Couple Relationships

 (The details of the case histories that follow have been altered to protect the identities of the persons involved.Any resemblance to persons alive or deceased is thus only very partial and any conclusions relative to the facts of their lives,their behaviour or character can only be supposition and unlikely to be correct. )

There are many reasons, of a social nature, for the deterioration of marriage- causes such as the loss of traditional family values, the advent of women’s entry into the labour force and the loss of faith in God, amongst others.Our focus however, in this article, will be on some of the psychological and interpersonal dimensions.

The Case of Madame Desbiens:

My first contact with real toxicity in couples was during my year of residency training in psychiatry at a private hospital that catered to the rich and famous.The couple were called the Desbiens.

Madame Desbiens was a woman in her early 40’s with a pleasant personality and a relatively opulent lifestyle. Her husband was a prominent businessman with a long string of financial successes. He was very hard-working and very demanding at home. No one at the hospital had seen him as he was always working.

There was something unusual,as well, about the case of Madame Desbiens. She had been admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of psychotic depression (this was before the days of DSM diagnoses). However, there was no family history, either of depression or psychosis, as far as we could tell. She had never been depressed before getting married and at the hospital there was nothing crazy or even depressed about her behaviour. In fact, she stood out in her normality and people often mistook her for a staff member rather than a patient.

In taking the case history, most of the symptomatology centered around her performance as a a housewife. At times she would be extremely efficient and at other times she would break down into a paralysis of the will – an anergic impasse. During the weeks prior to admission she was making more and more errors at home. She would regularly overcook the family meal. Her husband would show up at 9 or 10 o’clock at night,after a long day at the office, to a burnt roast chicken or a totally dried- out lasagna. She often forgot the laundry or the children’s lunches. The week before admission, she had left a broom in the stairwell where her husband would chase down the stairs every morning, in a rush to get to work. He had a nasty tumble, fractured a vertebrae, and decided it was time for his wife to be hospitalised.

After a few pleasant individual therapy sessions centered around her current symptomatolgy and her past history ( aside from some minor learning problems at school quite unremarkable) I decided that the problem must be elsewhere and invited her husband to come in.. He was, of course, difficult to reach and even more difficult to schedule. As well, he was insisting we see the children , since they would serve as witnesses to his wife’s misbehavior.

So we scheduled a family therapy session. I had just begun my studies of family therapy and thought that this would be a great place to practice what I was learning.Each family session followed the same format more or less. Mrs. Desbiens was almost totally silent. Even when addressed her responses were brief and unhelpful. The children would sit dutifully in their places and not dare to interrupt. Mr. Desbiens would rail on about his wife’s depression, her mistakes, her sabotaging his career. He would punctuate his verbal assaults on his wife with questions to me about her diagnosis, the cause of her illness and what treatments we were going to undertake. He would express his disappointment with the failure of the out- patient treatment of his wife who had continued to deteriorate. Then he would insist that she needed electric shock treatment which had helped one of his colleagues’ mothers to recover from a melancholic depression.

He never asked his wife’s opinion or that of his children either. He never expressed sympathy for her psychic pain. He never brought her flowers or chocolates or any of the usual presents people bring for patients in the hospital.

Somewhere around the third or fourth session, after a particularly intense tirade about how his wife should be behaving, I looked at him squarely in the eyes and said, somewhat naively, “Mr. Desbiens, have you ever considered the possibility that you are too harsh and authoritarian in your family?”

He looked back at me, equally intent on registering his own opinion, and said in a loud voice , slamming his fist on the table for extra emphasis, with a sound that reverberated through the entire department:

“Dr Kreps, I am an extremely gentle man…!”

At that point I knew we were not going to get very far in family therapy,My supervisor agreed. We decided instead to help Mrs. Desbiens regain her strength and learn on her own some forms of appropriate self –assertion and psychological defense.

Family Therapy:

In fact family therapy and couple therapy are probably the most difficult enterprises in all of psychiatry. There are currently over a dozen different schools of approach to family therapy. They include names such as the Bowen Family Systems Approach, Menuchin’s Structural Family Therapy, the Milan Systems Approach, Psychoanalytic Family Therapy, Problem- solving Family Therapy, Psycho- educational Family Therapy and many others. They draw on each of the various schools of individual psychotherapy and add to them “systems” approaches designed specifically for collective realities. Each of the approaches has specific applications and has been found useful in particular contexts. For example, psycho- educational approaches have been shown useful in families where a person has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When I first started psychiatry, the approach in vogue was one based on communications theory ( Bateson , Weakland et al.) which held that schizophrenia was produced by pathological communication in the family including placing the patient in ‘double- bind’ situations from which he or she was unable to escape. This ended up creating a culture in which parents were blamed for children’s psychoses, adding the element of guilt to the already substantial burden of being the parent of a psychotic child. With the advent of neuropsychiatry and genetic research this theory is no longer mainstream and parents can put aside their inappropriate guilt and learn to cope with what constitutes a severe, biologically- based psychiatric illness.

Couple therapy developed from family therapy but often turns out to be even more challenging. The pitfalls of projections, introjections,displacements and miscommunication seem to be particularly acute in this one –to –one context whose only real parallel is the mother-child relationship. The original pattern, once established in the mother-child bond, tends to repeat itself in the couple context and in every other relationship for that matter.

The Case of Dan:

I was reminded of these pitfalls several years ago as I crossed the campus of my Alma Mater- McGill University. There I ran into an elementary school classmate named Dan who I had not seen in close to thirty years. He had since become a very successful lawyer, working vigorously for the rights of indigenous peoples in Canada and had become clearly prosperous and self-assured.

“How’s it going, Dan? It’s been a long time” I offered.

“Terrible” he answered, clearly relieved to be able to speak about something that he may have been keeping hidden from his current friends.

“What’s up?” I said trying to make light of it.

“It’s my marriage…”

“I didn’t know you were married…Tell me about it’ I said sounding perhaps a bit too professional.

“I don’t get it!” he stammered, clearly frustrated. “ I did everything right. We dated for two years, we lived together for three years and only after that did we get married”. He paused, took a deep breath and continued “ It lasted three months! And then we separated”.

“She changed completely once we were married. Before, we got along fine, the occasional spat, nothing serious. After the marriage we couldn’t agree on anything, not even what to buy at the grocery store”

I smiled.

“What are you smiling about? It’s not funny!”

“You’re right. It’s tragic, but I’ve seen this all too many times.I will try to explain it to you in brief but if you really want to get a handle on it you’d probably have to consult”

The fact is that he had probably changed as well after the marriage , but didn’t realize it.I then explained to him what I have observed working with couples. There are three or four crucial points in the life of a couple: when they get married, when they move in together, if they buy a house together and when they have children.

At any of these points an internal psychological change can occur. The person then becomes more identified than previously with the same-sex parent. Usually the man becomes more identified with his father and the woman with her mother but the identification may cross gender lines.In this way the previously cute and seductive female can become aggressive and domineering like her mother or the soft-spoken gentle male suddenly becomes autocratic like his Dad (or his Mom ). At that point the entire interaction dynamic changes and the conjugal atmosphere can alter- radically at times.

In order to understand this better I think it would be helpful briefly to explore Object Relations Theory.

Object Relations Theory:

Object Relations Theory is an outgrowth of psychoanalytic theory. It is most commonly associated with the name of Melanie Klein, one of Freud’s major successors and a creative adversary of Freud’s own daughter, Anna Freud,who preferred her own school of Ego Psychology. Other well-known proponents of Object Relations Theory were Fairbairn and Winnicott who are considered “Kleinian revisionists” Nowadays the best known theorists in this school are Heinz Kohut who developed his own school of Self-Psychology and Otto Kernberg, famous for his work on the Borderline Personnality.

The important discovery of the school of Object Relations Theory is that we are inwardly not just one unified personality but actually a constellation of entities. Somewhat parallel to the Islamic and Sufi concept of the self as composed of nafs (ego) , qalb(heart), ruh (soul) and sirr (secret) the psychological concept is composed of Self and Object: the I-Thou relationship. Thus we have within ourselves a stable notion of who I am and who the other is .

Accordingly to the Object Relations Theory these two entities are formed through the processes of Identification and Introjection. Through ‘identification’ we internalize the consciousness of another person(usually one of our parents)which then becomes part of the “self”. Through introjection we internalize the other person who then becomes part of the “other” or what the psychoanalysts call the “object”.Thus we have self-object relationships within our psyche.

This may sound at first quite abstract, but when confronted with it in relationship, it becomes very real. How many husbands after years of marriage have said to their wives, “ You’re just like your mother!” And how many wives have had to say to their husbands “You’re being just like your Dad now“.Conversely,how many husbands have said to their wives after a long period together “you’re treating me as if I were just like your Dad but actually I’m very different”. And how many wives have had to say to their husbands “You’re treating me as if I were like your Mom but I’m not at all like her.I’m not controlling and demanding like she is but that is the way you perceive me”

This is all about identification and introjection and projection. Why projection? Because we play out the internal object relations externally- over and over again. This is what establishes the “ negative relationship pattern”.

The Abused Woman

A striking example of this occurred in my practice a few years back. As psychiatrists we often work with other mental health professionals in a collaborative or consultative capacity. One of the professionals that I work with from time to time is a psychologist who is very involved with women’s rights and protecting abused women from further abuse.. She is a regular volunteer at a women’s shelter and wanted to refer me one of her patients for medication. This woman, Yvonne, in her early thirties had a long history of being with violent partners and being assaulted .

The psychologist had tried to refer this client on a couple of previous occasions but each time she had found excuses not to come. This was her third attempt.Besides, the psychologist was really worried about the client’s suicidal tendencies and she was going on vacation which made her even more concerned about her patient’s vulnerability. I had given Yvonne an appointment previously that she had missed and this was our second attempt. The psychologist was well aware of how difficult it was to get an appointment with a psychiatrist and was relived to hear that I had I had accepted to see her client a second time.

A week later, I had to call her back to explain that the patient had missed her appointment a second time- without even calling to apologise. This feminist psychologist was now more than frustrated- she was furious. “I could kill her” she blurted out. Then she caught herself and we both burst out laughing. She had fallen into the trap! This lady, Yvonne, had once again enraged someone-in this case her female helper .In fact, it was not only a problem with men but permeated all of her relationships. She knew how to induce anger in anyone!

` If we return to Object-Relations Theory then we can begin to understand what is going on here. The patient just described had an inner self-object world that consisted of the self as victim and the object as aggressor. Once this was well- established inwardly (let’s say for now with the help of a consistently aggressive, violent father) it is only a matter of time before this scenario gets played out in the outer world. This can then be enacted with almost anyone-a spouse,an employer,a friend and even the “helping” professional.

For a long time, I asked myself how this occurred, as the theory only tells us that this will happen but not how. The answer eventually came to me in the form of two equations or formulae.

The first was f(x) =c. This is a basic algebraic formula, often hidden somewhere in our high school math textbooks. The reason it is hidden is because it does not give rise to any mathematical problems. The ‘x’ is the variable- in some situations called the independent variable. But in this equation the result ‘c’ is a constant. No matter what the ‘x’ is- what situation, what context, what interpersonal relationship the result is a constant. We could call this “the principle of psychological homeostasis” What does it mean?

In the case of Yvonne, the abused woman, the ‘c’ is abuse, violation or ill-treatment. No matter what situation ‘x’ she enters, eventually she ends up feeling violated or abused. In other cases, the ‘c’ may be rejection or betrayal or disappointment or being lied to. The variations are endless. Each one of us has a ‘c’, some of us have several . They correspond to the continuity of the person- or at least the continuity of their relationships. We can observe this in our daily interactions. Some people seem to get on easily with everyone and others are always in conflict. Some people seem to be able to succeed in everything they undertake. Others have a penchant for failure and disappointment.

Then I asked myself how we get to the ‘c’- the interpersonal constant. The answer came in the form of an acronym- P.S.I. P.S.I. stands for perception,selection, and induction.

Induction, the last of the three letters P.S.I. is the most sinister and potentially the most potent. We saw a good example of this with Yvonne- the abused female. She was able to ‘induce’ the female therapist to violence -even if only in her thinking.

There is a well known English platitude that “it takes two to tango”. But an effective inducer can tango all alone.

I have seen numerous clients over the years that are able,all alone, to destroy relationships one after the other. And the mechanism is invariably induction. They can induce others to violence or induce others to hate them, or to betray them or belittle them- even if this was not part of the usual behavior of the perpetrator. Sometimes the induction is behavioral and you can see it. Other times it is an inward process and you can only see the results in its effects. This is the most sinister type.

I suspect that some of the worst behaviors of people in war situations are “induced”- by a climate of hatred and paranoia. There is actually “collective induction” and the harm is then multiplied by the numbers of people involved.

Perception, the second of the three modalities, although the easiest to detect, is probably the least potent. Through perception, we interpret current situations in terms of historical experience. We are not in touch with the actual reality but are in fact projecting our past reality into current events. In the case of Yvonne for example, her violent father is perceived in each of her male partners. It is not always an easy task to disentangle the projected reality from the actual one. What if the chosen partner is, in fact, an aggressive, violent personality?

In this context, sometimes it is helpful to bring in the partner to see them, in flesh and blood, if possible. The result is, at times, surprising.

The Case of Edna:

Edna was a lady of Portuguese origin, going out seriously for the first time- in her early thirties. Her father had been a laborer with violent outbursts who died early in her life but left an indelible impression on his daughters psyche. Edna had begun dating John but would get very anxious at times when he showed the least amount of impatience or irritability. She herself wasn’t sure whether he was in fact a violent man or not. I suggested that she bring him in.

Evaluating people in one session is not always an easy maneuver as people can give a false impression in the first interview. I have seen experienced and competent psychiatrists making serious diagnostic errors in the emergency room- being misled by a patients “good behavior”. At other times the aggression is there for all to see- just pouring out in front of you.

So we brought in John and there was little doubt as to what was happening. He was a soft- spoken, mild and shy man who reminded one more of a teddy bear than of the fierce grizzly that Edna was perceiving. I confronted him a few times about his lack of initiative and generally passive stance in life but despite the provocation got only the mildest of reactions. I probed his previous relationships and violence had never been an issue. And I checked carefully his family history and again came up empty- handed. In fact, I ended up referring him to a colleague for assertiveness- training as he had considerable employment problems due to his lack of assertiveness. I can now say, more than fifteen years later, that they are still together and violence has never been an issue in their marriage.Almost all of the perceived violence was a projection from Edna’s past

What about the ‘S’ modality-selection. This is actually the heart of the matter, as it is the easiest to manipulate. People invariably choose partners that correspond to their self-object models explained in the previous section on Object Relations Theory. In other words they choose the appropriate complement. And this is the basis of the “Relationship Pattern”- a now commonly accepted term in pop-psychology. The victim chooses a bully. The bully chooses a victim. The unloved one chooses a narcissist and the narcissist chooses an admirer.

We are speaking here of pathology, of course. If we want to counsel people properly, we would have to identify the pathological pattern and work to avoid and undo it. This is often more difficult than it sounds.You cannot get someone interested in a partner if there is no attraction whatsoever. If the potential partner is other than the complement, the chooser may well find them uninteresting or boring.

An elderly therapist I once knew liked to tell me about one of his male clients who fell neatly into the category known by the English as the ‘ HARAMWORD’s Victim”. He invariably chose the nastiest females available. During the course of his therapy, he met a classmate and started dating her. He could find no obvious fault in her.She was intelligent, attractive, socially charming and a kind and sensitive person. But he would come to his therapy sessions complaining, “There’s something missing, I don’t know what it is”and the therapist would answer him “I know what’s missing. It’s anxiety. She doesn’t create stress for you and you’re missing it” The client eventually got the point.He had to adapt to being comfortable. He was used to discomfort and distress and looked for it in relationships.

Amidst all this pathology and negativity you may well wonder what makes for a good relationship. Here I refer to the three C’s. They are Chemistry, Communication and Circumstances.

“Chemistry” has become a popular term nowadays. We could call it attraction , affinity or even instinct but there is something in our being that says either “yes” or “ no” to the possibility of connecting with a member of the opposite sex and it is not just a matter of physical appearance.In fact there is an element of mystery in the process- as if a higher and deeper force is actually running the show. This may well be the basis of the Islamic ‘Sunnat’ that potential partners see each other before deciding on marriage and not be forced into marriage by their parents- a Sunnat that at first view seems to go against the prohibition around women displaying their beauty.

If instead of following the chemistry one engages in a marriage of reason, one may later live to regret it. Many years later one of the partners may begin complaining, “But I have never experienced love” and since human love is a reflected image of Divine love, the acuteness of the pain and the loss may be intense indeed. Marriages have broken up for less. Even the cousin of the Prophet (PBUH), Zainab( R.A.) was not able to continue in these circumstances, despite being a pious and generous lady.The chemistry was missing with her husband Zaid(R.A.)

The Quranic Ideal

Surah 7; Al Araf Verse 189 (Yusuf Ali tr.) reads:

It is He who created

You from a single person

And made his mate

Of like nature, in order that

He might dwell with her (in love)

In this succinct passage is a wealth of wisdom and a high ideal.

Being created from a single self (nafs) there is naturally a strong affinity (chemistry) in the couple. The ‘like nature’ as highlights the recognition of the other as part of the self.It also suggests an element of destiny in the proper choice.

And the dwelling together (in love) contains the last two of the “ c”s- communication and circumstances.The Quranic commentator Abdul Majid Daryabadi puts it this way:

“The word dwelling (repose) puts in a nutshell the various attitudes the two sexes can adopt towards each other- of love in youth, companionship in middle age and of care and attendance in infirmity (old age).” What depth and subtlety concerning relationships!

If one looks up the Arabic word’ yaskoon’(translated as “ dwell”) in the dictionnary one comes up with the following meanings:

:To be or become still, tranquil peaceful

:To calm down, repose, rest

:To cease (anger, pain and the like)

:To be reassured

:To rely on, have faith or trust in

:To feel at home

What a beautiful ideal is contained in these meaningsl! What a contrast with the current state of marriage and couple relationships!

It would be unfair however to say that the problem is entirely new. Even in the history of the great Prophets (A.S.) one can see evidence of marital tensions. The Prophet Abraham (A.S.) had to deal with the tension and jealousy between Sara and Hagar and one of them had to leave- albeit for a great destiny and the building of the Holy Kaaba.

The Prophet Muhammad (May Allah bless him and give him peace) as well had to deal with marital tension. In a well-known event in his life story, he stayed away from his wives for a full month much to the consternation of the fledgling Islamic Community in Medina. They were seriously worried about the possible disruption of their community if he (S.A.L.) actually divorced his wives. All ended well (Alhumdullilah) and the Islamic community continued to flourish but not without tension and crises.One must add that the more general climate was one of harmony.

The level of disruption and conflict in couples has never been as high as in modern times- divorce levels of 67%, single-parent households abounding, marital harmony the exception rather than the rule.What is happening? What are we to do?

The Work of John Gottman:

There are no easy solutions for the deeper social turmoil that we are all experiencing. However, we each have the obligation of doing our best and trying to survive in difficult times. In this perspective I present the work of the Seattle Marital and Family Institute. From an Islamic point of view, I think it not unfair to consider this approach as the operationalisation of the Sunnat of Muhammad (S.A.L.). The parallels in the teachings are many despite the great difference in their sources.

I first heard of John Gottman in a newspaper article which reported the following: “research group able to predict divorce rate with greater than 90% accuracy.” This sensationalist title piqued my curiosity and I began tracing back the source via the Internet to a major work published by the Gottman Institute called, ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”

The Seattle Institute did something unique in the field. They observed couples in laboratory situations (actually fabricated apartments) with audio and video equipment for extended periods of time. (In order to respect the privacy and intimacy of the couple, the recording equipment was shut down after 9 pm at night and not present in bathrooms). These observations continued for many years. Included in the observations were physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure.

From these very extensive observations, Dr Gottman and his team arrived at certain solid, empirically- based conclusions. This was very different from many of the other studies of family therapy -all based on theoretical positions and relatively brief therapy sessions. Here was actual data- not theory and not necessarily pathological. “Ordinary” couples were interacting in “ ordinary” ways.

Firstly, the Seattle group discovered the destructive forces in marriage- there were four principal ones. They called them The Four Horsemen after The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Biblical Book of Revelations. They are 1) Criticism, 2) Contempt 3) Defensiveness and 4) Stonewalling.

Criticism does not refer to ordinary complaints like “you should have done the dishes last night” or “why didn’t you take out the garbage”. It has more to do with character assassination like ‘You didn’t take out the garbage tonight. You are just a lazy, inconsiderate slob.”

Contempt can take many forms. It may include name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. According to Gottman, it is the worst of the four as it conveys disgust and it is impossible to resolve problems when a partner feels that you are disgusted with them. This is the opposite of respect and positive regard.

Contempt can also be quite subtle. The Seattle group found that just turning one’s eyes upwards as if to say, “Here she goes again” is enough to predict marital failure in over 90% of cases. The current younger generation is full of expressions of contempt such as “Whatever”, “Loser”, “Nerd”, “Geek”, “Freak” and other new terms being invented all the time. This plrthora of insults is a sign of the deterioration of social relations.

Defensiveness is a way of blaming the partner. It is saying that the problem is you rather than me. It’s effect is invariably to escalate the conflict. It’s cause is denial and guilt. It’s mechanism is a sort of psychological deafness and it’s affect is inevitably hostile. The ultimate effect is alienation.

Stonewalling is the end game of defensiveness. By the time one partner is stonewalling nothing is getting through. Gottman gives the example of the husband who on returning from work meets with a barrage of criticism from his wife and hides behind the newspaper. When she continues, he leaves the room. By turning away from her, he avoids the fight but at the same time is disengaging himself from the marriage.

In trying to treat these situations, Gottman began to realize that it was not enough to deal with and eliminate the negative. He had to as well begin developing alternative positive behaviours and attitudes. This in itself is a very instructive conclusion. Correcting the negative can end up feeding it and becoming obsessed with it. We must strive to develop positive alternatives. From this comes the seven positive principles in the title of the book.

Gottman states that the basis of an enduring marriage is a solid friendship in the couple. This friendship comes from “mutual positive regard”. The seven principles are designed to solidify this solid friendship.

  1. Enhance your love maps i.e. get to know your partner- their preferences and their dislikes. Emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world. They know each other’s goals, each others’ worries, each others hopes and expectations.

She knows what kind of salad dressing he likes and he knows how she feels about her boss at work. She knows what deadlines he is working towards and he knows how she feels about his sister-in-law. These are the nuts and bolts of communication.

2. Nurture fondness and admiration.

Gottman states: “Although happily married couples may be driven to distraction at times by their partners personality flaws, they still feel that the person they married is worthy of honor and respect. When this sense is completely missing from a relationship (i.e. contempt has taken over) the relationship cannot be revived.”

My own take on this is that there is a gender distinction here. Men need to feel admired (for their achievements) and women need to feel loved (for themselves). In either case the need for positive regard is fundamental.

Gottman continues: “fondness and admiration can be fragile unless you remain aware of how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage. By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities- even as you grapple with each other’s flaws- you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating.”

3. Turn towards each other, not away. This involves taking each other’s side, even if you believe his or her perspective is unreasonable. Don’t side with the opposition as this will make the spouse resentful or dejected. This means that if the spouse comes home and complains about the harshness of his employer, don’t even attempt to justify the employer’s behavior at the expense of your partner. The truth in this situation can wait for later.

4. Let your partner influence you:

This can be especially hard for males. As Muslims, we have been encouraged to consult. And after all the best of consultants is often right next to us. So we have to get around the trap of always wanting to be right and always knowing everything.

For example,one of the natural areas of conflict occurs in household organization. Men seem to be more aware of the functional aspects of things (How strong is the water pressure? How many amps of electricity are in the electrical boxes? How many beams are supporting the floors?) while women tend to be more aware of the aesthetics (the wallpaper is old and dingy, the lighting is dim, and none of the windows have curtains). There is an obvious complementarity here, but it can easily break down into conflict- especially if the budget is tight and priorities have to be set.

Once again, communication and compromise are “de rigueur”. Any attempt to tyrannically impose one’s will is likely to be met with resentment and bitterness even if acquiescence is the initial reaction.

5. Solve your solvable problems:

These include relations with in-laws, dealing with money-matters, distributing housework, and conflicts about raising children. Each of these subjects are potential minefields.

Although each of these dimensions operates according to their own laws, the basic approach has to be the same.

A). Soften the startup, i.e. don’t begin with hostility and attack. Instead of “I hate it when your mother comes over” try “The next time your mother comes over, could you tell her that it really hurts me when she criticizes my child-rearing practices”

B. Learn to back off and make repair attempts. Don’t keep pushing the point if you are at loggerheads. Avoid emotional flooding.

C. Soothe yourself and each other. Again, avoid emotional flooding. Take a break. “Chill out” as they say in modern lingo.

D. Look for compromise and common ground. Dr Phil, the TV psychology guru likes to repeat in his shows “A couple is negotiation” In order for this to occur, one must return to principle four- allowing yourself to be influenced.

E. Be tolerant of each others faults.

6. Overcome Gridlock:

There are inevitably some unsolvable problems in couples. Here Dr. Gottman has an interesting insight. He claims that one of the major sources of unsolvable problems is not including each person’s dreams in the couple contract.

I have seen this in my practice on numerous occasions. For example, if the woman has always dreamed of having children and the male partner objects for whatever reason (maybe this is his second marriage and he feels he has no energy left for other children), this will sabotage the marriage. Another example is the male who has always dreamed of having his own business. If his female partner is too insecure and pushes him to take a stable job at a large firm this too will weigh heavily against the success of their union.

Actually there is a spiritual dimension to this particular dilemma. The deep-seated dreams we carry in our hearts are reflections of our destiny, given to us by our Creator. If we resist and oppose them, we are actually resisting Divine Will and no good can come from this.

7. Create shared meaning:

This may involve family rituals, the evening meal together or common goals (building a house in the country of origin, preparing together a world tour or developing a charitable project).

In this vein Gottman leaves us with a series of practical suggestions as to time management. He calls this the magic five hours.

  1. Say goodbye in the morning and find out one item in the days agenda of the spouse.( 2 minutes, 5 times per week.)
  2. Debrief together at the end of each work day to unstress. ( 20 minutes x 5 days.)
  3. Communicate some genuine affection and appreciation every day. ( 5 minutes x 7 days)
  4. Express affection physically once a day, Could be a kiss or a hug or back rub.( 5 minutes/day X 7 days.)
  5. A weekly date (away from the pressures of home and work). This can take many forms- a visit to the coffee shop, a meal at a restaurant or a long walk in nature.( 2 hours per week.)

Now do the math. Its 5 hours per week- a very worthwhile investment.


I hope I have been able in this brief essay to give some of the more important principles of the psychology of couple relationships. There is, of course, much more to say including numerous other illustrative case histories that I was unable to include in such a short essay.

Suffice it to say that our marital and family life is a vital and precious part of our existence. It is the cauldron in which our characters are formed and it is a wonderful context in which to work on our character (akhlaq). No other situation gives us a better mirror within which to see our faults and shortcomings and to try to correct them.

Between our parents, our spouses and our children there is no excuse for any of us not to be aware of our personal limitations. Then we must turn to our beliefs and teachings and to our Lord to help us to correct ourselves.

May Allah help us in this greatest of struggles( the Jihad Al- Akbar) as the Nafs we struggle with is nowhere more apparent than in our family interactions.

Dr. Ibrahim Kreps