For Couples, The Gift of Conversation

Just UsGregory Howard For some couples, Valentine’s Day provides a chance for them to demonstrate their affection through therapy and counseling sessions.

This Feb. 14, while most of America translates love into flowers, you might consider giving your loved one a different sort of gift — a trip to a therapist.

“Couples therapy is a safe space for couples to engage, slow down and gain insight on their challenges and resources,” said Jean Malpas, a licensed marriage and family therapist and faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family on the Upper East Side. “It’s a place to rediscover the wonderful aspects of one’s relationship, things that might otherwise get lost under the noise of the conflict.”

While many consider counseling to be the residue of conflict, it does not have to be used only as a tool of intervention. There are also plenty of people in healthy relationships who have decided to use counseling as a method of developing more successful communication.

“It’s a far-reaching concept, and it certainly includes nonverbal cues,” said Gertraud Stadler, Postdoctoral Research Scientist and a founder of the Columbia Couples Lab, a research center where members of couples and their interactions are studied, especially under stressful conditions. The lab also collaborates with the New York University Couples Lab.

Manner of phrasing — pronunciation, rhythm and tone — are all quiet cues that sometimes go unrecognized. Attempts to communicate can get “lost in translation,” Mr. Malpas said, propagating an unintentionally destructive cycle of reactivity and hurt.

In such situations Mr. Malpas advises couples to break the cycle by avoiding blame. Instead, he said, couples should reflect, listen to one another without taking offense, and make time in their schedules to be together, not always an easy feat in a fast paced city.

“Like other large urban centers, New York has extremely high standards,” said Judith Siegel, associate professor of the Silver School of Social Work at New York University and author of five books related to couples therapy. “It’s competitive, with time-demanding jobs that are a source of stress. But you have to remember to keep your relationship a priority.”

Studies have found that keeping a relationship healthy may be a key to general well being. Researchers at the Columbia Couples Lab found that marital conflicts can be physiologically, as well as psychologically, damaging.

In the 2010 publication “Grounding Social Psychology in Daily Life: The Case of Conflict and Distress in Couples,” researchers described associations between marital discord and the development of depressive symptoms, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, and poor physical health, with fluctuating hormone levels, decreased immune responses, and higher blood pressure — all potential precursors for chronic health problems. And evidence shows that negative behavior by couples can also harm the physical and mental health of their children.

But not all of the lab’s findings are negative. Some studies, which quantify data based on participants’ heart-rates, electrodermal activity and diary entries, are more uplifting, like the discovery that “having fun” as a couple may be as beneficial as undergoing therapy or seeking counseling. According to a recent study, experiencing “good times” together makes couples feel closer and more content, whether that activity is exciting (bungee-jumping, for instance) or relaxing (watching a movie).

“It’s something that’s been overlooked,” Dr. Stadler, of the Couples Lab, said. “As couples age, they forget about doing all the fun stuff, but really they should ramp it up!”

And just as marital conflict may produce physical problems, preliminary data from the lab has found that feeling “happy and close” to one’s partner may have beneficial effects that last longer than a day or so. Participants report feeling healthier and experiencing less aches and pains, even when the positive experiences they enjoy took place in the past.

The reverse, of course, can also be true and some couples are caught in negative cycles.

In order to avoid such repeating phases, Mr. Malpas recommends communication, especially listening without reflexively objecting.

“When you listen,” he said. “It’s important not to introduce contradiction in communication, to join one another on the experience, and stay on the same side. Don’t make the other feel dismissed—listen fully.”

If arguments are adversarial, then “winning” them, Professor Siegel believes, is destructive. In her most recent book, she examines methods of negotiating intimacy, or the learned ways people behave in their relationships (most likely adopted from one’s parents) and the toll that can take.

“It’s so sad, because the couple didn’t grow apart,” she said. “They simply didn’t have the skills or the background to know how to resolve their differences in a healthy way. That’s when it’s helpful to go to a therapist.”

Consumers across the country, on average, will shell out over a hundred bucks on Valentine’s Day, but perhaps a more precious gift is a renewed commitment to communication. It may sound strange but this Valentine’s Day, my partner and I are going to see a counselor. And booking that appointment might be the most romantic thing we’ve ever done.