Marriage Counseling: Dynamics

Many studies have proven the effectiveness of counseling in helping people overcome the most common problems of daily living.  Traditionally, however, this has not been the case with marriage counseling. Experts have speculated that this lack of positive results could be the result of many factors, such as poor training and lack of effective models and methods utilized by therapists, or the complexity of the problems typically presented by the average couple that seeks marriage counseling (the average couple waits six years after they start to have problems in their relationship before they seek counseling).

New research, however, shows that therapy can be very effective in solving marital problems when it helps couples become more aware of the problematic cycles of interaction that characterize their conflict. These problem “dynamics” in the troubled relationship often take on some variation of this common sequence of relationship events:

  • Most people desire a close emotional connection with their primary partner, and become upset, or “protest” when they experience their partner pulling away or behaving in ways that provoke emotional insecurity, (this protest will often take the form of anger, which is usually an outward manifestation of underlying feelings of fear, hurt, or sadness),
  • The protest will very often come out as a complaint or criticism, such as “you NEVER seem to care or notice about what I want.  It’s always about you!”
  • The perceived complaint or criticism will provoke the recipient to become defensive,
  • Which will further provoke the “protester” to escalate their complaints and criticisms,
  • and so the cycle continues.

This pattern is referred to as a “dysfunctional dynamic” that is characterized by a stereotyped, repetitive pattern of interaction that becomes self-perpetuating and continuously escalating and does great damage to the relationship.  Couples experiencing this sort of dynamic in their relationship often report feeling that they are having the same arguments over and over again.

The job of the therapist becomes to help the couple identify this pattern and more effectively express the feelings of hurt, fear, and sadness that lie beneath the cycle of mutual blame and defensiveness.  By so doing, the therapist is able to guide the couple in a much more meaningful and substantive discussion of their mutual needs and fears and establish a more secure emotional attachment, which has been shown to predict higher levels of marital satisfaction and stability.