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  • Writer's pictureCarla Barrow, LMFT

How Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Can Help Couples: Part I

As a marriage and family therapist in the state of Florida, I see couples with problems that include affairs, betrayals, ennui, and boredom. Some come in because they're fighting 24/7. They claim to love each other, and affinity seems present, yet they can't get past the negativity. One verbal jab, one ignored the comment, something said with inflection or tone, or an eye roll and watch out! A vicious cycle begins.

I call the cycle the washing machine. Somebody hits a button and the cycle gets started and won’t stop until it runs its course. By then, both partners are left depleted and exhausted. They turn away from each other and retreat to their corners. Communication and repair attempts halt. The couple can’t seem to find their way home to each other and come to couples therapy looking for help.

High Conflict Couples

As a Gottman Method Couples Therapy-oriented clinician, I see couples in high conflict. Often, they break Gottman’s recommendation of a 5:1 ratio of negative to positive communications in the partnership. They succumb to what Gottman calls the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Arguments go round and round, strengthening negative communication patterns rather than improving them. The couple begins to move away from what they love and cherish in the other.

Luckily, I have a handful of helpful interventions at my disposal. I might utilize the Gottman Listening Exercise, the Rapoport Intervention (understanding before problem-solving), the exploration of Dreams within Conflict, or one of my favorites: The Aftermath of a Fight. As an integral therapist, I also integrate learning from other facets of my clinical experience, including DBT and DBT Skills.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and How It Can Help Couples

In a prior blog, I described some underlying principles of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and its effectiveness with individuals struggling with BIG emotions and dysregulation. DBT provides skills training that covers four main areas -- Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotional Regulation, and Distress Tolerance. These skills emphasize the balance between acceptance and change, steering clients toward a middle path when negotiating life’s obstacles.

Turns out these skills are also beneficial for couples in high conflict. In a DBT Couples classic called The High Conflict Couple, Alan Fruzzetti, Ph.D., illustrates how couples develop mindless and ineffective strategies to communicate when in high conflict and proposes mindful practices couples can integrate into everyday life, shaping more effective patterns of relating.

Three Main Takeaways to Reduce High Conflict

Fruzzetti’s focus on 1) Dysregulation, 2) Inaccurate Expression, and 3) Validation and Invalidation stuck with me. In Part I of this article, I describe how dysregulation prompts inaccurate expression, which escalates the conflict. I then offer mindful ways we can restore our relationships to wholeness. Understanding the destructive nature of these interrelated concepts can help shift bad habits/mindlessness, reduce volatility, and increase peace, connection, and trust.

Dysregulation & Inaccurate Expression

We can all have BIG emotions, but when we’re dysregulated, the emotions have us. We are like automatons, gripped at the moment unable to fully think or respond. (Our spouse forgets to call us back and we are ready to throw them in the doghouse … forever… without a bone!).


Dysregulation in DBT is akin to what Gottman calls Diffuse Physiological Arousal. Both involve biological phenomena, including increased heart rate, constricted breath and body posture, pulse over 100. Dysregulation is more than an upset. In an upset, we can be present, think clearly, and consider the interests of others.

With dysregulation, we experience the “amygdala hijack,” where the part of the brain reacts to danger and sparks a fight, flight, or freeze response. Dysregulation might look explosive, but it can also occur as frozen or shut down.

Inaccurate Expression

Fruzzetti explains that big emotions narrow focus and color how partners view each other. Instead of seeing a human being and team member, we project negative images and begin to act with disdain or contempt. This prompts avoidance and conflict and effective communication breaks down.

Inaccurate expressions – exaggerations, (always/never), labels and judgments, assumptions and projections, and the Four Horsemen -- creep in. In Gottman's terms, the couple is flooded. Rather than push further past the couple’s zones of tolerance, Gottman recommends self-soothing exercises and rest breaks for at least 30 minutes.

Fruzzetti recommends an equally helpful skill, one that lies at the core of DBT: Mindfulness. This involves the skill of “Observe and Describe.”

Mindfulness: Observe & Describe

When you Observe and Describe, you look at what's going on inside and out. You can start with yourself, or your body. You turn to the senses and gather information directly from them. For example, you can begin to observe your body posture, where you are clenching or holding your breath or leaning in ready to defend. Take a look at what words you are saying, how fast you’re saying them. Pay attention to your tone and volume. Notice where your attention lies and whether there’s an urge to interrupt.

Observe the timing of your conversation, the conditions under which you are engaging (sitting, standing, in private or public). Observe whether there’s an all-or-nothing/black-and-white/exaggerated or hyperbolic quality to your words. All these factors make a difference in whether or not your partner is going to receive your communication and respond back to you effectively.

Get the notion that when we observe, we observe. When we describe, we describe. Take each action slowly and proceed one mindfully with each move, one small step at a time.

As we observe and describe, we access the prefrontal cortex, the rational, logical, ordered part of the brain that helps us balance and cool the revved-up emotional mind. With practice, we learn to soothe ourselves, to release judgments, to calm down, slow down, and get present to how we are interacting with our loved ones. We stop what Fruzzetti describes as the vicious cycle of escalation/invalidation.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article where we address invalidation and ways to self-validate for the benefit of the couple.

If you and your partner are struggling and need help, I invite you to call me at 954-391-5305 for a complimentary 15-minute consultation. I provide counseling for couples and individuals in English or in Spanish at our Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs offices. For more information about my approach, click here.


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