Don Edwards, Ph.D.


Couples presenting for couples counseling are often well on the way to break up. “We’ll figure it out” or “(S)he will get over it” no longer serves to defer action but valuable time has been lost procrastinating. There is usually a narrative championed by the most vocal partner that resolving the couple’s problems hinge on some change the other partner needs to make and resists making. The vocal partner is invested in a blame narrative that the other is resisting/denying. The quieter partner may also hide behind a secondary counter-narrative of not feeling understood. Sorting out who is “right” is a quagmire. The specifics of the narrative and counter-narrative, no matter how complex and well articulated obscure the fundamental truth that both partners are contributing to whatever they complain of. That both partners need to change is the only starting point for repair, if any is possible. This is the first premise of constructive change in couples counseling. If a couple enters couple therapy without both accepting this premise, their stalemate will persist, and entering counseling simply changes the venue of quarrelling from home to the counseling office.


Often couples entering 11th hour couples counseling have experienced their interactions reduced to each fighting to get their needs met. They may say that they are still in a relationship, but they actually no longer have a relationship if they ever had one. They are like quarrelling siblings, doing no more than championing their own interests.


What does it mean to have a relationship with someone else? The second premise of constructive change in couples counseling is that a relationship is a project like a joint bank account in two ways:


  1. It gets bigger and stronger when contributions exceed withdrawals, and will be ended when continually in overdraft. If partners are continually fighting to get their needs met, they are taking more out of the relationship than they are putting in. There may be an imbalance of contributions, but without an agreement to address the imbalance or some long-term equivalence of contributions (generalized reciprocity), the project will end. That’s how relationships function. In fact relationship success depends on both partners putting the relationship ahead of themselves. They make it their highest value. This is the attitude of relationship. Any project not worked on languishes and ultimately fails.


  1. Withdrawals take the form of the anti-relational behaviours that ultimately erode the balance to zero. The list below is an elaboration of John Gottman & Nan Silver’s “Four Horsemen” (Gottman & Nan, 2015) and Terry Real’s “Five Losing Strategies” (Real, 2008).

  1. actively and intentionally trying to hurt the other even if it feels justifiable

  2. lying, It ruptures trust.

  3. saying things in hurtful ways (“you’re no better than you father!”), being “brutally honest,” tactless, having no sense of timing

  4. keeping secrets, being dishonest, cheating

  5. holding resentments and grudges

  6. believing one’s own bull shit, never questioning it, treating it as a self-evident truth, avoiding considering other perspectives and checking the facts

  7. being right

  8. being so invested in your identity/way of being that you don’t see that it’s hurting the person you want to be your life partner

  9. taking pride in any of the above behaviours because “that’s just who I am”

  10. denying the right of the other to be themselves, trying to curb their individuality or creativity

  11. criticizing the other

  12. being controlling or manipulative

  13. withdrawing into oneself or physically withdrawing or symbolically withdrawing (e.g., not acknowledging the relationship to others)

  14. going home to mother”

  15. siding with outside third parties ahead of or against the other partner

  16. being angry most of the time, including passive-aggression and gas-lighting

  17. not repairing ruptures

  18. contempt for the other including name-calling

  19. losing focus on what is important. This squanders relationship capital. Having a baby will not stop fighting.

  20. competitiveness

  21. defensiveness, refusing to take responsibility

  22. living like roommates

  23. being reactive versus proactive

  24. acting out under the influence of substances

  25. destroying property

  26. assault

  27. emotional abuse including gas-lighting

  28. financial coercion

  29. any form of retaliation or getting even

  30. quid pro quo—tit for tat – doing something ‘bad’ because your partner has. Terry Real calls refraining from this urge relational integrity – standing up for the relationship even when you partner has not. “Not jumping into the mud pit because your partner has.”

  31. threats

  32. shouting, arguing and stonewalling – “unbridled self-expression” (Real, 2008)

  33. dangerous behaviour

  34. denial of one’s own problems. They don’t cease to have a negative influence over the relationship just because their are a blind spot or are off-limits.

  35. not standing up for one’s partner or “throwing them under the bus”


The commitment to not do these things is a commitment to self, not simply refraining from them and restraining the urge. If we commit to self to not do these things, we are embracing at a feeling level that they are contrary to our sense of self (ego-dystonic). If we simply force ourselves to refrain, we still identify with these behaviours and deep down feel that we are right in wanting to act them out –i.e., these behaviours remain ego-syntonic. In a relationship, self-restraint is only the first step toward having a better one.

Some couples may confound observers by staying together despite doing things in the above list of anti-relational behaviours. Superordinate reasons may be at play; for example:

  • a codependent partner is more distressed at the thought of being alone more than continuing to put up with their partner

  • the public “shame” of breaking up keeps the relational dysfunction private (except from their children)

  • they are an “escalating couple” who thrive on discord (cf the 1989 film, The War of the Roses) and have not yet decided to give up their addiction to it

  • financial dependence or bullying

  • some limit of each partner has not been reached (“I’ll tolerate a wayward kiss but no an affair.” “If he hits me, I’m leaving.”)

  • fear of what will happen to the other partner when on their own (“I want to leave, but I still love you enough not to leave you alone.”)

  • some change has occurred which has led to the misperception that the underlying dynamic has changed when in fact it has not

  • some misfortune has interrupted the conflict between the partners




John Gottman & Nan Silver (2015) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. NY, NY: Harmony.

Terrence Real (2008) The New Rules of Marriage. NY, NY: Ballantine.