Why Naive Approaches to Couple Relationship Repair Fail
Absent or Lame Preparation
Though some things in life are by nature learned best through experience (take swimming, for example), for most things in life, some formal education is a good and even necessary thing prior to learning through experience (driving a car, for example). Success for other things in life, like long-term love relationships likely require both formal education and life experience.
It may not be surprising that a large number of couples have had no formal preparation for life together as a couple. There are no curriculums in high school integrated into the health classes to address and teach relational health, and unless one goes to college and takes up a related field of study, say psychology, there is no formal training for those years, either. The informal preparation for most of us is the experience we have had growing up watching the adults of our lives engage in and carry out couple relationship. And let’s face it, with over half of all relationships in failure, that may not be the best role model for kids to learn about how to do it. That leaves people learning from their own experiences, from peer experiences, or worse yet, from the popular media. Relationship training by soap-opera and reality television, as it were.
If a couple are going to be married in a religious service, there may be requirement by the denomination for some sort of pre-marriage preparation, usually consisting of either brief interviews of the couple, or some sort of mandatory training, reading, or seminar series. While these kinds of preparations may be somewhat helpful, they are often at least very naïve, if not outright inadequate and misleading to the participants. Not to mention that so many these days bypass the religious sanctioning of their lives together.
Typical Couple Toxic Reactivity
Friends and Family
If you are or have been a part of a couple, it is very likely that you have picked up some well-intentioned advisement from a family elder, like “Never go to bed angry, dear.” Now, that’s not necessarily bad advice, but it is naïve advice. Other pieces of how to keep a healthy relationship advice from family and friends can range from the equally naïve to the downright wrong and damaging. If we grow up hearing a particular opinion or position on anything, from politics to science to religion, we usually embrace it when young, and it eventually becomes a staunch belief and perhaps even a base value. The problem is: what if that belief or value is not serviceable in real-life, or worse, it creates couple dysfunction, discord, and misery?
A basic problem in turning to family and friends for advice is that not only do they hold naïve beliefs of what makes for a healthy relationship, they tend to be very biased in favor of helping us feel better in the moment, which is not the same as helping us solve the problem at hand, or recognizing our own participation in the difficulty. Kind of like going to the bartender for relational advice, the bartender will keep agreeing with us as long as we keep buying drinks.
When people break their arm, they go to the emergency room and seek out an experienced, trained orthopedist, they do not go to a Boy Scout who has a First Aid Merit Badge, or worse, yet, set it themselves. When you are in a long-term relationship and it is on the rocks, seek out a trained professional in healthy relationship.
In general, religion and faith are tremendously supportive of healthy adult relationship, and many people cannot imagine being in couple relationship without their faith experience. While this is true for many, even those who rely on it are frequently let down because of notable inadequacies in the approaches and once again, naivete of the material that is designed to support and help couples who drift into the very predictable areas of couple dysfunction. As a long-time student of theology and spirituality and Christian practitioner myself, I can honestly say that most Christian materials do not even come close to addressing the truths of function issues in couple-hood in language that is useable for couples. Though I can only comment from my Christian experience, it might be acceptable to imagine the same is true of other major religions as well.
The preparations that most religions require for completion seem to center around how well the couple know each other and areas or issues that the couple have or have not discussed. This is a great beginning, but does not go nearly far enough into the dynamics of healthy relationship or forewarning about predictable areas of dysfunction that inevitably arise over the course of life together. The Church marries people really well, but does not seem to do much after this to help maintain the marriage.
Some well-meaning efforts may be made by congregations to help their couples with marriage maintenance, ranging from Bible studies or book studies related to couple individual “needs”. Or, the pastor may have a very nice annual Valentine’s Day sermon about love, but these efforts are often very inadequate to address the kinds and levels of relationship dysfunctions couples experience after seven, twelve, or twenty years of living together. While learning about and satisfying your partner’s needs is a good thing, this will not address the most fundamental dynamic issue that is creating the dysfunction.
The self-help industry has made a great deal of money on books and materials for relationships that are on the rocks. Much of the material focuses on communication being the central problem for couples who are experiencing relationship failures. This concept is so dominant in the culture that even professional counselors may ascribe to it in their efforts to help couples navigate through rough waters, spending a great deal of time on learning how to make “I” statements and reflect back what their partner is “saying”. Again, while these skills are valuable, they do not address the problems in the engine that drives couple discord, and will not have the life-long impact that giving attention to the real problem can.
Human communication is not a simple process; it is quite complex and has a number of levels to it, from the actual words and content, to the emotional tone and content, to very subtle, sub and unconscious “meta-messages”. Add to this the diversity of the couple’s individual communication learning and life experience, and we have a grand communications “soup”. We might think of communication as the color, texture, and music of a relationship…it is expressive of what is going on at a far deeper level that the surface of mere words.
While communication is an important issue, making it an initial central focus of couple treatment may be a serious error, giving the participant a false sense that if they can just find and use the right words, in the right order, all their couple issues will be solved. Communication is an important issue in that accurate and heathy communication becomes the first casualty.
The Real Deal
Mutual reactive process is the engine that drives couple dysfunction. Until it is reigned in and an effective process for addressing, reducing, and eliminating it is found, all other efforts will be undermined. Reactive process is when one individual allows a negative thought to arise and gain momentum with negative emotion, which then is enacted with a negative behavior. Human beings, being human, will “return in kind” when attacked. Another human trait, to view all things as win-loss and competition, press the couple forward into a toxic mutually reactive process that has disastrous effect. Most human beings have (dys)functioned in this manner their entire lives, but have overlooked the genuine source due to the naïve myths that they have converted to belief throughout their lives. The simplistic fixes that people attempt to apply for relief for mutual couple reactivity are as doomed as believing washing a car with a dead engine will make the car start.
Gaining education, coaching, and experience in healthy relational response techniques begins with self-change surrounding the reactive process. Without self-discipline and self-control of one’s own reactivity, no significant progress will be made in relationship repair. This discipline, focused upon the self, ultimately can produce a kind of relationship enlightenment that improves couple security, serenity, and satisfaction. From there, specific tactics and skills of response to the people closest to us becomes a life-long endeavor of self-improvement, and even may qualify as a spiritual path for the individual and couple.