How Couples Therapy Can Improve A Relationship

Couple sitting up in bed, arguing

Love is an amazing, wonderful thing, but just as with anything else, it can have its fair share of ups and downs. Unfortunately, the intensely personal and emotional nature of love makes it so that when we experience those occasional “downs” they seem truly painful. In relationships we learn to develop a system of trust so that we help our partners with the stresses of their daily lives and they help us. However, what happens when this relationship of mutual reliance and communication falters? Every couple argues from time to time, but when mediation becomes difficult, therapy can help.

Why Do Couples Argue?

But why might we feel prone to argue? There’s a scientific explanation between the tension that can sometimes be caused by proximity. According to psychologist and psychotherapist Tamara McClintock Greenberg,  “Our bodies are powerful conduits of emotions. And as we have evolved together, we have learned to be very sensitive to the emotional states of those we are close to.” In other words, tensions may arise once we become more attuned to our partners emotional state. The result? If they’re upset, we’re upset, and that anger and sadness is not only reflected in ourselves but becomes magnified.

In fact, in the early years of marriage, the people we decide to spend the majority of our time with can affect us a great deal in terms of our cortisone levels which impacts how much stress we experience. As Greenberg explains: “In general, too much cortisol is considered unhealthy. In response to stress, corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), through a complex network, controls the release of cortisol, which then acts on the immune system.” What does this mean? In essence we need to manage our stress to decrease the impact of cortisol levels. This can be difficult when we’re impacted by the stress and discomfort of our loved ones. This is especially problematic when we consider that we tend to “match up” with the stress levels of our partners.

Longevity Influences Proximity

The longer a relationship lasts the more attuned we become to our partners. This connection isn’t just metaphoric, its biological. The longer couples are together to more similar their cortisol responses become. Unfortunately this attunement comes with an obvious downside: “cortisol attunement during conflict discussions among married partners was associated with decreased marital satisfaction, which is disappointing by itself, but also potentially connected to poor health.” This reciprocal stress is known as “co-regulation” which occurs when our stress levels correspond to those of our partners, particularly if they’re elevated.

Clinical psychology graduate Holly B. Laws and her colleagues conducted a study examining how cortisol levels converge in the early years of marriage. Through their research, they found that “spouses’ physiological stress responses, as indexed by cortisol, become increasingly similar as their relationship matures.” That being said, despite their studies, the mechanisms behind this process are still not yet fully understood. However, Laws claims that “It is possible that spouses show this increasing correspondence because of shared experiences they have together, and it is possible that there is a process of mutual influence within the relationship that results in cortisol patterns that are more similar as time goes by.”

In other words, we become more prone to reflecting our partner’s emotional states, including stress, due to the fact that since we are spending our time with them we are sharing the same experiences and thus developing some of the same emotional responses. After all, if we are doing the same things with our partner at the same times for any length of time we will eventually adapt physiologically as well as psychologically to this newly established routine. Think of it this way: if both individuals are eating unhealthy foods they are both likely to experience negative physiological changes as a result, versus if both partners are eating healthily then they are likely to become more fit and more healthy as a result. This same logic can be applied to emotional states and their reciprocation amongst partners. If we are experiencing the same situations we are more likely to, over time, develop similar responses as we adapt and attune ourselves to our partners.

Can We Protect Ourselves? Therapy Can Help

This attunement can have both positive and negative effects but, with regards to the more negative effects, like the increase in stress hormones, is there any way we might be able to protect ourselves? This is where therapy can help. With relationships come proximity, but unfortunately, that proximity can also result in a failure to establish or maintain boundaries. Boundaries are important for any healthy relationship but unfortunately over time some individuals may find that if they don’t firmly reinforce their boundaries they seemingly vanish. This can lead to increased conflict within the relationship.

In Greenberg’s experience, she states that “Many women I see in therapy who report conflicted romantic relationships tend to have trouble setting boundaries with partners.” However, she agrees that this is one way that therapy can be most beneficial. By learning to establish or reestablish boundaries, therapy can show us how to not take our partner’s stress as personally even when we are trying to help them. Internalizing those negative emotions is a common temptation but a dangerous one. Initially, it might seem selfish to separate ourselves from the emotions of others and focus on our owns but this is very important. Therapy can show us how to to separate ourselves from the stress of our loved ones, which can benefit us emotionally and physically, as well as better enable us to support the ones we care about without commiserating.