Friendship is Essential

Until recently, marital therapy has been focused on helping couples "resolve" discords and disagreements. The assumption has been that if we could solve these problems and issues, one-by-one, we would eventually get to a point where there were no more problems. Life could then be lived "happily ever after".

After several years of counseling this way, we have come to realize that this isn't how it works! In fact, the more we focus on problems the more we find them everywhere! We never run out of "problems" to solve. John Gottman, in his amazing research with couples, has made it very clear that a solid friendship is at the core of a lasting relationship. When we focus on what is "wrong" in a relationship we occupy ourselves with how disappointed we are and how robbed we feel in not getting "all we deserve". We then become determined to change each other in order to achieve "happiness". This can never accomplish our fondest dreams!

However, if we pay attention to treating our partner as a friend we experience something very different. Our brains are wired in such a way that we instinctively defend ourselves or counterattack when we are (or believe we are) in emotional or physical danger. That same wiring causes us to move toward a person who is offering interest, caring, and pleasure (i.e. a friend). The bottom line is that friends resolve their "problems" willingly and naturally because they are friends and want to maintain the pleasurable feelings of friendship. In friendship disconnection is painful!

All of this is not to say that learning constructive methods of communication and problem-solving techniques cannot be helpful or important. It just means that these techniques won’t be helpful over the long term in an environment that is not enveloped in friendship.

Friendship and Dialogue

John Gottman, renowned relationship researcher, says that couples whose marriages are based on a deep friendship "tend to know each other intimately - they are well versed in each other's likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. They have an abiding regard for each other and express this fondness not just in the big ways but in little ways day in and day out."

In Imago therapy we focus significant time & coaching to help couples reestablish and add to the loving behaviors they were doing during their courtship. We encourage and guide couples in the process of creating together and then practicing mutually satisfying ways to be attentive to each other's needs, hopes and wishes. Each partner has an individual inner vision of what "love" looks like, and it is important to bring these inner pictures into mutual consciousness.

Friendship is the foundation of a lasting relationship, but dialogue is the cornerstone of friendship. Without dialogue, friendship cannot be sustained. In dialogue we communicate a deep interest in and curiosity about the other's reality. The partner receiving acts of friendship, like getting flowers or cards, won’t experience the desired loving and long term effect if there is no abiding sense within the receiving partner that the person giving these gifts respects and truly cares about who he/she is as a separate individual.

Dialogue is not primarily a problem solving technique. It is a way of being in relationship that fosters connection and emotional fulfillment. When a couple is dialogical, a sense of safety is engendered and safety is an essential ingredient in order for human beings to change and grow together. Without safety, without friendship, without dialogue, there can be no hope of accomplishing the dream that every partner holds in mind as he/she enters a committed relationship.

Remembering the Friendship

Our cultural beliefs have made it difficult for us to enjoy our relationships. It is not unusual for one partner in the midst of marital counseling to say, “We don't have any fun and laughter like we used to!” For the other partner this can seem like a discount of serious issues. “Shouldn't we be focusing on the problems that we’re having with money or sex or child raising? How can we have fun and laughter or make love when all of these serious issues are in our presence?”

There is, of course, something to be said for both sides. However, we often minimize the importance of “what happened to the fun?” It is clear from John Gottman’s research that partnerships do not survive unless there is fun and friendship experienced on a regular basis within the relationship. But "how can I have fun with my partner when I am so angry with him or her?" Good question, but one based on the false assumption that the cure for unhappiness is being in “happy” circumstances.

Barry Neil Kaufman, co-founder of the Option Institute in Massachusetts, writes in his book, Happiness is a Choice, about how we can choose to be happy in the presence of circumstances we do not want. He convincingly argues how choosing happiness is a much more powerful and effective way to live a life that is satisfying and fulfilling.

When we play with and enjoy each other, we unconsciously identify each other as “a friend.” When we are friends we are less likely to extend our discords, and we are more likely to willingly and quickly resolve painful issues. Enemies prolong their battles as if the smallest of issues are matters of “life and death.” On the other hand, friends are more ready to work out their differences… haven't you noticed?