Marriage problems are the reason couples enter in couples therapy. Most couples are looking for solutions and are surprised at first to hear that a skilled science-based couples therapist doesn’t offer any.
John Gottman once said that he considers Dan Wile to be “the greatest living couples therapist.” I trained with Dan in Nashville in the fall of 2014, and it was like drinking from a firehouse.
Dan says that every partner comes with a built-in set of problems that are unavoidable. If you marry Ted, you will be dealing with a guy who is very jealous. If you marry Fred, you will quickly discover that he is a little passive-aggressive. If you marry Joan, you will discover that she picks fights when she is stressed, and if you marry Betty, you will struggle with her explosive temper.
“When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.” Dan Wile
It’s a useful lie to believe that you picked the perfect partner to help you grow past your family of origin. Couples grow in intimacy by collaboratively healing their childhood wounds. Marriage Problems are a window into Intimacy. And intimacy begins when you tell your spouse the main things on your mind, and listen without being defensive to the main thing on their mind as well.
Dan Wile teaches that Partners in a troubled marriage often look and act immature. They have fights about nothing, bicker, sulk, vent, and rage. What is important to remember, however, are the particular conditions under which their marriage is operating. Wile says that intimate partners behave in an irrational and intolerable manner because they are dealing with an intolerable set of circumstances.
Spouses may hold a rigid, uncompromising relational stance because of “hidden compromises” they’ve already made. Some of the adaptations were made so reflexively that they never thought it through, or processed it with a generative conversation. Family of origin conditioning is often a culprit in our maladaptive behavior.
Bickering and blaming turns your spouse into someone who is unable to listen. But listening without defensiveness turns your partner into someone who might also listen to you with an open, receptive stance. Marriage problems allow differences and conflicts to bubble up to the surface.
Yes, this conflict may lead to fighting. While a fight isn’t an ideal time to work out marriage problems, for many couples, unfortunately, it might be the only time that these issues are authentically raised.
I’ve been told by a number of my clients that their previous “all-purpose” couples therapists scolded them for resurrecting old grievances from the past. But Dan Wile tells us that it is natural and understandable. We feel compelled to do to do this. The kitchen sink of old grievances is always in plain sight.
We are told in couples therapy not to say “always” or “never,” because it provokes our spouses to become defensive and challenge our perceptions, leading to “attack/defend” escalation. But when we are triggered by old injuries, and words fail us, “always” and “never” are such desperately human places to go. Wile tells us that if the words “always” and “never” didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them. They are the bookmarks of our ancient grief.
Dan Wile taught me that there is an inherent difficulty of being in an intimate relationship. We often find ourselves in an adversarial or withdrawn cycle without ever knowing how we got into it in the first place.
We don’t want to be in it, and we have no idea how to get out of it. Fighting is not the issue. Conflict is a given. It’s baked in the intimacy cake. It’s inescapable. The question is how can we use the marriage problem and recruit our partner as a trusted ally to manage it.
A skilled couples therapist doesn’t pathologize conflict or declare restraint a sacrament. Good couples therapy helps both partners be heard…and to speak and listen in new ways.
Marriage problems don’t require solutions. They require mindful and deliberate management. Gottman tells us that 69% of marriage problems are fundamentally unsolvable, but they can still be managed with skill and affectionate good humor.
The generative possibility of empathic change is always present. Conflict is not only inescapable…it is useful. Conflict can lead to intimacy. The obstacle is the way.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.