Tools for Couples Happiness — 17 February 2004
How couples can succeed in saving their relationships

Nothing is more pleasing to a couple’s therapist than seeing partners succeed in reversing the downward trend of their relationship and begin their ascent toward a healthier and happier life together. What does it take for this process to occur? How is this magic created? The available research indicates that though some couple therapy techniques are more effective, they are by no means universal predictors of any couple’s success in restoring their love. The personality of the therapist was studied and found to be another important, yet not a determining factor in therapy outcome. When couples feel safe and protected and have confidence in their therapist, it is assumed that they may fair better in restoring their relationship. But this, too, is an unreliable predictor of success. Neither are the partners’ personalities nor the nature of their difficulties. I believe that success in restoring the relationship to a higher level is primarily up to the couple. Couples usually do not need “therapy”, what they need are tools for healthy exchanges for reawakening the love and excitement they once had for each other. In a new novel by Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage, the character, Michael, evaluates his difficult marriage by saying: “We did the best we could. We did our darnedest. We were just…unskilled.” Being unskilled is true of many couples. They may be very well intentioned, but without the specific tools necessary for effective relating, their relationship may be doomed. It is like attempting to repair a plumbing leak without proper tools, or a skilled instructor, or even an experience of having seen it done well. Many people have not been privileged to have parents who modeled excellent partnership skills. For others, the challenges that their relationship produces are greater than their repertoire of behavioral options. Some couples do seek help and find a compassionate listener, an opportunity to vent their feelings and perhaps even new insights as to the nature of their relationship dynamics, but may not receive specific tools for change. When the latter is provided, most couples who sincerely seek help succeed in turning their relationship around. I ask these successful partners, what afforded them the stamina to persevere, the strength to deal with the hard parts, and the courage to change. The answers are usually the same. They attribute their success to the depth of their pain, level of commitment, values and willingness to learn and change. Pain is a call for action. Unfortunately, many couples’ action entails terminating the relationship. It is a quick way of escaping the pain -inducing situation. Those who do that find a temporary relief. However, since they have not dealt with their part of creating the pain, they often repeat their old unsuccessful patterns in their future relationships. Hence, the pain may return, this time accompanied by despair. Couples, who can withstand the pain and see it as an invitation to find its cause and clear it, take the first step toward renewed health within themselves and with each other. The process of detecting the source of dissatisfaction requires strength, which many couples find in their basic commitment to their partners. These mates never question their union, only its nature. The commitment to be together forever eliminates the option of escaping when the chips are down. They are also self-respecting enough not to allow themselves to settle for less than a good connection. They strive for the best, work for it, and get it. When partners credit their values for helping them work to achieve a healthy relationship, they refer to loyalty, honesty, integrity, fairness, openness, responsibility and decency toward themselves and their mates. “I could not live with myself if I were not honest and open with my partner about what each of us is doing to mess up our chance for happiness.” “I believe that being loyal is a must in relationships and it can not be compromised for anything.” “We have a responsibility to ourselves to carry out our oath to each other, to our children in giving them an intact family, and to our community who witnessed us make these promises publicly.” After the healthy decision to work toward saving the relationship is made, the hardest part is for each partner to become accountable for his/her contribution to the distress in the relationship. It requires honest, open, and humble recognition of the change each partner must make. The couples who succeed in finding the right path after the detour, do just that- and do it well. Learning the new tools is usually not hard – it may even be fun. Practicing new ways of interaction that lead to warm and loving feelings is rewarding enough to reinforce them. The changes that occur are delightful. Couples who save their relationship exude a very special aura. They smile almost bashfully, look in each other’s eyes with curiosity and fondness, they laugh more readily, they look happy and in love. They describe their transformation as miraculous. But they know how hard they worked to achieve their new state of happiness.

  • You too can transform your relationship to a happier one if both of you choose to do so.
  • Good intentions and loving feelings are not sufficient for a great relationship.
  • Be clear that your pain, dissatisfaction, anger, hurt or resentments are calls for positive change. Leaving – solves nothing.
  • Choose the appropriate couple’s counselor for you. If the first counselor does not suit your needs, find another one.
  • Cling to your wholesome values, they will anchor you while you work through the pain.
  • Trust yourself to learn the necessary skills to gain the love you deserve.
  • Willful change is always for the better. Welcome it – it will reward you.
  • The joy of restored connection and happiness with your partner is an unequalled emotion about a lifetime treasure.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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