February 15, 2000: New York Times
February 15, 2000 New York Times"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." The title of this long-running off-Broadway show sums up the source of most marital problems. All too often, the very characteristics that initially attracted partners to one another or the disturbing behaviors that at first were ignored or considered unimportant eventually become marital sore points and the cause of repeated arguments and chronic unhappiness.
A Matter of Compromise and Acceptance
by JANE E. BRODY
Couples struggle to get one another to change -- to conform to each other's needs and desires and definition of a more perfect partner.
"Why don't you . . . ?" "Why can't you . . . ?"
"Why aren't you . . . ?" and "You're wrong . . ." are common pleas and citicisms that are more likely to precipitate arguments than change. Anger, accusations and attempts at coercion do not inspire compassion and cooperation, and rarely do couples who use this approach succeed on their own in exacting the desired changes.
Even those who seek marital therapy before deciding to divorce have considerably less than a 50-50 chance of achieving and maintaining the changes that would make for a more peaceful union. The primary focus of traditional therapy is to encourage both partners to change their behavior so that they can enjoy each other more and hurt each other less.
Too often these deliberate changes fail to result from a full appreciation for the other partner's pain or perspective, and sooner or later the old irritating behaviors re-emerge.
A New Approach: Accept
Enter "acceptance therapy," or, as it is technically called, "integrative couples therapy." This novel concept, which grew out of a therapist's disillusionment with traditional techniques, is exhaustively described and illustrated in a new book, "Reconcilable Differences" (Guilford Publications, $23.95) by Dr. Andrew Christensen and the late Dr. Neil S. Jacobson.
The two psychologists offer a slew of tools that couples can use to
reconcile their differences without the help of a therapist. There are now some 50,000 marital therapists in the nation, but with half of marriages doomed to fail, they are still in short supply. Besides, the cost of therapy often makes professional aid unattainable by those who need it most.
Of course, for any therapy to succeed in reviving a relationship, there must be a desire on the part of both partners to make a go of it. The approach of integrative therapy is that rather than force change, partners should start by accepting each other's differences and appreciating their individual sensitivities. Instead of backing partners into a corner by insisting on changes, this kind of understanding often leads to uncoerced changes that are more lasting and more in tune with each partner's core personality and behaviors.
One virtue of the book is its utter realism, its repeated warnings that one or another tactic may backfire, which are then followed by new strategies. Dr. Christensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, emphasizes that their goal "was not to oversimplify the process or give cookbook recipes to solve every problem."
But the National Institute of Mental Health has been sufficiently
impressed with the early results of integrative couples therapy – a pilot study had a success rate of 80 percent -- to award $3 million for a clinical trial involving about 150 couples. Half the couples will receive traditional therapy and the other half the integrative approach. The outcome of the six to nine months of treatment will be measured in terms of couple satisfaction and stability of the union and the couples will be followed for two years.
How It Works
The main idea behind acceptance therapy is that acceptance of another person's traits and behaviors often leads to compassion, and when partners learn to use compassion in dealing with one another, they tend to become more willing to let go of conflict and even change the troubling behavior. The psychologists suggest that partners in conflict work on accepting, even embracing, each other's irritating behaviors and characteristics.
"To accept means to tolerate what you regard as an unpleasant behavior, to understand its deeper meaning [and] see it in a larger context," Dr. Christensen and Dr. Jacobson wrote.
Acceptance is most likely to emerge through understanding, so the first step they recommend is to analyze the anatomy of an argument by developing a story about an important relationship problem that
incorporates the perspectives of both partners, identifies incompatibilities and vulnerabilities and describes how each person copes and how the problem escalates into conflict. Then go back over the story to see whether it focuses on differences rather than defects, vulnerabilities rather than violations, descriptions rather than judgments.
"When your focus shifts from the offending actions of each of you to the soft spots that are bruised by these actions, you may come to a new understanding of each other, one that cuts angry arguments short and over time brings you closer together," the psychologists wrote.
Too often, important thoughts and feelings about a conflict are left unsaid, either because of a lack of awareness or a fear of becoming vulnerable by disclosing them. "Yet," the authors wrote, "it is precisely these revelations that could alter the tone of the discussion and perhaps elicit empathy between you."
When partners feel pressured to change, they tend to become defensive and withdraw, the psychologists point out. But when partners feel accepted and understood, they are more likely to change willingly, often making more changes than requested. Even if no change occurs, acceptance and compassion are likely to bring a couple closer.
One aspect of acceptance may be the realization that what now drives person crazy about a partner is a characteristic that was a source of the initial attraction.
For example, a woman who is timid and conservative may be drawn to a man who is sociable and spontaneous. But with time and the arrival of children, the husband's tendency to pursue social activities that exclude his wife or to take risks the wife considers dangerous and inconsiderate for a man with a family can become a serious source of conflict.
Another important feature of acceptance is to realize that partners are not being deliberately mean. For example, when a husband failed to tell his wife until the last moment that he was going hiking for the weekend with his best friend, she became furious over his inconsiderate behavior. But his intent was not to hurt his wife. It was his way of avoiding an argument. To end a vicious cycle of avoidance and hurt, the husband needed to understand and accept his wife's sensitivity to feeling left out and her difficulties in making plans of her own.
Keep in mind, though, that acceptance has its limits. The psychologists state emphatically that some behaviors -- like physical and psychological abuse -- should never be accepted.