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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

The Surprising Magic Ingredient for a Long-Lasting Relationship

In an earlier post, I talked about the differences between individual therapy and couples counseling. Of those 8 differences, I think the most important one is that tension has to be present for good couples therapy. In fact, I would say that the ability to tolerate tension in a relationship is the magic ingredient needed for long-term relationship vitality.

I realize that this is not supported by the dominant popular culture beliefs about what constitutes a good relationship. We are told that if you find the “right” person, you will never be frustrated and the relationship will be easy, effortless, and enjoyable. Alas, this is, unfortunately, a fantasy.

I’m not saying that every second of your relationship should be tense! That would be utterly exhausting. But there will be times when your partner thinks differently than you do, wants something different, or acts in a way that you don’t like. And in those times, you need to be able to tolerate some tension in your relationship so that you can successfully navigate your differences.

There are two unhealthy strategies that partners tend to use to to side-step this healthy tension. The first is by pulling your partner to agree with you. This usually involves some kind of antagonism: convincing, lecturing, forcing, demanding, manipulating, pleading — you get the picture. One partner is pulling the other to be more like them. The second strategy is to avoid the conflict altogether by ignoring, diffusing, shutting down, distracting, withdrawing, and not speaking up. These strategies or patterns determine the conflict style of the couple. So you get high conflict couples, conflict avoidant couples, and couples who are mixed. The mixed couples usually involve a critical, blaming partner and a shut down or passive-aggressive partner.

Fire Metaphor

In each of these scenarios, a good couples counselor will need to know how to manage the tension, so that there is a perfect amount to really understand each partner and discover why each person operates differently. I think of it as having a beautiful, well tended fire in a fireplace. With high conflict couples, the fire is blazing out of control and can threaten to burn down the house. With conflict avoidant couples, the fire has gone out and has left the room cold. Mixed couples have a combination of these things happening at any given time — sometimes the fire is blazing out of control and sometimes there is a cold, barren environment.

A good couples counselor needs to know either how to dampen down the fire so it doesn’t get out of control or light a fire and keep it burning when the flame has nearly gone out. Couples with too much tension can’t hear each other or understand each other’s perspectives. Couples with not enough tension can’t speak honestly about any of the important issues in their relationship. Holding tension at a controlled burn creates room for vitality in relationships, so that couples can understand and appreciate each other’s differences without feeling threatened or taking it personally. Only with this understanding can couples collaborate to develop collaborative solutions that work well for both partners.

Let me know what you think! Comments are always welcome and appreciated.

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