Expressing the Unexpressed:
Helping Couples Attain Emotional Fluency
Abstract: The drive to connect to another person is the most basic of psychological and physiological drives. Problematic couple interactions such as criticism, contempt, and defensiveness are often perceived as avoidance of intimacy. In the model presented, these interactions are seen as failed attempts to connect. This article describes the three most common couple dynamics, explains the three beliefs that underlie this approach, and illustrates the three types of interventions that derive from these beliefs. Clinical examples show ways to reframe statements to reveal the unspoken fear. Common mistakes often made by inexperienced couple therapists are also addressed.
Most couple conflicts are both recurrent and irresolvable (Wile, 2008, quoting Gottman— Gottman calls it the "perpetual problem"). One might assume that this would create a high level of marital misery but, interestingly, it's not necessarily so. Joe and Carol (names changed) have been arguing over two issues for the entire duration of their 20+ year marriage. The first issue is that Joe prefers cold temperatures and considers air conditioning essential to his survival while Carol likes it hot. The other issue is that Carol wants to spend their money while Joe's idea of a good time is watching their savings accounts grow. Yet both are highly satisfied with their relationship and report feeling emotionally close. They've decided to try couple therapy to see if someone can help them resolve these issues.
Let's pretend that a group of couple therapists were unaware of Joe and Carol's level of marital satisfaction and were asked to say what tools they would employ to help them improve their marriage.3 It's a safe bet that most of them would mention negotiation, compromise and, maybe, being more realistic about their expectations (i.e., no marriage is perfect). And it's also a safe bet that Joe and Carol would leave their first couple session feeling more hopeless and dispirited than when they arrived. While conventional wisdom suggests that lack of conflict in relationship presages a good marriage, according to marriage researchers Philip and Carolyn Cowan (quoted in Parker-Pope, 2010), the opposite may well be true. And it's certainly not true for Joe and Carol. This article will present another way for the therapist to approach couple conflict.
In what follows we4 will describe the three underlying beliefs of our approach and the three types of interventions that derive from these beliefs. We'll also describe the three classic couple dynamics. We use the phrase emotional fluency because, for many couples, talking about how they feel is like speaking a foreign language.
Our approach may challenge some widely held assumptions about doing therapy with couples: Instead of addressing family-of-origin history, exploring the dynamics of the individual pathology, or teaching problem-solving techniques, we will focus, instead, on helping our couples build emotional connection, the single most important predictor of satisfaction in marriage (Gottman, 1994, 1999).
Our couples are courageous, because, in spite of their fears and feelings of hopelessness, they still want to connect and they've taken the very difficult step of seeking our help. They've often tried couple therapy before, and it didn't seem to help; in some cases it actually made things worse. Whether or not they've sought professional help previously, they've almost certainly been trying very hard to connect. They have likely over-compromised as well (because they think they're supposed to be giving and meet each other halfway) and that hasn't worked for them either. So we'll do what we can to avoid extinguishing whatever remaining hope they may have, and we won't suggest that they try harder or learn to compromise. We'll keep in mind that, while we may think it's a great thing that they decided to get help, there's a good chance that they are experiencing seeing a therapist as a failure, and that they think they should have been able to figure it out for themselves.
Three Basic Beliefs
There are some basic assumptions that underlie our approach, beliefs that we share about human nature and about what we need as human beings.
The first of these is that the drive to connect to another person is the most basic psychological and physiological drive. The desire for connection and intimacy is a deeply human longing, and achieving it requires us to allow ourselves to be emotionally vulnerable.5 Vulnerable means, literally, "able to be wounded," and couples often unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) wound each other. They need some way of healing those hurts, and preventing, as much as possible, future wounds.
Many approaches frame couple problems in terms of diagnostic pathologies such as "avoidance of intimacy." In our approach we see couple problems as just the opposite: failed attempts to connect. Therefore, we are primarily interested in identifying and understanding the feelings and patterns that interfere with couples' ability to connect with each other.
We believe that behaviors that are often interpreted as pathological (and that certainly result in loneliness and alienation), e.g., persistent criticism, expression of contempt, defensiveness, or withdrawal, have a hidden rationality that it is our job to identify, understand, and articulate. For example, we can see persistent criticisms as avoidance of intimacy, or we can understand them as attempts to be heard or to make contact.
Because we see failed attempts to connect as the core of couples' dilemmas, we focus our work on how the couple communicates about their problems, and not on solving the problem itself (process, not content). We focus on how we talk, not what we say, i.e., metacommunication—we talk about how we talk to each other. Susan Johnson (2004, 2005a,b, 2008) discusses the ways that couples get stuck in loops. She believes that "the problem is the pattern, not the person," (2009, in person) and sees unexpressed attachment anxieties as lying at the heart of virtually every couple conflict.
We agree, and believe (as does Wile, 2002) that whatever the content of the problem that the couple presents, we're there to solve the moment, not the problem. This means, as Wile explains, that we "don't try to solve the problem the partners are arguing over, but the more immediate problem of their inability to turn one another into allies in talking about it and, instead, their turning one another into enemies or strangers" (p. 6). It's not our job to be referee or judge, or to figure out what pathology is contributing to their problems, but, instead, to see couple conflicts as missed opportunities for intimacy. We always keep in mind that, in working with couples, our client is the relationship, and we do everything we can to teach them how to communicate and connect.
Most couple conflicts are driven by the two primary fears or anxieties about relationship: the fear that the other person will be too close (fear of losing one's freedom or autonomy, of being overwhelmed or engulfed) or its opposite, the fear that the other person will be too far away (fear of being abandoned, unheard, unloved). These fears are rarely expressed directly.
Because couple conflicts are usually driven by anxiety that is expressed indirectly, it normally shows up as defensiveness, criticism, withdrawal, or contempt. John Gottman (1979, 1994, 1999, 2002, 2007) calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In his research, Gottman has determined that couples who use these defenses are, if untreated, most likely to divorce.
Classic Dynamic Patterns
There are three dynamic patterns that we tend to see in our offices. These will no doubt be familiar to therapists who work with troubled couples. All three of these couple dynamics have much the same emotional outcome: a terrible sense of loneliness and alienation that is the very opposite of what we hope for from our marriages.
The Angry couple is mutually accusing and blaming. They often appear in our offices armed with a list of complaints in the form of a case that, given the opportunity, they will both present in the hope that we (the therapist) will see the rightness of their position and declare one of them the winner in the contest for the marital moral high ground.
The Withdrawn couple is mutually avoidant. They are terrified of rocking the boat and frequently use actions (i.e., sulking, avoidance of eye contact, silence) rather than words to express feelings. On the surface, they may appear content because they so rarely have overt conflict. In reality, they are very lonely, because they do not have genuine connection or intimacy.
The Pursuer-Distancer couple combines the dynamics of both the Angry couple and the Withdrawn one. One partner tends to pursue and the other tends to withdraw. This sets up a loop of interacting sensitivities, which systems therapists describe as a runaway positive feedback loop. As Johnson and colleagues (2005b) explain, "Causality is circular, so that it cannot be said that action A ‘caused' action B. In distressed couples, demanding by one partner creates and maintains withdrawal in the other, and vice versa. Both partners' responses are shaped by a feedback loop, a cycle of interaction" (p. 30).
These dynamic patterns are related to attachment styles (Bowlby, 1969, 1976, 1982; Wallin, 2007). While a full explanation of attachment theory is beyond the scope of this paper, we believe that certain attachment styles are likely to lead to certain behaviors. Someone whose attachment style is avoidant is likely to withdraw when conflict arises, while someone whose style is anxious will likely be a pursuer. A person whose attachment style is disorganized will swing between pursuing and withdrawing.
According to Wile (1981, 1993, 2008), when partners are attempting to communicate their concerns to each other they have three options—to attack, to avoid, or to confide. The couples we typically treat choose to either attack or avoid, and both of those choices will predictably escalate conflicts and will result in estrangement and alienation. Their third, and remaining, option is to confide. Instead of attacking with, "You never do what I ask," he or she might confide, "I'm afraid that you don't care about what I need." Or, instead of withdrawing, he or she might confide, "I'm afraid you're not interested in me," or "I'm afraid that you don't love me anymore." Confiding invites your partner to be an ally, not an adversary. Couples are in our offices because they don't know how to confide their feelings. Our interventions will create a safe space in which they can learn and practice how to do this.
Three Basic Interventions
In this section we will explain the interventions that follow from the basic beliefs described above. The three beliefs lead to three kinds of intervention. These can be effective with any couple dynamic pattern.
Most couples are accustomed either to discounting what each other says or to simply waiting it out while thinking about what they're planning to say. They're not actually listening to each other. Most couples come to their first session having accumulated a backlog of powerful feelings and grievances that they've been waiting to express. While we need to see how the fight (or interaction) plays out, we also need to contain the negative energy, so that none of us—neither the therapist nor the couple—is overwhelmed. I (LP) will likely say something to reassure, contain, and start establishing a safe environment.
For example, "I will make sure that you each have a chance to speak fully. And while I know it can be really hard to sit and listen to each other's version of events, if you both don't get to say it—and feel like the other's got it—it will develop a life of its own, creating endless frustration and annoyance." To help with this, I leave two clipboards with pad and pen within reach of both. I tell them that the pen and pad are for their use if they need to remember something while their partner is speaking. Simply holding the clipboard helps some people better manage and contain their strong feelings until it's their turn to speak. Then I tell them that there are rules about listening and responding, and what they are. I might, for example, explain active listening, and have them practice a little in the office before they try it on their own.
I (LK) have created a laminated card that I call the "Rules of Engagement," and I give one to each person to keep. The card is designed to fit in a credit-card slot of a wallet. There are five rules, and they are:
- "I" not "you"
- No attacking, defending, or withdrawing
- No questions
- Express the fears
- Explain the meaning
I explain each rule and suggest that they both refer to the card as a reminder before having an emotional conversation. Many people are surprised by the rule about questions, and I explain that many questions are not really questions, but rather disguised criticisms, opinions, or judgments that put the other person on the defensive. It's much more productive to explain what was going on in your mind that generated the question.
I (LK) also try to help them understand that small things often stand for big things, and that it is important to know what they are actually fighting about (see Rule 5). For example, if they are fighting about the dishes in the sink, they need to know what those dishes represent in order to have a productive conversation. They might mean "You think I'm the maid," or "You think only of yourself," or "I feel like I'm supposed to be your mother." These reactions are not to the thing itself, but to an assigned meaning or interpretation.
Join the Couple
Remember that in our view the couple wants to connect and they're very afraid that they can't. Maybe they fear that they're not capable of connection, that one or both are "flawed," or that maybe they're just not right for each other. We want them to know that their concerns are legitimate. So, I (LP) might say something like the following: "Both of your concerns make excellent sense and it's really very hard for any of us to always agree about———(i.e., what's best for the kids, how to spend money, where to go on vacation, etc). It's clear that you both have good judgment and that you both want a good outcome," or that you "both have your daughter's best interests at heart, even if you have different ideas about how to get there. George, how about you start by telling Linda what you'd like her to know, while Linda listens. And then we'll switch. I'll be intervening when you ask me to, or when I think you need it. Please let me know if I become too annoying."
I (LP) have been asked, by therapists in our workshops, "What if the couple doesn't have good judgment?" (which I attributed to the couple in the example above). I wouldn't attribute a quality that I don't believe to be true. I would simply find a characteristic or quality that I see as true (or potentially true), and attribute that to the couple to facilitate joining them.
As we structure the interaction above and listen to the responses, we are thinking about establishing and validating a shared perspective and a shared task. For example, George has just finished telling Linda that she never thinks about what he needs, and doesn't even bring home his favorite flavor when she buys ice cream. Linda's about to defend herself, so I stop the music.
I say: "George and Linda, we really feel awful (angry, sad, whatever) when we just don't get each other. It's like we're speaking a foreign language, right? And I'm imagining that exchanges like the one you were about to have, make you each afraid that the other really doesn't care about you. Have I got that right? George, try this. Tell Linda…" And then, to Linda, "Did you know that?" And, then (whatever the answer) "Linda, tell George what it's like for you to hear what he just said." We get them started talking in an emotionally communicative way from the beginning.
Re-frame the Content
By this point, we've contained the aggression, calmed them down, and begun the dialogue. This last intervention is about changing the content of their communication to each other by synthesizing, and giving words to, its real meaning. In the service of this, we're going to express for each of them the meaning that they aren't expressing because they are afraid to say it, don't know how to say it, or simply don't know what they're feeling.
This usually involves giving them a line (or phrase) to say. We make plenty of room for them to reject, accept, or alter the words until we have got it just right. And we always keep in mind that we're there to solve the moment, not the problem. The general guideline, which the therapist will mention to the couple early on, is that we use words, not actions, to express our feelings. It is our job as couple therapists to help both partners find the words (and the courage) to confide their fears so they won't need to defend against them.
What we look for most specifically is the unexpressed fear. We are using the word fear in the broadest possible sense, to cover the entire spectrum from slight concern to deep terror. Occasionally, clients will reject our framing their feeling as fear. In those instances, they will almost always accept a milder word. For example, instead of "afraid," they will allow us to substitute "worried," "anxious," or just "concerned."
Our experience in working with couples is that these unarticulated and unspoken fears are behind fights (the angry couple), disconnections (the avoidant couple), and loops (the pursuer/distancer couple). Our task is to identify what we believe the fears are, formulate them in coherent ways, and feed them to both partners so that they can be verbalized directly to each other. Some clinical examples will illustrate how this works.
With these three interventions in mind, let's take a closer look at some specific situations.
Fran and Mike are a couple in a pursuer/distancer loop, a dynamic that is, for most of us, particularly challenging to interrupt, shift, or alter. Often this shows up in our offices as one person being very critical, and the other being very defensive. The more the one complains the more the other withdraws, and vice versa. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to get them to compromise, or of questioning the behavior of one or the other, or of trying to find an acceptable solution. Our experience has consistently been that it's almost always fear that drives the conflict. So we are always listening for the unexpressed fear, the fear that drives both the pursuit and the withdrawal.
Mike: Why do you always have to spend so much time on the phone? You're always on the phone with your friends. I come home and you're on the phone. The phone is always ringing and it's always for you.
Fran: Well, we do get a lot of calls.
Mike: No, you get a lot of calls and I get to listen to you talk to your friends.
Fran: I don't appreciate your listening in on my conversations.
Mike: I'm not listening in. I'm sitting there waiting for you to get off the phone. Last night you talked to Sharon for 45 minutes.
Fran: What are you doing, timing me? What difference does it make how long I talked to Sharon?
Because Mike is approaching Fran with anger and criticism, she responds with defensiveness and resentment. Once someone is in a defensive mode, they have stopped listening, because they are too busy defending their position and denying the accusations. Our first intervention would occur immediately after Mike's first remark, before Fran even has a chance to reply. We would say to Mike:
Therapist: Mike, could you say this to Fran: "I'm afraid you'd rather talk to your friends than to me."
If Mike accepts this reframing he would repeat the line to Fran. Before Fran has a chance to reply, we would turn to her and say:
Therapist: Did you know that? What's it like to hear that? And so we have immediately changed the content and the emotional tone of the dialogue.
Here is an example in which a spouse comes home later than expected.
Susan: Do you know what time it is? Where have you been?
Paul: So I'm a little late. What's the big deal?
Susan: You said you'd be here at six.
Paul: So what's the problem? It's only a quarter after.
Susan: Fix your watch—it's twenty after. I'm tired of your coming home late all the time.
Paul: I'm hardly ever late. It's only once in a while.
Susan: What about last Tuesday? You even called to say you were working two hours late.
Paul: That's right—I'm working. I'm working hard to pay for all the things you buy.
Susan: What are you talking about?
Paul: What are all those boxes on the couch?
Susan: I picked up some things we need for the house.
Paul: Then don't complain about the time I spend earning the money to pay for all the things we need for the house.
Susan starts by asking somewhat hostile questions, which puts Paul immediately on the defensive. Eventually, he counterpunches by bringing up a criticism of his own, which shifts the fight away from him and puts Susan on the defensive.
Again, we would interrupt right after Susan's first remarks, and would say this to Susan.
Therapist: Can you say this to Paul? "I get worried when you're late." Susan: I get really worried when you're late.
Therapist: [to Paul] Did you know that?
Paul: No. All I get is complaining.
Therapist: What's it like to hear that right now?
Paul: I don't want to make her worry.
Susan: Couldn't you just call me?
Therapist: Can you make a statement instead of asking a question?
Susan: I wish you could call me when you know you're going to be late. Just let me know where you are and what you're doing.
Paul: I can do that sometimes. But if I'm stuck in a meeting I can't always make a call. And I don't want to have to call you every hour and tell you every little movement I'm making.
Here Paul's fear emerges: that he's going to lose his independence and be accountable to Susan. We might rephrase it for Paul this way.
Therapist: Paul, can you tell Susan, "That makes me worried that you don't trust me."
Susan may, in fact, not trust Paul; if so, we explore those fears as well.
Larry and Alex are an angry couple, mutually accusing and blaming. Couples presenting with this dynamic enter our offices with a well-rehearsed list of complaints. They present their case to us in an attempt to win in their ongoing contest for most wronged and long- suffering. Their interaction is both parallel (neither acknowledges the other's content) and defensive (an attempt to prove their goodness in the face of their partner's accusations). As in the previous examples, this couple's interaction is likely driven by fear.
Alex: [opens with a big sigh and a scowl] You're always on the computer when I arrive home from work! I work like a dog and you do nothing all day except have lunch with your friends! You never even have dinner ready for me! You never think about what I need!
Larry: You always put me down! I work all day too! For you and our kids! Taking them to school, day camp, going to PTA, I'm available 24/7! And you call that nothing. You have no respect for me or what I do!
Alex: And you never want sex!
Larry: I can't do anything right!
At this point they run out of steam and Alex turns to me (LP).
Alex: You see what I have to put up with!
Larry: I have needs too!
I have let this exchange run on a bit. If they hadn't turned to me, I would have probably intervened anyway.
Therapist: Alex, I'm imagining that you're afraid that Larry doesn't care about you. Did I get that right?
Alex: Well, kind of…
Therapist: Fix it to make it right.
Alex: I'm afraid that Larry doesn't find me attractive.
There are a number of different ways I could go at this point. For example, I could turn to Larry and ask if he knew that Alex was afraid of this, and what it's like for him to hear it now. In this situation, however, I want to explore the fear a little since it's a surprise to me.
Therapist: And if that's true? What then?
Barbara and Carol are an avoidant couple. This kind of couple usually wants to preserve peace at any cost. They're afraid to rock the boat, and will go to great lengths to persuade themselves that whatever upsets them is somehow acceptable. As they both engage in this denial of what they really feel, the distance between them grows, and they become sadder and lonelier. Again, as with our pursuer–distancer couples and our angry couples, we will listen for the fear underlying and driving the avoidance.
Barbara: [to the therapist] We've been together for ten years now and we really have a wonderful relationship. We never fight!
Carol: We love each other very much.
Barbara and Carol look at each other, then look away, and we all sit quietly for a moment or two. Now I (LP) decide to intervene. They're already anxious and I don't want the silence to go on too long.
Therapist: Let's start with what brought you here today.
Barbara: I think maybe Carol's not really happy.
Carol: Oh, but I am!
Therapist [to Barbara]: You look like you don't believe Carol. Do you?
Barbara: Not really.
Therapist: Tell Carol, "I'm afraid that you're not telling me the truth."
Barbara: I'm afraid you're not being real with me.
Carol: Well, there have been a couple of things on my mind that I've been afraid to tell you. [long pause]
Therapist: Carol, I'm imagining that you might be afraid that Barbara would be hurt if you told her. Is that right?
Therapist: Tell Barbara, "I'm afraid I'll hurt you if I say what's bothering me."
Carol does, and they've begun to engage with each other.
Some Common Mistakes
Doherty (2002) in his article, Bad Couples Therapy, identifies the three worst mistakes made by the inexperienced couple therapist. These are lack of structure, no plan for change, and giving up on the relationship. We have already described some of the ways we create structure. Also, we have a very specific plan for the treatment. And since the third mistake results from no structure and no plan, the therapist won't be feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Early on, I (LP) will say some version of the following:
"I will provide a structure to facilitate your ability to talk with each other in an emotionally meaningful way. This will eventually enable you to recognize and identify your own recurrent dynamic. First you'll see it afterwards, next you'll see it when you're in the midst of it, and finally you'll see it before you begin to play it out. At which point you'll be positioned to begin consciously altering your dynamic. This is the three-step process of change." I tell my couples that it's not a linear process.
What I (LP) have just described reflects my own personal style. The theoretical model that we're using can accommodate a variety of styles, depending on what feels comfortable and effective. What works for one therapist may not feel authentic for another.
Another mistake that we believe even experienced therapists can make has to do with the setup of the room. We know that most therapists have couches in their offices and it seems natural to put the couple on the couch, but we strongly advise against it. What happens is the couple faces the therapist and winds up talking mostly to us, when we want them to talk to each other. When a couple first comes into our offices, they see their two chairs facing each other, which sends the nonverbal message that they will be talking to each other. The chairs swivel so they can face the therapist if they need to. As the two partners take their seats, facing each other, the therapeutic work begins.
We have described the three beliefs about people that underlie our approach to couple therapy, the three kinds of interventions that contain the aggression and manage the dialogue, and the three common dynamics that couples manifest in our offices. We realize that this way of thinking about what partners are saying to each other in our offices requires a conceptual shift, and a lot of practice. We think it's useful for therapists to try listening for the unexpressed fears even when they work from another model, and to experiment with articulating what they think the couple is not quite saying. We think it will enrich the work and make any therapist more effective in the most challenging kind of therapy—working with couples.
1 Private practice and clinical supervisor, Teachers College, Columbia University. Correspondence should be addressed to Lynn Pearl, PhD, 325 West 86 St., New York, NY 10024; email to firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Private practice.
3 We want to mention that everything we say here applies equally to all couples: heterosexual, gay, or lesbian. In each case our approach is the same.
4 Throughout this paper we refer to ourselves as "we" and "us." Our use of "we" denotes shared thinking and conceptualizing and, while we do workshops together, we don't work together as co-therapists. In this paper we use our initials if we're writing about something that is particular to one or the other of us.
5 Eric Berne, the maverick psychiatrist and founder of Transactional Analysis, recognized early on, in his ground-breaking work on Ego-States (Berne, 1961), that in order for two people to be able to experience intimate connection, both would have to have energy in their Child Ego-State at the same time.
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