Before we were even married, my ex-husband and I began couples counseling. I was pregnant and excited. He, not so much. Of course, there will be highs and lows, our first couples counselor told us. What she didn’t know was that the lows would squash the highs.
I’ve read that the difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions they have in the midst of conflict. The specific, “magic ratio,” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.
As my ex and I weathered the onslaught of buying a house, raising two children (one neurodivergent), layoffs, lean finances, low libido (me), and parenting styles that never seemed to coalesce, our ratio inverted—meaning it was roughly five negative interactions for every positive one, and sometimes even slimmer pickings prevailed. Armored with self-righteous indignation, we lived in a constant state of provocation. The rounds of fighting and subsequent withdrawing in disgust were weekly, then daily. What is the sound of two nervous systems misfiring? A lot of cursing, slamming, yelling, and stonewalling.
We explored a Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT), a form of couples counseling founded by Stan Tatkin. We tried Buddhist-informed psychotherapist Bruce Tift, who had a reputation for being blunt and life-changing in equal measure. In all, we underwent nine rounds of couples counseling in a marriage that lasted 13 years. Despite the excellence of the therapists and the soundness of their respective approaches to couples counseling, we couldn’t put aside our differences and find a collaborative “us.” When the hostility got so thick that we couldn’t even look each other in the eyes without tensing, I moved out. We had reached the endgame of our relationship, when you become in the words of Tatkin, allergic to hope.
But all wasn’t lost. I quickly realized that even if I hadn’t been able to leverage any of the couples counseling advice I sought in my marriage, it would come in handy vis a vis dating. Here are three techniques I learned in couples counseling with my ex—and how I’m putting it to good use now.
Couples Counseling Technique No. 1:
Understanding your attachment style can help you neutralize conflict.
Tatkin’s approach recognizes that the attachment styles formed in childhood determine the social wiring you bring to your adult relationships. Whether you function from a sense of security or insecurity is determined by how your parents or caregivers related to you and to the world.
For example, since my parents divorced soon after I was born and my mother suffered from mental illness, both parents were largely absent for much of my childhood. When they did show up, they were present—but I felt their care as intermittent. As an adult, my love life oscillates between loneliness and doubt. This is classic ambivalent attachment style, and it means relationships can easily represent being caught between a rock and a hard place, as in a loss if I stay and a loss if I go.
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In such a scenario, “the relationship can’t grow, because there is always the existential question of are we in or are we out,” says Jeff Pincus, one of the most highly regarded PACT therapists in Boulder, Colorado, where I live. “There’s no progress that can be made.” The task comes down to self-trust. I needed to be able to choose a partner, despite the vulnerabilities, with the trust that I would be OK either way—with him or without him.
How I’m using this technique now:
Since I trust myself more these days, I feel better able to choose someone who understands me. I don’t want to settle for crumbs, nor be overly demanding. I have a better feel for what a two-person system involves and how it can be a win-win.
A couple years after my marriage ended, I found a man who is independent and self-sufficient. He has tons of hobbies and many friends. He likes a lot of space—for downtime, exercise, music, and “bro” time. Rather than take this personally, as a form of rejection, I’m learning to be more spacious, too.
I still struggle with whether I can rely on my partner or whether he will let me down. Yet even if I feel anxious when a weekend passes and we don’t hang out, I am slowly mastering the ability to be less reactive. Pincus refers to this as “check it, don’t wreck it.” If I have an experience of being abandoned, I check it out rather than assume the worst: Hey I feel this way, is that what you intended? Oftentimes, the answer has nothing to do with me personally. PACT asserts partners can help each other grow up by knowing who you are, who you picked, and the kind of attachment style that drives each of you.
Couples Counseling Technique No. 2:
Complaining about your partner is a sign that you’re not taking care of yourself.
According to Tift, complaint is a symptom of codependence. Complaining about another’s behavior is a convenient way to derail ourselves from our core dilemma: What we find unacceptable in ourselves, we will find unacceptable in others. Tift says it’s the traits that we have disowned in ourselves that irk us the most, such as laziness, neediness, and self-involvement.
As my marriage waned, the complaints grew exponentially. And if I’m honest, everything I complained about touched upon something inside myself that I wanted to avoid feeling, such as my own laziness or aggression. “In the Western point of view, having complaints is very disempowering of oneself,” says Tift. “Basically, we’re saying that something outside of us is the cause of our difficult feelings. You must change for me to have a better state of mind, but I have no power to make you change. That’s very fertile ground for a lot of codependent drama, frustration, blame, or self-aggression.”
So, how do you move away from the complaint habit? Tift says it’s when you take 100 percent personal responsibility for what you are experiencing. It’s up to me to work with the difficult feelings, even if they are triggered by another person, because they were inside of me all along. The choice is to work directly with the material that’s being triggered or keep on perpetuating unresolved issues from my childhood.
How I’m using this technique now:
My biggest (unvoiced) complaint about my boyfriend is that everything else seems to be a higher priority than our relationship. If you ask for more time and you don’t get it, Tift says, then you’ll need to accept the reality of what you’re feeling without complaint. I must decide if the overall benefit of this relationship is worth the price tag. If I stay, I’m guaranteed to feel feelings that I don’t like to feel—the sense of second best, of not mattering.
But here’s the turnaround: Tift suggests the disturbances that are inevitable in the relationship are exactly what I need to grow. They are not happening “to” me, they are happening “for” me. “If I have issues I’m attached to that are operating unconsciously, they have to come out in the open before they can be moved through and dismantled or seen as transparent. “We can welcome the provocation of a relationship as giving us exactly what we have to work with sooner or later on our path,” says Tift.
Couples Counseling Technique No. 3:
Understand what amplifies and squelches your sexual desire.
Nina Hausfeld, a sex therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Art Therapist
In my marriage, sexual discrepancy played a huge role in the mutual discontent we both experienced. He wanted sex to feel more intimate, I wanted intimacy to feel more sexual.
Neither of us got what we wanted.
Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel claims that the closer a couple bind together in emotional, verbal, and domestic intimacy (compounded by the stress of parenting), the less chance they have of remaining lovers. The erotic depends on distance, space, autonomy, and mystery—difficult things to maintain in a marriage where alone time is scarce and mystery even scarcer.
If you are trying to rekindle the oh-so-elusive spark, “Honey Do” lists and “Honey Do Me” lists don’t mix. And yet, the answer is not to create space for sex to simply happen, but to deliberately set the mood. A common misperception about sex is that for it to feel authentic, it needs to be spontaneous. But Perel urges her patients not to be “spontaneous” about sex, but to be intentional. Spontaneous sexual desire is hormonally driven “hornyness” that tends to decline with age.
“Responsive sexual desire, desire that happens as a response to something, is something we can actually cultivate,” says Hausfeld, and it’s essential for a healthy relationship. To expand your erotic repertoire, the pivot is to move away from your ideas about what sex should look like and focus on pleasure and connection. “I often encourage my clients to slow down and to listen to each other’s touch as if it was words or melody, a call-and-response,” says Hausfeld. Her advice is to pay close attention, with mindfulness, to how my partner’s touch feels in me, then respond to that sensation in real time. It’s to listen—and trust—my creative erotic impulse, that raw sexual expression that comes from the depth of listening.
How I’m using this technique now:
I am learning my sexual desire ebbs and flows in direct correlation to how willing I am to trust myself. If I focus on what is problematic—for example, when I turn situations into problems, and ultimately turn myself into a problem—I allow my familiar lens of disappointment to color my reality.
So, my partner and I navigate being in a relationship unburdened by too many expectations. Time will tell if this is a way to breed intimacy or squelch it, but I want to give it a go.
As for our erotic adventures, I make a point these days to connect first with my own vitality and aliveness. I know it’s on me to initiate my erotic awakening, not depend on someone else to do it for me. And when we have sex, I appreciate the invitation to get a temporary respite from our conditioned selves, our attachment styles, our habits, and let go into something wild and unbounded. A sensual freedom that includes our personal lineages but also goes beyond it and even before it.
To have sex like that, with someone I trust, is to catch a glimpse of my original face, my basic goodness, my inviolable belonging.