My approach to working with couples is anchored in Gottman Couples Therapy, which helps couples manage conflict and doesn’t attempt to eliminate all marital conflict. This concept resonates with me because I think it’s unrealistic to never disagree with one’s partner. In fact, John Gottman, who studied couples for several decades, says most couples have perpetual problems. A perpetual problem is one that comes up again and again due to enduring personality differences. Happy couples are able to manage their perpetual problems in a variety of healthy ways, including using humor, compassion, and understanding. Couples who are not successfully managing their perpetual problems become gridlocked. In the book “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work,” Gottman writes the following signs of gridlock in a relationship:
- Feeling rejected by your partner
- Talking doesn’t help & leads to frustration and/or hurt feelings
- Refusal to shift your position on the argument
- There’s no humor or affection with the subject matter
- Eventually become emotionally disengaged from one another
Being stuck in gridlock with your partner adds excessive stress to a relationship and can lead to its demise. Gottman Couples Therapy employs several tools to help couples move past gridlock.
The “Dreams within Conflict” exercise is one of my favorite tools to help gridlocked couples. This exercise promotes the idea that there is a broken dream behind every gridlocked conflict. Rather than discussing the conflict, the couple works together to discuss each person’s broken dream. Maybe you’ve seen couples therapy on television or in a movie, and witnessed the passé exercise where one person is asked to repeat their partner’s words. This exercise is NOT about parroting words! Each person takes turn being the speaker and the listener. The speaker’s job is to talk honestly about their position (their broken dream), and to avoid arguing or persuading their partner to join their point of view. The listener has to 1) create a safe environment that allows their partner to be vulnerable, 2) ask questions aimed at understanding the speaker’s dream, 3) suspend judgment, and 4) avoid trying to solve the problem. When both the speaker and the listener are fully committed to their roles, gridlock ends.
You may be wondering how discussing “broken dreams” helps solve problems. It doesn’t solve the problem. Our goal is simply to move past gridlock to dialogue. Respectful, productive dialogue empowers couples to either solve their solvable problems, or successfully manage their perpetual problems. Gottman says, “You don’t want to have the kind of relationship in which you win and are influential in your relationship but wind up crushing your partner’s dream. You want the kind of relationship in which each of you support one another’s dreams.”
I’ve experienced powerful shifts in couples while facilitating the “Dreams within Conflict” exercise. It’s beautiful to witness a couple transition from negative, unproductive arguments to meaningful dialogue. I feel privileged to help couples restore harmony in their relationship.
Reference: “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver