What is it that makes some couples have more successful and rewarding relationships and others teeter on the brink of relationship disaster?
The Secret of Successful Relationships:
If you ask me, the secret to a successful relationship or marriage lies in the capacity to be vulnerable. Most relationship conflicts are the result of people’s distaste for admitting to themselves and to their partner that they depend on each other, that they worry that the other person doesn’t love them, that they feel disappointed or hurt, or that they miss the other person and wish they could be closer or spend more time together.
What is communicated, however, is often not these things. Instead of the softer, more vulnerable emotions, we instead communicate our frustrations and our anger, our jealousy and our self-righteousness. Instead of asking for what we really want, we blame our partner for being faulty, inconsiderate, or wrong.
The Prescription for Successful Relationships:
It doesn’t really matter what couples therapist you ask, the prescription for successful relationships will almost always be the same: To have successful relationships, you must learn to communicate from a more vulnerable and more genuine place. Rather than pick fights about peripheral concerns or substitute emotions, you must be able to address the real issue.
Instead of focusing on your anger, for example, your couples therapist will help you redirect the focus to that underlying vulnerability which precipitated the anger, and will help you communicate that emotion instead.
If your spouse is out having a good time with his work colleagues, for example, the immediate reaction might be one of anger at him for never being home to help with the household chores. If we dig a little deeper, however, we might discover that the real reason for the anger is one of jealousy about sitting home alone while your husband is out having a good time. Further digging, might even reveal that the jealousy is but a veil for an underlying fear that you are not really very fun to be around and a wish you have that your husband would choose to spend his time with YOU.
Anger as a Veil for Other Emotions:
Instead of communicating the longing, the fears, and the doubts, however, it is often safer and less painful to communicate your anger.
Psychologists refer to emotions that are reactions to other emotions as secondary emotions. Although anger at someone, can sometimes serve as the original response to an event, it is more often a way of protecting yourself from a more vulnerable emotion.
To say to your wife that you feel like she may not be as attracted to you anymore and that you are worried of losing her, is a lot more difficult than giving her the silent treatment when she speaks at length and with great excitement about activities at work that don’t include you.
What Prevents Us from Being Vulnerable?
Exposing and communicating the more vulnerable emotion is what most couples therapist recommend to create and maintain successful relationships. But why is it so difficult?
The first reason for this difficulty is that you might judge yourself for having your vulnerable emotions. A voice inside of you might be telling you that you are weak for feeling jealous, or that you should be stronger than having a need for more closeness or more affection.
The second reason, might be that you are not certain that your partner will treat these vulnerable emotions delicately and respectfully. You may be worried that your partner will stomp on you when you are already down, or that your partner will use your admissions against you at a later time.
Finally, a third reason might be that your vulnerable emotions are not always rational and can seem immature. You may therefore be too ashamed to even admit to them, not to mention, to speak of them out loud.
The result of all these prohibitions, judgments, and dangers is that instead of communicating our longings, our fears, our doubts, and our needs, we end up attacking our partner and creating distance between us instead.
Why Couples Therapy Can Help:
Couples therapy is therefore both about facilitating greater insight into our vulnerabilities, and about facilitating a safe, respectful, and trusting relationship where these emotions and needs can be communicated.
When done right, the end result is often less conflict and more closeness.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., an experienced couples therapist in Houston, Texas. Read more about my approach to couples therapy and learn how you can schedule an appointment.