Resolving Marital Conflicts with Couples Therapy [Interview Series]

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Interview with Kozak

Although there are significant challenges to sustaining marriages and relationships, most couples do not seek therapy or treatment. There are various barriers to seeking couples therapy. Hubbard and Anderson published an article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy discussing the obstacles to couples therapy

They noted that several barriers at the moment restrain couples from seeking help. The most significant obstacles are the cost of the treatment, logistics, treatment modality, trustworthiness of the therapists, factors related to the actual relationship, and a lack of understanding of the therapeutic process. 

Many couples can now seek treatment anytime, thanks to telehealth services and online therapy. In addition, evidence-based treatment modalities such as those practiced by Megan Kozak can make couples therapy more attractive and accessible. 

To discuss the current challenges of married couples and how one can offer help to resolve them, we spoke with Megan Kozak, a Couples Therapist. She is trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, an evidence-based relationship counseling treatment. She is regularly interviewed on the radio and appears in several podcasts and articles.

1. We would love to know more about your life and work. Would you like to share anything with our readers?

I am the Director of Lighthouse Relationships Psychology and Counselling, a private practice in Brisbane. I am a couples therapist with a postgraduate qualification in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. I work with couples face-to-face in Brisbane and via telehealth across Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, and other countries worldwide. I am a regular keynote speaker and relationship expert on radio, podcasts, and articles. My husband and I have been together for 18 years and have two hilarious and adventurous daughters.

2. What problems/challenges are you seeing today with married couples?

The sort of problems and challenges I am seeing today with married couples and friends commonly include:

  • Inability to manage communication and conflict in better ways. 

  • Couples who have been fighting for weeks, months, or years are now seeking help.

  • Recovering from infidelity. Couples where one or both partners have had an affair of some description, and both partners are trying to rebuild the relationship.

  • Managing transition times. Couples who have had a new baby, new job, retirement.

  • Each of these times creates significant challenges because as we enter each new phase of our identity, our realities are compounded by external stressors (like lack of sleep, changed purpose, etc.)

  • Partners finding their way back to each other after feeling like flatmates for a long time.

  • Couples who have become busy or stuck in their relationship and don’t know how to find the spark that they once had.

All of these challenges are normal but can feel overwhelming simultaneously. The good news is that specific strategies help move a couple forward.

3. In what areas are these challenges evident?

These challenges can be classified under five major categories:

  • Reframing

  • Communication

  • Rebuilding a marriage,

  • Rekindling the spark

  • Reprioritizing marriage

4. Before the pandemic, what were the most common challenges you faced with married couples?

Before the pandemic, the issues were similar. However, the pandemic has magnified pre-existing problems for couples. If communication was a challenge before the pandemic, working from home together, managing financial stress, and supporting children through unpredictability have amplified conflict resolution in marriage. Before the pandemic, a more significant stigma existed around seeking marriage and relationship counseling.

  • Family – The last two years have made us reflect on what is essential. Many of us have concluded that family is crucial. This can highlight both the good and bad things that involve our families. I advise my clients to list what they love about the family they grew up in and what they’d like to do differently. Then, couples must intentionally decide what their ideal “family” will look like.

  • Conflict – In times of stress, conflict increases. Conflict is normal and healthy as long as the positivity outweighs the negativity. During Covid, our mental and physical resources were depleted. As a result, we may have developed some unhealthy habits around conflict. I urge couples to do a quick stocktake of how they and their partner manage conflict and course correct early (possibly with some support from an expert) so that they are a conflict-competent couple. 

  • Sex – The “falling in love” stage of a relationship lasts between six months to 2 years. If a couple met during Covid, that phase might be coming to an end. That’s ok as long as they know what is ahead. As they move into the trust-building phase, sexual activity can plateau a little. That’s normal. The key is to remain emotionally connected. Research shows that a great sex life in the long term depends on building trust and emotional connection.

5. What would you advise married couples with post-pandemic challenges

First, I would normalize Covid. It has been a hothouse experience for many couples, where feelings and experiences have been amplified or heightened. For example, if finances were a concern before Covid, the worry and fear around money were often exacerbated by the uncertainty of the pandemic. Similarly, if communication was a challenge before Covid, then the experience of enduring lockdowns, working from home, managing homeschooling, etc., really heightened this. 

One of the best things to have come out of the pandemic is that mental health and relationship support are very much out of the shadows. There is a growing sense that it is ok. It is necessary to talk and seek help when you feel frustrated and need it. In the same way that we would call a mechanic if we had trouble with our car or book in with the dentist if we had a toothache, seeking support for your relationship is extremely useful!

Beyond seeking help, I would recommend focusing on these five aspects of your relationship:

  • Feeling seen and known

People change over time – so do our priorities, our personal interests, likes, and dislikes. Happy couples take the time to talk continuously “get to know” their spouse or partner. Healthy couples keep learning about their partner by asking open-ended questions. This could be as simple as “What was the best part of your day?” or “Where is one place you would love to travel to?” When we feel seen and known by our partners, we can feel truly loved.

  • Appreciation and admiration

Taking time out to think about what one appreciates in their partner has an enormous impact on the happiness of their relationship. There is an abundance of studies linking gratitude to relationship satisfaction. What we appreciate appreciates the person around us back. Couples can show appreciation in a variety of ways. Some couples verbalize gratitude by complimenting or thanking their partner, while others leave notes on the fridge or send a quick text message.

  • Physical affection

Physical affection is important in a relationship and doesn’t just mean sexual intimacy. This can include holding hands, kisses, hugs, or even doing little things as resting one’s head on their partner’s shoulder as they watch Netflix. These small moments of physical touch release Oxytocin (bonding chemical) and make a positive difference in a couple’s feelings of connection.

  • Investing in quality time as a couple

As we all live increasingly busy lives, it can be challenging to schedule a date night, but for a relationship to stay healthy, it is essential to book regular couple time. This quality time together is an investment in romance and closeness that fills up our emotional bank account for the week ahead.

  • Communication and conflict resolution

A healthy relationship requires excellent communication and strategies for managing conflict and disagreement. Instead of trying to ignore issues, disagreements or worries, healthy couples learn how to respectfully express how they are feeling, own any behavior that has hurt their partner, and come to a resolution. Couples who avoid conflict or who never disagree aren’t always healthy. Often, they are just avoidant.

6. What is the best therapy married couples can get

There are many different types of couples therapy. I would recommend working with a therapist trained in ‘Gottman Method Couples Therapy’ or ‘Emotion Focused Therapy. These are two well-reputed, evidence-based frameworks for couples therapy. A therapist trained in one of these two therapies will have undergone specialized training and assessment to be able to practice this therapy

Relationship Therapy Questions for couple to Consider:

  • What made you fall in love with each other?

  • What were your early years like together?

  • How were things better then?

  • How are things better now?

  • How do you currently show your partner that you care?

  • What does your partner do that makes you feel loved?

  • What caring behaviors can you do more of or start?

7. Strategies for resolving marital conflicts in romantic relationships

  1. Open Expression of Feelings: Effective conflict resolution starts with direct communication. Express your thoughts and emotions openly, addressing concerns promptly rather than letting them accumulate. Begin the conversation with empathy and care, outlining the behavior you’d like to change and your associated feelings. Request specific changes and seek agreement to ensure a productive dialogue.

  2. Avoid Blame Game: Blaming your partner hinders constructive conflict resolution. Replace blame with “I feel” statements that focus on emotions rather than accusations. This approach, centered on the issue, encourages healthier communication and understanding.

  3. Focus on One Issue: Stay on track during disagreements by addressing one problem at a time. Prevent the conversation from diverging into unrelated matters. By concentrating on a single concern, you enhance your chances of finding a solution and prevent arguments from becoming muddled.

  4. Prioritize Communication: Healthy communication is foundational in conflict resolution. Engage in active listening, maintain eye contact, and show genuine interest in your partner’s words. Employ respectful body language and “I” statements to express emotions without assigning blame. Admitting when you’re wrong also fosters effective communication.

  5. Embrace Open-Mindedness: Remaining open-minded during disputes increases the likelihood of peaceful resolution. Put aside ego-driven perspectives and objectively consider your partner’s viewpoint. This approach facilitates balanced discussions and paves the way for understanding and compromise.

  6. Let Go of Minor Issues: Minimize relationship stress by not sweating the small stuff. Recognize that many worries are inconsequential and learn to accept imperfections. Practicing patience and cultivating compassion for others can help maintain a balanced perspective.

  7. Assume Positive Intentions: Combat negative assumptions by assuming your partner’s good intentions. When faced with behavior that triggers assumptions, take a moment to reframe your perspective. Consider positive interpretations of their actions and clarify misunderstandings through open communication.

resolving marital conflicts

How marital conflicts affect the emotional needs in marriage

Marital conflicts give rise to distinct emotional repercussions within the context of a marriage. Disagreements often trigger repetitive behavioral patterns due to breakdowns in communication. Consequently, these conflicts lead to emotional distress, making it appear exceedingly challenging to arrive at mutually agreeable solutions.

The progression of marital conflicts unfolds through four distinctive stages: dysfunctional, chaotic, constructive, and mature.

The dysfunctional stage is characterized by a failure to reciprocate each other’s emotional needs. The chaotic stage emerges as disagreements escalate into intense exchanges, frequently devoid of resolution. During the constructive stage, both partners make efforts to partially address each other’s emotional needs, even though some issues may remain unresolved. Ultimately, the mature stage is reached when both partners adeptly fulfill each other’s emotional needs, resulting in the absence of lingering unresolved matters.

Seeking Marital Therapy Early On Can Save Marriages

As you can see, married couples face several problems and challenges today. Managing communication and resolving marital conflicts are some of the biggest problems they face. In addition, couples find it challenging to recover from instances of infidelity, which erodes trust. Most importantly, stressors such as having a baby, getting a new job, or even opting for retirement can all cause conflicts within a relationship. 

Evidence-based practices such as those followed by Megan Kazak can positively affect married couples’ relationships. These therapeutic modules are time-tested and reliable. As a result, many of the barriers discussed in the introductory paragraph, such as trustworthiness and treatment modalities, are addressed. 

Jaiyant Cavale, Clinical Psychologist
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