The six core therapeutic processes of ACT have a lot to say about the successful functioning of intimate relationships. There is some good work already out there on this topic. This post mentions some of that work, and includes some of my own brief musings on this fertile subject. Read on…
I started thinking about all this recently when I heard an NPR interview with Amy Sutherland, the author of the recently published What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. The book is about the author’s discovery that there are “universal rules of behavior that cut across all species” and that methods used by exotic animal trainers to induce desired behaviors in animals can also be applied to humans to “better navigate the human interactions and relationships that fill my days.” One memorable example of this that she gives is using the rule of ignoring undesirable behavior by not getting involved or even responding when her short-tempered husband is storming around the house looking for his keys. The good result is that he finds them more quickly than if she’d helped and his temper deescalates more rapidly.
This conceptualization of human behavior seems quite pre-Skinnerian and 1st wave behaviorist. It got me to thinking: if relationships can apparently benefit from this relatively simple form of behavioral shaping, then applying 3rd wave behavioral ideas to relationships could yield exponentially better results. And, although the reseach into ACT and relationships is in its infancy, I think this is probably true. This post could be a lengthy discussion about how each of the six core processes could relate to relationships, but for the sake of brevity I’ll concentrate on two processes that I think (or at least in my own life experience) have particular relevance to relationships. And they may not be the two most obvious processes.
Especially extended monogamous relationships, I have often noticed that we accumulate a residue of thoughts and self-labels about who we are in relation to our partners. A personal example is that my wife is generally an organized and goal-directed person, so I have found that I at times perceive myself as her inverse–a head-in-the-clouds absent-minded professor type. The problem with this is that in my mind my wife and I have suddenly become caricatures of ourselves. Subtle, pliable personality traits have become cartoonishly exaggerated. What started as a droll observation about her personality versus mine could become subject to cognitive fusion, rules to govern our mental self-evaluations, leading to psychological inflexibility around “who we are” and what we can and can’t provide for each other. Through understanding “who we are” in the expansive, all-inclusive “sky” sense of Self as Context, we can defuse from rigid concepts of “this is just how I am, and that’s just how he/she is.” We can flexibly perceive that while we may language about ourselves or our partners as if if it were a matter of being, neither of us need be defined by those thoughts. And so we can relate to them from a cognitively defused place, conducting our relationship according to the values we have for what kind of partner we wish to be. Applying the idea of Self as Context to our partners can also have the effect of heightening our respect and appreciation for what a rich and expansive being he or she is.
Defining Valued Directions is another core process that clearly has a lot to say about relationships. I remember a few years back being struck by something someone said about how lastingly important it is to maintain simple politeness towards one’s partner in a relationship. As obvious as it sounds, we probably all know that the normal day-to-day politeness we would accord a stranger often seems to go out the window in our intimate relationships. Because we “know each other so well” we are beyond politeness, is how the unspoken assertion often goes. I think it’s easier to conceive of Values with a capital V as being these universal, monolithic, chest-thumping ideas that we guide our lives by. Sure, they can be that. But as Montaigne said (and I’m heavily paraphrasing): all truth is local. The way values with a little v play out in our relationships is mostly in the minute, subtle day-to-day interactions we have with our partners. So simple politeness, as little displays of mutual respect, can be ‘the little engine that could’ save a relationship. Similarly, simple little displays of affection and bestowing of attention can be the real way we live a valued direction with our partners.
There are a few other resources for exploring ACT with couples. Dr. Russ Harris , author of the ACT-based self-help book The Happiness Trap, has written and delivered presentations on ACT with couples. Various other ACT therapists have also done some couples work. Check the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science website for other mentions of it. As there are a lot of rich connections between the ACT core processes and relationship health, I am sure that much more research and writing on this area will be popping up in the next few years.