I think that our relationship needs some serious help but my husband doesn't think that there's a problem. In fact, he says that talking about problems just makes things worse, I can't even imagine that he would consider therapy. Is there anything that I can do? Is it worth even trying? We do love each other but it feels like we are either fighting or not talking at all these days.

You are not alone in your predicament. It is common for one spouse to be concerned that going to couples therapy will bring out all of the "ghosts in the closet" and simply leave things worse. That's not an ungrounded belief for therapists untrained in working with couples.

That's the reason you, yourself, need to be well-schooled in what contemporary couples therapy does and how it is different than "your parent's marriage counselor."

First off, we recognize that different couples can embrace different "models" of how to resolve conflict. Harrold Raush author of “Communication, Conflict, and Marriage,” analyzed marital interactions between partners to figure out what behaviors left couples happy from miserable. There was no "ideal" and each had benefits and drawbacks.

He also determined there were three healthy ways couples cope with differences: conflict-avoiding, validators and volatile.

You appear to embrace a "let's talk it out" validating method. Validators believe that the more we bring conflict up, in an attempt to resolve it, the better time we'll have understanding each other. They can become competitive with each other, but they also are willing to empathize and compromise. They don't focus on every area of conflict, however. Some they leave be.

In contrast, your husband appears to believe in the "conflict-avoiding" model that hopes that if you don't make too much of things, they'll eventually die down and go away. Conflict-avoiders emphasize what they share in common and how "happy" they are together. They have clear areas of separate interests (his thing/her thing) and clear boundaries. They aren't particularly emotionally expressive, but they more quietly enjoy their common interests and have times that are happy enough for the both of them.

The third kind is the "volatile" couples, which is still a workable style. They are intensely emotional and frequently debate but do it with good humor and laughter. This couple can express anger and feelings of insecurity, but no contempt. They have few boundaries, and they share a lot together and often argue about roles. They value honesty and emotional connection in their communications.

All three styles, Gottman found, can be happy and functional if they maintain what he calls a "5 to 1" ratio. This is the amount of empathy, support, agreement, laughter and joking they do while they fight (that's the 5) to criticizing, being defensive, or "stonewalling" their partners (that's the 1 part). No marriage works if contempt is a constant aspect of fights. Conflict avoiding couples don't have a lot of negatives, so they don't need a lot of positives to be happy. Volatile couples have a lot of conflicts so they need a lot of good feelings when they fight.

The trouble comes when one partner embraces one paradigm of how to handle conflict and one embraces another. In this case, you feel as if your husband is blowing you off and "putting on a smiley face" instead of treating your issues seriously. Your husband, you suggest, is telling you: "Don't make problems where there aren't any." Your efforts to connect emotionally, by addressing your differences, may result in his distancing from you to allow things to "calm down." You aren't relating well because you are embracing different ideals of what makes a marriage work.

Because you haven't yet talked to him about it, emphasize the "skills" aspects of the couples work you can do to get closer and (pick something he would like to see better, you may have to guess, like "disagreeing less" or "more sex.")

You can start with one of the famous Art and Science of Love seminars, offered across the USA, many held by our own Gottman-certified therapists here at Couples Therapy Inc. The Art and Science of love is a group experience that allows couples to become familiar with many of the principles we cover in our intensive couples therapy retreat. There is no personal sharing encouraged. You work simply between yourselves as you learn.

In contrast, he may prefer the idea of an intensive weekend, rather than what he might experience as the "drip, drip, drip" sensation of weekly work. "Get in, see what can be improved, and get on with it" might appeal to him.

If these two ideas are rejected, consider "Couples Therapy for One," in which you go to learn how you can improve the marriage, even if he's not there. I know it sounds odd, but instead of going into individual therapy which can sometimes end up unintentionally breaking a marriage up ("I've got to be me, without you...") Couples Therapy for One deliberately looks at how this one person can create a positive impact on the relationship. Let him know that's your plan and get his support. He may be more open to going himself if he sees how much help it has done both of you to do that " 'therapy for one' thing."

It is important for people to realize that couples therapy is no longer a simple re-hashing of every gripe or bad feeling you've experienced over the year, while the therapist sits by quietly.

That's not "couples therapy." That's just "bad therapy."

Today's trained couple therapist gets to work motivating, redirecting, cajoling, and stopping destructive behavior in a session. Immediately. It does no good to just repeat in therapy what goes on at home. Therapy is a place where you realize why you got together in the first place, what your strengths and weaknesses as a couple are, and how to fix things like different approaches or stylistic differences.

It's short-term, it's goal-directed, and it focuses as much on good feelings and attachment (fun!) as it does how to fight effectively.

Good luck!

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Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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