Therapy for Relationships: More than Managing Conflict


Couples and family members who enter therapy to improve their relationships have usually endured long periods of harsh conflictCouples might be caught in repetitive cycles of criticism and defensiveness; parents and teens might be trapped in power struggles; siblings may find themselves in escalating rivalries.  Anguished to stop destructive arguments, people usually begin therapy focused on containing their conflicts.  Therapists can help clients to manage their conflicts by helping them engage in respectful communication focused on thoughts and feelings, and avoiding excessive blame, criticism, and stonewalling.  With improved communication, power struggles can become more manageable, and conflicts can more easily resolve.

While less conflict and improved communication can offer relief, additional work is usually necessary to make lasting improvements in relationships.  Hurtful and unproductive communication often coincides with a weakening of relationship ties.  Harboring hurt or angry feelings, people in conflict usually grow more guarded, and begin to lose touch with othersexperiences and inner worlds.    They may offer fewer expressions of appreciation, fondness, and caring, and communicate less about daily needs, leading to further misunderstandings and mistrust.  Feelings of security, safety, and enjoyment begin to wane.

John Gottman, a Psychologist from Seattle, Washington who has studied relationships for over 30 years, likens a sound relationship to a “house”.  He sees conflict management, while essential, as the “middle part” of a relationship’s house.  The house’s “foundations” involve understanding others’ inner worlds, sharing fondness and admiration, attending to others’ needs, and developing an overall positive perspective, all of which build up what Gottman calls an “emotional bank account” that can be drawn on during difficult times.  Effective relationship therapy not only helps people to manage conflict so that they do not “draw down” their emotional accounts, but also helps them build up goodwill by focusing on their relationships’ foundations.  Therapists might encourage family members to ask questions that demonstrate curiosity, or encourage them to express appreciation. They might encourage children and parents to play together, or ask couples to spend some time each day kissing or hugging each other, or just holding hands.

Conflict is an inevitable aspect of close relationships.  The struggle of children for more choices might conflict with a parent’s need to set limits; the need of one member of a couple for autonomy might conflict with their partner’s need for intimacy.  Therapy can help people to minimize destructive conflict and develop more productive communication; it can also be a vehicle for loved ones to rediscover the security, trust, appreciation and joy that are essential to the success of intimate relationships.


–Posted by Jonah Green

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