication

Not only are roles fluid&emdash;established by individual couples&emdash;but everything is negotiable. "The world is more mobile," explains Miller, whose program, Couples Communication Management, was one of the first. "Information of all sorts impacts families so that they have more choice. In a world that's less routine, to find a context to live in couples must shift from a reliance on the external environment&emdash;extended family, church&emdash;to internal dependencies. They must be an internal support system, able to talk about any issue and work out a solution."

Miller began seeing couples conjointly in 1964, in Minneapolis, well before there was such a thing as family therapy. Quickly he discovered that "couples were relying on the therapist to be a problem-solver. I saw myself as actually creating a dependency. I wanted to teach couples how to be their own best problem-solver&emdash;to learn how to fish while we fished." So in 1968 he began courses that taught communication and conflict-resolution skills to groups of couples in four session of two hours.

For Miller, effective conflict resolution starts with the self&emdash;self-awareness, self-caring, self-honesty, knowing what one wants and valuing it enough to speak up for it clearly. "Lots of pathology grows out of not knowing oneself. Caring is listening to yourself, owning what you've done and haven't done." Then listening to your partner do the same.

The signature component of Miller's approach is a device called "The Awareness Wheel," a map printed on a floor mat that prompts partners to systematically review the different "zones" of inner information&emdash;thoughts, feelings, wants, actions, sensory data&emdash;that influence any problem they may confront. By physically moving to each zone on the mat in sequence, and addressing each other with information appropriate to the zone they are standing on, couples learn the fundamentals of talking effectively. Especially by getting their wants and feelings out in the open, Miller believes, couples can solve their problems.

"It's simple but powerful," says Miller, who drew on 25 years of research and every school and movement of psychology. Miller considers the mats a real breakthrough that accelerate learning. "In one month, couples can make dramatic change in the way they relate. The learning isn't just intellectual; it's kinesthetic." And if there's one thing couples need to do, it's learn these techniques through every portal to the brain, so they can have recourse to them at times of stress&emdash;like when they are discussing hot-button issues, when the natural impulse is to attack or run away.

"The map also helps couples create a common operating system," says Miller. Most of all, it helps a person manage him- or herself&emdash;and, pointedly, not the other. "They allow individuals to stay engaged in a situation&emdash;connected with themselves and their insides and their spouse and their spouse's insides."

Relationship Enhancement

Around the same time Miller was putting together his ideas in Minneapolis, Bernard Guerney, Ph.D., then young professor of psychology at Penn State, now professor emeritus, and ever a maverick thinker, was coming to the conclusion that all psychotherapy is really psychoeducation. "The difference is whether it's consciously administered and done in a way consistent with learning theory," he says. "Therapy is simply education after a problem develops." Having concluded that it was more efficient to use couples to help each other resolve their own difficulties, he created a course called Relationship Enhancement (RE). Its starting point is empathy, or compassion-training, learning to see things from a partner's perspective. Empathy, Guerney insists, is what people are really seeking in marriage, and that expectation represents a major break with the past. "People are looking for someone to be emotionally supportive, an emotional friend, a helpmate, a soulmate. That's not the way it used to be."

First and foremost in RE is empathic listening, Then comes empathic responding. Couples learn how to express themselves in an honest way that helps the other preserve self-image without invoking defensiveness. "You need to present your pain&emdash;pain the other has caused&emdash;in the context of your love so that he or she will be willing to make changes," says Guerney. "To convey one's feelings to the other is transformative to both."

Guerney, who now runs the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement full time in Bethesda, Maryland, has come to see that marriage partners typically do not express their needs. Over time, they learn not to ask for what they want&emdash;while they wish their partner understood what they want. "Frustration builds, then they ask their partner for what they want&emdash;in an attack. Only that guarantees they won't get it. Hostilities worsen and partners withdraw." For Guerney, the trick is how to ask for what you want in a nonthreatening way likely to lead to cooperation. "It creates a positive cycle that keeps love alive and growing," he says.

Using the X-ray as a guiding metaphor, he encourages couples to look for feelings and motives that haven't been expressed by a partner. "To do it, you have to put yourself in the other's place. It's a process of identification, not of emphasizing the differences between people. We teach people to imagine themselves as the other person.

To help couples get it right, the course is coaching-intensive. Trained coaches work closely and privately with each couple, showing them what to do. "We help people realize they always have a choice in interactions as to what they do. Most people react reflexively. We slow down the process of responding so that people can see the choice and take control of the relationship."

Guerney's program, like Miller's program, has undergone research to test its effectiveness. The evidence shows that while RE benefits all couples, distressed couples make the greatest gains.

Prevention and Relationship Enhancement

Where RE fosters identification and shared meaning between partners, Denver's Howard Markman has built a course, called Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), that revolves around their differences. It takes fighting as a given and aims to promote better&emdash;and egalitarian&emdash;fighting between partners as they air their gripes and concerns. Its operating premise is that you can't just say anything you want any way you want any time you want. Markman has established ground rules for handling conflict in ways, he says, "that protect a marriage from the ravages of poorly handled emotion." His protocol is called The Floor. The structure it imposes on speaking and listening is taught in a series of group lectures alternating with extensive private coaching sessions.

Extensively field-tested, the technique is summed up on little cards participants get, sized to fit in a pocket, perfect for carrying around as a constant reminder. Here's what they say:


Speaker-Listener Technique

Rules for the Speaker:
1. Speak for yourself. Don't mindread.
2. Keep statements brief. Don't go on and on.
3. Stop to let the Listener paraphrase.

Rules for the Listener:
1. Paraphrase what you hear.
2. Focus on the speaker's message. Don't rebut.

Rules for Both:
1. The Speaker has the floor.
2. Speaker keeps the floor while Listener paraphrases.
3. Share the floor.

The technique, says Markman, is deceptively simple. The speaker speaks, usually stating a complaint&emdash;without placing blame. "It really makes me angry when you don't call and dinner is waiting on the table." The listener doesn't rebut or justify himself, just demonstrates he heard by repeating his partner's remarks. "To be heard is a powerful tool by itself, the core to all intimate relationships. You don't even need to solve the problem. In fact, it is critical to not resolve things, just to be heard by your partner. People want understanding from each other, not resolution. Couples are really arguing over things from the past. Once couples clear the air, things get resolved by means of acceptance." During the private sessions, conducted by trained consultants, couples work on issues they haven't been able to resolve on their own.

If PREP puts most of its emphasis on the containment of negative emotions it's because, Markman says, that takes a great deal of skill training; it's working against biology, which programs us to step up the attack or withdraw altogether. "If couples don't have good skills for handling problems," adds Scott Stanley, Ph.D., a co-developer of PREP, the negative overwhelms the positive in their relationship. Over time, couples don't make time for positive experiences&emdash;and they tend not to protect such experiences from conflict. It's important to keep the negative out of positive time together. It is our belief that with some protection, the positive parts of a relationship will flourish."

Handling conflict in a manageable way also fosters a couples' commitment to work at marriage. "It increases couples' confidence in working out their problems," says Markman. "For premarital couples, it prevents erosion of the positive." The trick is being heard by one's partner; it's just damned difficult. We all have a variety of filters that distort unpleasant messages from our partner&emdash;our level of emotional arousal, our expectations, fears, cultural beliefs, beliefs acquired in our family of origin, differences in style and pace, need for self-protection. What's more, we're usually busy preparing our rebuttal. So what she thinks is a perfectly neutral statement may land like a bomb on her husband,

We Can Work It Out

What's more, says psychologist Clifford Notarius, Ph.D., partners are not good at giving immediate feedback to each other on how their messages are being received. This is especially true of unhappy couples. So Notarius, a professor of psychology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., has developed a course that helps partners hear each other, and give and get necessary feedback. But even before that, he bolsters their sense of relationship efficacy, their belief that as a unit they can get through this stuff. He calls his course We Can Work It Out, because it highlights the importance of the expectancy of success. "They can't be thinking, 'here we go again.'" His studies show that if couples expect they can resolve their differences, they remain happy even under stress.

"The belief in efficacy can be cultivated," says Notarius, pointing out what a very fine line the course treads. "You want them to believe they can work it out, but also that they can do better."

In paying attention to dimensions beyond skills, Notarius concentrates on how couples understand their relationship. First, he helps them articulate what they want their marriage to look like. Then he shows them the skills to help them get there, because only then will they be motivated to learn.

While the skills component of his course bears many similarities to PREP&emdash;Notarius and Markman were both students of innovative researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., and together and separately they pioneered observational studies of how marriages work&emdash;it has its differences, too. "The big question," says Notarius, "is how to get people to put into practice what they learn. As a result, we put a skilled coach with each couple for 80 percent of the time."

Then there are those big signs couples are asked to use. "We're all lousy listeners," says Notarius, "because we're all fragile. We don't want to hear we're the source of our partner's pain." To help people become aware of how their words affect their each other, he has the listener hold up reaction cards&emdash;large cardboard signs with either a plus, a minus, or a neutral sign. Absent such clear feedback, the partner doesn't understand why their partner's later response is an attack.. Marriage Survival Kit

What couples need to focus on, John Gottman, Ph.D., advises, is repair attempts. "Everybody messes up," says the University of Washington professor of psychology. "The four horsemen of the marital apocalypse that I identified&emdash;criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling&emdash;are predictors of divorce. Everybody does them to some degree. But some couples repair it successfully."

Gottman recently summarized everything he's learned in 25 years of research and turned it into a weekend course for couples, called the Marriage Survival Kit. He stresses that what makes repair attempts work is not how couples fight but what goes on in the everyday nonconflict situations. These situations give partners a positive perspective, so when they get a blast of negativity from their spouse, they ignore the negativity and take in only the information in the statement. In short, the mindless, mundane moments of marriage are the makers of romance.

In those little moments, lots is really going on in smart marriages. Couples are making what Gottman calls Love Maps&emdash;knowing one another and updating the information regularly. So he's developed a Love Map board game he has couples play as a way of learning. If you know, say, who your husband's best friend was when he was eight years old, what events are coming up in his life, or what his current worries are, you get to move forward.

A fondness and admiration system is active, particularly in the husband. "The guys are thinking about the stuff they love and admire in their partners even when they're not together," says Gottman. "If you open up their skull, these guys are allocating a lot more brain cells for the marriage and the world of their partner than are guys who wind up divorced."

There's a balance of what Gottman calls "turning towards versus turning away," which builds up the "emotional bank account" of the relationship. Partners simply connect in tiny, unremarkable, emotionally neutral moments.

These otherwise unremarkable moments add up to put a couple in "positive sentiment override," which in turn determines their disposition in problems-solving discussions and the success of repair attempts. So when one partner says something with irritability, the other sees it as neutral. Gottman urges couples&emdash;and especially men&emdash;to see that the irritability or anger behind a complaint is really just a form of italics. And by positively responding to irritability, a spouse keeps the partner's complaint from escalating into criticism.

There are five basic skills for conflict discussions that Gottman teaches, because his studies show these are what couples do whose relationships remain happy and stable:

  • use softened start-up. Present your complaints without criticism. Criticism involves a global attack on the partner, or blaming, and only incites defensiveness.
  • accept influence. Positively take in your partner's attempts to make a request of you. In a good marriage, both men and women freely give and receive influence from each other. Since women are already good at accepting influence from men, Gottman finds, the role of the husband becomes critical in predicting whether a marriage will survive. To the degree that men can accept influence from their wives, marriages succeed.
  • repair, or put the brakes on conflict. This means doing anything to halt or reverse negativity. Gottman hands out a 72-point repair checklist, which includes statements like "I'm feeling sad," and "let's start all over again." Even "Will you shut up and listen" is usually a repair attempt.
  • make use of physiologic soothing. Because men get more physiologically aroused in conflict&emdash;a factor that often prompts withdrawal, which is deadly for a relationship&emdash;they can stay engaged in problem-solving only if they or their partners take specific steps to calm them down. One of the best ways of doing this is to declare a time out during a heated discussion, and reconvene after at least 20 minutes of thinking about something else, or nothing at all.
  • de-escalate discord. In good marriages, couples actively de-escalate the conflict by injecting humor or planting a kiss on the partner's cheek. But this is the only behavior Gottman readily admits he can't program. It just happens when couples have a positive perspective.

To make sure couples can actually accomplish in their everyday lives what they've learned in the course, Gottman brings couples back for a booster shot&emdash;a one-day workshop six months later. He also surveys them every three months to see how they're faring&emdash;an action that by itself reinforces what was learned. Couples who are having problems can come back to the institute for a special, private session with a clinician.


The difficulties couples get into in relationships are so resistant for a very specific reason, says family therapist Falls Church, Virginia, family therapist Lori Gordon, Ph.D. Marriage has a devilish ability to tap into emotional issues from our past, especially from our family of origin. So Gordon has developed PAIRS, for Practical Application of Relationship Skills, which reaches particularly deep and ties the cognitive and emotional components of love to their historical background.

Gordon believes that the past usually manifests itself in hidden expectations and assumptions in relationships. She says that as long as they remain out of awareness, they act as saboteurs to love. "Most couples who are unhappy feel disappointed, if not outright betrayed, because what they expected to find in the relationship either hasn't happened or stopped happening."

We hand our partner an invisible ledger, displacing on to a current partner the blame for past hurts. We hope our partner will prove they are not the person who hurt us&emdash;while we expect them to make up for past hurts, hurts that enter our awareness only when we feel frightened or disappointed.

On that ledger are what Gordon calls "love knots," riddles exposing the contradictory nature of our many expectations. And they read like relationship haiku. Take, for example, Love Knot #1: If you really loved me, you would know what I want, and you would do it. Since you don't, you obviously don't care. So why should I care for you, or for what you think, feel, say, want or do? When you tell me what you want, I won't be very interested. I will be withholding.

Over the 120 hours of class time, couples hone communication skills. In addition to learning how to argue, partners also learn how to confide in each other through a particularly powerful structured conversation, called the Guide for Dialogue, that reaches into every aspect of experience. "It's not enough to work on communication skills," says Gordon. "You need a cognitive understanding of the way you react to your partner."

Couples who take the courses&emdash;any of them&emdash;discover a remarkable thing. The skills, once learned, generalize to other settings&emdash;parenting, the workplace, the community. Learning how intimate relationships operate is really a tool for managing the self.

Says Markman, "We have to get people out of the mindset that knowing how to do relationships is therapy, that there's something wrong with them. People don't feel bad about going to a ski instructor." Or taking lessons to drive a car. Why should learning how to operate a relationship be any different?

The Smart Love Course Source

These skills-training classes are built on both clinical experience and research. All have mutually influenced each other. Most teach similar core skills but differ on theory. Most employ a variety of trained instructors including therapists, non-therapist couples, and, often, clergy. Most utilize specially developed workbooks and other materials.

Couple Communication was developed by Sherod Miller, Ph.D., is taught in the U.S. and around the world, translated into seven languages, including Finnish and Mandarin. The course requires four two-hour classes, costs $230-$320 depending where it's taken. Contact:
Interpersonal Communications Programs, Inc.
7201 So. Broadway, Suite 11
Littleton, Colorado 80122

Relationship Enhancement is taught in a wide variety of formats by developer by Bernard Guerney, Ph.D., in the Washington, D.C., area. There are group marathons of four four-hour Saturday afternoons, there are weekend courses taking up all-day Saturday and Sunday ($350) and Guerney will sometimes teach individual couples in a day or day and a half. Trained professionals teach the course in other parts of the country. In any format the course includes four hours of individual coaching by phone.
National Institute for Relationship Enhancement
4400 East-West Highway
Bethesda, Maryland 20814-4501

PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) is taught in a two-week version, involving one full weekend day and two weekday evenings, and a two-day weekend version, by mental health professionals, clergy, and lay leaders around the country. The program is also available by videotape, audiotape, and in book form. Christian PREP. The University of Denver's Scott Stanley, Ph.D., has developed an original integration of PREP and Christian theology. With extensive use of Biblical quotes, he aims to show couples that there is an overlap between what the scriptures say and what research says about a happy marriage.
PREP, Inc.
Box 102530
Denver, Colorado 80250-2530

PAIRS (Practical Applications of Intimate Relationship Skills)
Developed by Lori Gordon, MSW, it is usually taught to groups of couples and individuals over a semester's time in weekly evenings and monthly weekends, but other formats exist. Costs vary by site, but average $2000 per couple in the U.S. An abbreviated one-weekend course was recently introduced. Groups often give themselves booster shots by continuing to meet formally or informally after the course ends, sometimes for many years.
Website: http://

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