A committed relationship is like two people who are paddling a canoe down a river. Gliding along on a smooth patch, it's easy for them to collaborate harmoniously; but when they hit the inevitable rough spots--conflicts, frustrations and disappointments--they often battle to steer the canoe in opposite directions. It is always painful for the couple when they lose their unity and turn into two competing individuals. Couples therapy traditionally offers partners a safe place to open up about their differences, with the therapist serving as a mediator and facilitator for conflict resolution. But my goal for couples therapy is to teach couples how to differ harmoniously--remain united and loving in the midst of even deeply divisive conflicts. I teach clients a cognitive-behavioral protocol I call Basic Harmony, which is premised on the idea that what gets in the way of having harmonious conflicts is our universal tendency to try to control the situation or the other person.
Growing up, we survived the playground and our own families by developing conflict control tactics. Some of us learned to dominate, while others learned passive-aggressive tactics and still others learned to hide. Basic Harmony helps clients become mindful of and stop their injuring and rejecting tactics during conflicts. They discover, to their relief, that they can be more authentic and happier with themselves and with the other without resorting to their habitual control tactics, and they also learn that conflicts can become rich opportunities to strengthen mutual respect and love.
Doug, a 44-year-old technician, discovered his wife, Sara, a 42-year-old computer programmer, was having an affair with a coworker. When he confronted her about it, she packed her bags and moved in with her sister. She told him he had a right to be angry, but she was unhappy in the marriage and needed a break. Doug begged her to come back, but Sara refused. "I'll only talk to you if we see a marriage counselor," she said, thinking he would never do it. Depressed and scared, Doug surprised her by agreeing.
In their first session, I saw each one individually first, to screen for physical abuse and substance abuse and to determine their suitability for conjoint training in the Basic Harmony protocol. I would not have trained the couple conjointly if either partner was perpetrating or even threatening physical violence, or if either partner had been so intimidated by the other that his or her level of stress was overwhelming. This criteria is essential in order to use this protocol safely with couples.
Doug told me he felt miserable that Sara was having the affair and had left him. They had been married for 20 years, and he said he had had no idea that she was so unhappy, but he supposed he could have been "too hard" on her. A large, physically imposing man, Doug was loud and domineering. He admitted that when their fights got nasty, he called Sara names. But he wanted to save the marriage. I told him the best chance he had was to make it clear to Sara that he was not going to pressure her to come back. Doug said, "I will do whatever it takes. I haven't been the best husband, but I'm willing to learn how to be better."
Then I had a turn with Sara. She described her affair with Jack, which she had ended, as a misguided attempt to feel better about herself. "I'm tired of lying and pretending I'm happy in my marriage," she said, describing how Doug would badger her and wear her down--sometimes saying mean and hurtful things--until she gave in to him. Crying, she told me she still loved her husband, but she couldn't imagine going back unless he changed "his total personality." I supported her need to see Doug make some real changes before returning home.
I explained to Sara and Doug that the emotional and even spiritual injuries that partners inflict on each other during conflicts don't occur because of the content of disagreements, but because of the tactics that partners employ to try to control the conflict. …