I can't help but see an image like this and be inspired by a relationship that can last a lifetime. It reminds me of my grandparents, whose commitment to each other set the stage for generations of healthy relationships that followed them.
But I work with couples who aren't thinking about a lifetime. I work with couples who are thinking about the next week. They're interested in surviving just the next few moments, all of whom seem to be asking the same question.
How did we get here?
What are the mechanics of turning a relationship around? I've spent my professional and academic career trying to answer this question. I've delved into hours of research that tries to answer hundreds of questions, yet only seems to produce more questions.
What actually creates change in couple relationships?
It's somewhat of a mystery to me too, but the answer lies somewhere between science and art. Couples whose hearts are at war with each other, who expect the worst, who have lost their curiosity, are going to have a very difficult time changing, regardless of how sophisticated my intervention or how subtle my brushstroke.
The reality is that most of the changes that happen in couples therapy depend on my clients' willingness to change the position of their heart. If I have this in place, then my job is much easier, made simpler by couples' openness to change and suggestion.
A hard heart is calloused and closed off. An open heart is willing. An open heart accepts feedback and makes changes. A closed heart blames. A closed heart stays mired in defensiveness.
What opens a closed heart?
Usually, you can't soften a hardened heart with education. It's hard to turn people toward each other with listening skills or new techniques.
This is where an experienced clinician can be helpful. A therapist who focuses on experience, and crafting new experiences in the room with couples helps create the possible outcome couples can expect at home.
This takes experience and patience for a therapist. It takes willingness and initiative from clients. Therapy isn't always safe, but it should be good and effective.