Victims of Comfort
Article by dr. Ron bean
Working with couples is a part of my practice that I love. There is something about that kind of work I find very rewarding and challenging (especially as success in our work does not always mean couples stay together). I recently talked with an individual client who described an interaction where she and her partner were finally able to “stay on-topic” and share their feelings about a long-standing, pernicious problem without the conversation escalating into an argument. She discussed which therapeutic strategies have been the most helpful for her and we talked about how important it is that we hit the brakes and talk about what just happened, especially with her partner.
Since it happened just before our early morning session, she decided to take her partner to brunch after the session so she could share all the tings she found helpful; as well as the moments she felt connected while they were authentically sharing how they felt. We discussed how important it was to thank each other and share encouragement and appreciation as a regular part of the routine. In the absence of thanks or comment, we are likely to feel our efforts may be unnoticed, unappreciated, or taken for granted (Bean, Ledermann, Higginbotham, and Galliher, 2020).
Our conversation then drifted to the ways we fall into routines, get complacent (or “comfortable”) in the relationship, and assume “they know I love them.” I shared some lyrics to the song Victims of Comfort written by one of my favorite artists, Keb’ Mo’ and Tim Kimber.
"Well, I'd like to see a change somehow and I believe we're busy right now."
It is so easy to get so wrapped up in our lives and busy schedules and we tend to forget the positive behaviors that were once in abundance in our relationships. The positive behaviors can be particularly impactful in relationships as they are directly related to marital satisfaction (Schramm and Adler-Baeder, 2012). With so many other things to focus on, our relationship sometimes misses out because we count on it without maintaining it.
One of the laws of behavior states that what is reinforced is more likely to happen again. Therefore, focusing on our spouse's successes and encouraging their efforts makes much more progress than when we fall into the rut of criticism.
We have a tendency to focus so much on what our partner is doing we miss what we could be doing to improve things. For this reason, I like to think about relationships like tennis. Once we serve the ball (and hopefully get it in bounds and over the net), everything is out of our control until the ball comes back. All we can do is focus on being in the best position, alert, and ready to act. Our partner needs to manage their side of the court. Sure, we need to be able to talk about our expectations; and if we each put the energy into making sure we are doing what we can instead of keeping score, there would be less to have conflict about.
Keb’s song continues:
"What do we got to lose? Everything. Yes, and what do we stand to gain? Everything. So, let's try together before we have to cry together."
In couples work, this is where we often begin, make sure we are adding the positivity into the relationship we can while we work through the challenges. In John Gottman’s book, What Predicts Divorce, he described findings that healthy couples engage in a ratio of about 5 positive interactions to each negative interaction during conflict, where unhealthy couples had a ratio of 0.8 positives to each negative. Positives include eye contact, nodding, saying “uh huh” to signal we are listening, physical contact, and lots of little things that are easy to forget when we fall into the business of being in a relationship or the clutches of a fight. Though it is hardest when we are upset, making sure we do what we can to add positivity into the relationship really counts. It is an investment that pays dividends in helping learn how we can be there for each other in the most meaningful and productive ways. It also helps influence the overall tone, or sentiment, in the relationship but that is a topic for a future article.
Bean, R. C., Ledermann, T., Higginbotham, B. J., & Galliher, R. V. (2020). Associations between relationship maintenance behaviors and marital stability in remarriages. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 61(1), 62-82. DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2019.1619385
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce?: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
Schramm, D. G., & Adler-Baeder, F. (2012). Marital quality for men and women in stepfamilies: Examining the role of economic pressure, common stressors, and stepfamily-specific stressors. Journal of Family Issues, 33(10), 1373–1397. DOI: 10.1177/0192513X11428126