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 and want their spouse's full attention to feel heard, and the other doesn't want to talk and stop listening.

Many fear couples therapy will bring out all of the "ghosts in the closet".

My husband doesn't listen to me!

First off, different couples can embrace different "models" of how to resolve conflict. Harold Raush, author of: “Communication, Conflict, and Marriage,” analyzed marital interactions.

He wanted to figure out what behaviors left couples either happy or miserable. His research showed that there was no ideal form of communication. Each had benefits and drawbacks.

We think healthy couples are those that take time to talk, have healthy communication styles like active listening and can effectively communicate. However, that's not what he found. He determined that there were three styles that healthy couples use to cope with differences:

  • Validator
  • Conflict-avoiding
  • Volatile

Validator style

You appear to embrace a "let's talk it out" validating method. Validators believe that the more we bring conflicts up, and attempt to resolve them, the better off we'll be. These partners value a spouse who shows good listening skills and a spouse who can tune into their partner.

They may actually feel that the time set aside to resolve their differences as a "good time".

These couples are competitive with each other, but they also are willing to empathize and compromise. However, they don't focus on every area of conflict. Some areas, they leave be.

Conflict-avoiding style

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 their commonality.

They focus on 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.

Volatile style

The third kind is the "volatile" couples, which (despite the name) 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 and often argue about roles. They value honesty and emotional connection.

Five-to-one ratio

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.

Different styles

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 may result in his distancing from you. He's trying 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 couple 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".)

Learning to talk in a group setting

You can start with one of the famous Art and Science of Love seminars offered across the USA, many held by our 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.

Learning to talk over a weekend

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.

Couples Therapy for One

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."

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."

If that's his idea of what couples therapy is, it may be helpful to read one of the many Gottman books on how marriages work.

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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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