An alternative to starting relationship repair with communication?

By Guest Author Ashley Tiongson

After ending a two year relationship, I thought of being a marriage therapist. As a hopeless romantic, I read countless self-help books on relationships and marriages in hopes of sustaining a lifelong commitment someday. Within the books, chapters were often dedicated to teaching communication techniques that should be executed before seeking professional help. In a recent article,  Sheras and Koch-Sheras offer an interesting alternative to this notion.

According to Sheras and Koch-Sheras, many therapists teach communication techniques to couples when beginning treatment. Using this approach, some couples have shown that prematurely learning those communication skills can lead to more harm than good. The communication they are taught prematurely may increase the anger and the conflict that the couples came to therapy for in the first place.

Instead, the authors argue, couples should envision themselves and act as if they are a “we”, versus entering therapy with individual agendas for the relationship. Once they establish a mutual committed entity, couples should follow the Couple Power model of treatment (CPT)- Commitment, Cooperation, Communication and Community, in that order, while postponing the teaching of communication skills until later in therapy. Upon successful completion, couples can then learn effective communication skills that will benefit them maximally.

The Four C’s of CPT:

  • Commitment: Couples must create a commitment by shifting the focus from their individual needs and problems to what works for the couple as a whole. Within this phase, couples must envision what the relationship they have committed to working together would look like if they could have what they wanted. Once that vision is reached together, they are to establish a commitment to the vision of the couple entity while keeping in mind they must maintain this commitment throughout the process.
  • Cooperation: The very essence of cooperation asks that the individual commits to their partnership to produce a joint effort to work as a team to realize and manifest their shared vision. The couples draft an “emotional contract” that focuses on creating something together that is fulfilling and beautiful to both.
  • Communication: With the successful completion of the first two C’s, couples start realizing that clear communication is crucial for their success. Good communication such as dedicated listening, fair fight training, and careful observation lead to couples being understood completely. When the partners feel acknowledged, there is less resistance in therapy, thus accelerating them to the last step.
  • Community: By this time, a “new” couple emerges that is full of potential. Community refers to creating a supportive environment that can consist of other peers in healthy relationships, family, parents, and even children. By having this support system, couples may benefit from advice and wisdom from these model couples. Most importantly, it gives couples consistent support to keep up and nurture their lasting commitment.

[Editor's note: I should point out that Steps 1 and 2 can not be accomplished without a bit of communication training, so there is a small if inherent contradiction to this path. Of course, I will admit readily and freely my personal bias to starting with communication!]

Sheras, P., Sheras P. (2008). Commitment first, communication later: Dealing with barriers to effective couples therapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 38(3), 109-117.