Carl Rogers, the founder of the Humanistic Psychology Movement, defined congruence in individuals as the “…matching of experience, awareness, and communication” (p.339). Rogers hypothesized that congruence leads to discovery and acceptance of your authentic self, a more meaningful life, and ultimately to being happier.
Incongruence can lead to low self-esteem, feeling unloved or not belonging, or a sense that something isn’t quite right. Congruence or incongruence has an effect on your relationships, too. Consider the story of Mark and Sara*:
Mark and Sara dated in high school and married after graduating college. Theirs is a “traditional” arrangement. Sara left her job to stay home and raise their two children while Mark supported the family financially. Mark’s work involved a lot of travel, business meetings, and late hours until recently. The couple owns a house, a vacation property, a retirement fund. They have many friends and acquaintances. Their children’s successful careers and future grandchildren are sources of pride for them.
Like many couples in mid-life, Mark and Sara have completed the tasks of raising and launching their children. As they enter this new phase, the empty nest, they have to learn how to communicate and be a couple again.
When their lives were busy building and raising a family, communication was active, driven, purposeful. Conversation flowed. When Mark was in town, they talked about the children, about the house, about taking care of the family’s needs. Now that the children have lives of their own, Mark and Sara don’t find much to talk about. They have some awareness about how they feel, but they’ve lost touch with themselves and each other. Their relationship has become dull, lifeless. They lost the ability to communicate authentically with each other.
Some partners argue; others withdraw. Television, food, spending, alcohol, drugs, sex, the internet…the list is long.. can become self-medicating habits to escape from the isolation and loss of connection. Escape works temporarily. But long-term, escape and avoidance can make a difficult situation a lot worse.
Communication and therapy
“Communication” is why most couples come into therapy. Either arguing too much or not talking enough. But Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest something else as the cause of relationship distress. After 25 years of extensive research, they have learned that conflicts are important in relationships. And a mismatch in managing conflict is the underlying cause of distress for couples. The Gottman Institute has identified three functional conflict management styles in the couples they’ve studied: Avoidant, Validating, and Volatile. And one dysfunctional: Hostile.
Other relationship experts identify the Pursuer-Distancer combination as most common and most difficult. One person wants to move toward the other, face conflicts head-on to resolve them; the other distances him/herself from conflict and intimacy. The more the Distancer pulls away, the more the Pursuer feels a need to try harder to connect. The cycle creates wide chasms and can eventually lead to dissolution of the relationship.
“…you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive,” (Gottman, J., 2000, p. 131). You have to learn how you manage conflicts and how your partner manages them. All couples have what the Gottmans refer to as “perpetual conflicts” or unsolvable differences. It’s important to know what isn’t going to change, so you can focus on what you can change.
Whether you are fighting too much or not talking enough, couple therapy is an option to consider. Some couples report that by having a third person in the room, they feel safer to express their real feelings, concerns, and vulnerabilities.
If both of you decide to work on your relationship, couple therapy offers you the opportunity to learn how to:
- appreciate each other’s strengths.
- understand your conflict management styles.
- name what you can change, and accept what you can’t change.
- cultivate appreciation and gratitude for what you have.
- find the courage to work toward the relationship you want or find peace in going your separate ways.
The rest is up to you.
*[fictional characters; fictional story]
- Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person, (1961, 1989)
- John Gottman,The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, (2000).
- Dr. John and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: America’s Love Lab Experts Share Their Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationship, (2007).