New Tactic for Troubled Couples
Accept, Not Attack
Acceptance therapy shifts the emphasis to developing empathy between partners through understanding. "When you genuinely accept your partner, and understand what he or she is experiencing emotionally, you can stop pushing each others' buttons," Christensen says.
In acceptance therapy, a couple and therapist develop a clear description of the couple's relationship -- one upon which both partners can agree. Christensen calls this process writing the "story" of a relationship.
They identify the typical situations that trigger conflict and examine the dynamics that occur when they argue. Central to the technique is identifying the motives and emotions that underlie each partner's behavior. These revelations often come as a surprise, Christensen says.
When Kathy and Bill (they asked that their real names not be used) came to Christensen, their 15-year marriage was falling apart. Kathy complained that Bill was excessively controlling. Bill countered that Kathy would not or could not stick to agreements that they made during their arguments.
As they rehashed scenes from their life, the couple came to identify the unspoken emotions that lay beneath many of their arguments. Kathy said that Bill's tone of voice when they argued was so troubling that she simply shut down. She wasn't giving in to his way of thinking, as Bill assumed, but tuning him out.
Bill explained that his compulsiveness was not motivated by a desire to keep Kathy under his thumb, but by a need to impose order on his own life.
Ironically, change -- which is de-emphasized in acceptance therapy -- is often one of its most significant results. Kathy softened when she realized that Bill's insecurity stemmed from a chaotic childhood and the uncertainties related to his job as a Hollywood screenwriter. And once Bill understood the devastating impact his tone of voice had on Kathy, he found himself listening carefully to how he came across.
"When couples know their own stories and develop empathy and acceptance of each other, they typically make adjustments in their lives that lower the emotional volume in their interactions," Christensen says.
As therapy progressed, Bill and Kathy's interactions reflected a greater appreciation of each other, and each reported an enhanced sense of intimacy and satisfaction, Christensen says.