Seminar Workshop with Dr. Ann Thiel, Dr. Bill Forisha and Aissa Wayne, Esq.

An Integrated Approach to Conflict Resolution in Marital Therapy

The Task At Hand: Rejuvenating a Naturally Occurring Process

The primary goal of couple’s therapy is simple enough: to help each member of the couple to get more of what it is that they want in their relationship with the other and less of what it is that they don't want. This goal shapes and guides the work — sometimes explicitly and other times quite implicitly. Most importantly this goal derives from a naturally occurring process — one that a couple has been engaged in since the first time they met each other — the negotiation of their individual differences in order to maximize the satisfaction each partner experiences from having a relationship with the other.

The only reason that a couple presents for marital therapy is that their current level of satisfaction has dropped below what one or both of them want and they are pessimistic about being able to reverse this trend on their own. Their evolved process of negotiating their differences is no longer working and they are either stuck in an unacceptable homeostatic cycle of going nowhere or already begun the descent into the painful process of questioning their commitment to the relationship. When the pain for one or both has increased and their hope for change has decreased to unacceptable levels, they may finally reach out and ask for help. Our workshop is about how to provide that help, that is, how to revitalize and, if necessary, transform their ability to negotiate their differences and resolve their conflicts.

We have relied on the principles below for over 35 years in our specialized practices of helping couples transform their relationships. Although we have each evolved our own way of understanding and using these principles, we shall forever be lovingly indebted to those from whom we initially learned them. When applicable and appropriate, our mentors are mentioned below in parenthesis for the sake of intellectual honesty as well as for grateful memories. (A list of actual references will be made available at each workshop.) Our training is aimed towards the acquisition of deep understanding of these principles and an increased proficiency in their use. Our purpose, however, is not to have participants duplicate our work but rather to integrate these principles into their own creative work with the couples who seek their help. These ideas and practices were handed down to us as mere possibilities; we wish to do the same for others. We hope you enjoy and put them to good use.

Ten Essential Principles of Theory & Practice

1. There are three parts to any continuing relationship: the “me”, the “you”, and the “us”. What may be the most distinguishing feature in the art of couple’s therapy is viewing all three entities as the client who has asked for your help. (Virginia Satir)

2. People are similar all over the world and from one historical era to another. One of their most significant similarities, however, is that they are also quite different from one another. Hence, two individuals who want a relationship with one another must spend much of their time and energy negotiating their individual differences — that is, resolving the naturally occurring conflict that is involved in creating and maintaining an “us”. (Virginia Satir)

3. Power struggles are normal events as individual members of a relationship seek to get more of what they want in relation to the other. It is how a partner struggles for power, not if a partner struggles, that leads to greater or lesser marital satisfaction.

4. Partners are well advised that any persistent feeling, thought, or want in any continuing relationship is best disclosed — despite the fact that doing so may precipitate conflict Negotiations or power struggles based upon personal authenticity and congruent interpersonal communication processes lead to the resolution of conflict and greater marital satisfaction. (Carl Rogers)

5. Being authentic requires being deeply aware or mindful of what you are feeling, thinking, and wanting and communicating these internal states of being to your partner in a genuinely honest and non-manipulative manner — despite the fact that in any particular negotiation there is no guarantee that you will get what you want or that your partner will even care about what you are feeling or thinking. The more fundamentally “ok” a person is with their own being-in-the-world, the more likely they are to take the risk of simply sharing how they feel and asking for what they want. The skill set associated with engaging in effective negotiation of individual differences is really no more or less than that. (Eric Berne, Virginia Satir, Sherod Miller).

6. However, communication between partners often has two levels of meaning — that which discloses the content of the speaker’s attention at this particular moment (report level -- which tends to be overt) and that which seeks to define or determine or control the interactive process (command level -- which tends to be covert ) — so as to increase the probability of getting what is wanted. As the gap between the overt and covert levels of meaning widen and become habitual, the use of manipulative communication processes, that is, power plays or interpersonal games increase and the resolution of conflict decreases. (Jay Haley)

7. Power plays are simply a covert or unconscious means to a long lost end — to be loved by another (Virginia Satir, Cloe Madanes) and/or to manage existential anxiety (Ernest Becker, Murray Bowen, Irvin Yalom). But their use is ultimately self-defeating because they elevate self-satisfaction (the me) above mutuality (the us) while sacrificing the partner (the you). Such a process yields less conflict resolution and is a sure sign that attention in therapy must be paid to the individual members of the partnership.

8. Partners may employ a wide range of manipulative tactics to get what they want and less of what they don’t want. Tactics that are used habitually were probably adopted by a partner in order to help navigate developmental life transitions in earlier interpersonal environments. Therefore, significant attention is often given to “finishing unfinished business” in each partners’s family of origin. (Claude Steiner, Murray Bowen, Virginia Satir)

9. Generally speaking, individual work is more effective when it is fully integrated with couples’ work — that is, when it is conducted with the partner present in the session. For strategic purposes, conjoint sessions may be supplemented by occasional individual sessions but the purpose of these is to augment the evolving process not to preempt it. (Other treatment formats may, of course, need to be considered, if and when the physical safety of either partner is at risk). The therapist may often alternate working with one and then the other partner. As each partner works through intensely painful feelings (fear, sadness, and anger) associated with past and present disappointments, the other partner bears witness to their deeply personal challenges and their courage in facing them. Empathetic understanding, appreciation, respect, and admiration begin to slowly replace fear and defensive posturing. (Virginia Satir, Carl Whitaker, Murray Bowen)

10. Conflict resolution in couple’s therapy is more likely to occur if treatment is relatively more experiential and collaborative and less didactic and authoritative. However, the crucible within which both individual and dyadic work best proceeds is a therapeutic relationship characterized by trust. The more distrust each of the partners feels for the other the more trust each must feel for the therapist. The therapist must be able and willing to hold the pain of each partner as well create and/or maintain the vision of a viable and loving relationship until the partners are able to hold these processes themselves. (Carl Whitaker, Jill and David Scharf, Doug Sprenkle) .


  © 2014-2016 Dr. Ann Forisha Thiel