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Relationship Strengthening Approaches and Intervention Sequences

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Relationship Strengthening Approaches

Whereas communication and soothing approaches help couples to work through their conflicts, relationship strengthening approaches help couples to strengthen the bonds that hold them together in spite of conflicts. As such bonds get stronger and are expressed more frequently through positive interactions, it becomes easier for couples to commit to the work and compromise needed to resolve their differences.

  • Relationship Inventories. Some therapists urge conflicted couples to take an inventory of the things they have liked about each other in the past and in the present. Prompting remembrances of times when things were not so tense can help reawaken in each partner the feelings that first brought them together.

  • Partner Pleasing Exercises. Therapists also sometimes will ask conflicted couples to commit to doing something, one thing, which will please their partner, and to commit to doing this thing for their partner as a gift, without expectation of reciprocation. Whatever form the pleasing activity takes, it should be something that the partner genuinely likes or wants. Such a gift doesn't have to be expensive; it is better that the gift express caring and concern rather than it be worth money. A good gift might be something quite free like a massage, or fixing something around the house (depending on what the partner would like to receive). What matters is that the gift is given in a sincere manner because the giver finds it within him or herself to want to give that gift. The recipient of the gift will have a hard time not reacting positively to the sincerity of such a gift (contrived though it may be), and the gift giver can feel good that he or she has done something pleasing for his or her partner. Asking the couple to practice positive interactions in this manner is a step in the right direction, and can sometimes rekindle a positive feeling that has faded.

  • Forgiveness. Taking a cue from religious practice, some therapists ask conflicted partners to find it within themselves to forgive their partners for their transgressions. Forgiveness is a difficult movement for many people to make. It involves becoming willing to "lose a battle in order to win the war"; to swallow pride, disavow revenge, and to allow something that hurt you to go unanswered. While many people can force themselves to act as though they have forgiven someone who has hurt them, few are authentically able to forgive completely and without reservation. This is okay. The movement towards forgiveness is a good one in of itself as it helps us to recognize the human capacity for making mistakes which is not only present in one's spouse, but also in one's self. Forgiveness makes sense when there is genuine contrition on the part of the partner who has offended (e.g. by having an affair, by lying, or something to that effect), when the harm done is not part of a larger, repeating pattern, and when there is reason to believe that the mistake will not reoccur. Forgiveness is not recommended in cases where a partner continues to be abusive or when there is no reason to believe that a partner's apology is meaningful.

  • Sex. Reasonably frequent sexual relations between committed partners are often an important part of what keeps a relationship healthy. Sexual relations offer partners opportunities to share physical pleasure, comfort, and release of tension and to come to associate these relaxing and exciting positive feelings with each other. These qualities contribute to couples' bonding and forgiveness of conflicts. Many marriages suffer when sexual relations cease or occur with significantly less frequency than normal. For these reasons, some therapists will encourage conflicted committed partners to make time for playful sexual relations, or to agree to have sexual relations again if one or more partners is boycotting sexual relations in protest.

Intervention Sequence

Though there are many ways a therapist can provide intervention to a conflicted couple, only some of these techniques will prove useful for any given couple. It is part of the therapist's job to select a short list of interventions that will be maximally helpful to their clients. Therapists' selection of what techniques to use and what skills to teach are influenced by their intake assessment, by the continuing interaction they have with their clients, and by thoughtful common sense. A couple that cannot talk to each other without fighting won't have the discipline to use active listening and repeating. Instead, it makes more sense to teach such a couple how to use time-outs to combat their emotional overwhelm. Active listening can be taught later as a way to maximize communication when communication is again possible. Repetition of basic skills and techniques like time-out so that they become second-nature and therefore easy to do even during times of great distress and upset, is good practice.