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Couples: How to Live Happily Ever After

Feb. 13, 2007 -- A happy relationship is not about finding the ideal mate. It’s about two people creating the ideal relationship together, and that takes a joint commitment to something bigger than either individual, say marriage experts Peter Sheras and Phyllis Koch-Sheras, faculty members at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.

Looking for that one special lover to sweep you off your feet—someone who will be beautiful and young forever, and with whom you will never have any differences or difficulties—really is a fairy tale, the Sherases say. Instead of chasing this illusion, they have devoted a large portion of their practice to helping couples “create the relationship of their dreams.”

“It isn’t enough to go from the ‘me generation’ to a ‘you generation.’ What is needed is a shift of focus to a ‘we generation,’ in which couples create a joint vision for their relationship with a commitment to the couple rather than just to each other,” say the Sherases, clinical psychologists who have been working with couples for over 30 years—and married to each other for just as long. 

According to the Sherases, a large part of the difficulty that couples encounter is our society’s contradictory assumptions: “Couples are expected to commit to a long-term relationship, but they are also led to believe that happiness can only be found through self-gratification and individual achievement.”

The Sherases have described a successful model of how to create a lifelong, satisfying relationship in their book, “Couple Power Therapy: Building Commitment, Cooperation, Communication, and Community in Relationships,” published last year.

Whereas most marriage counseling stresses the importance of communication, Koch-Sheras and Sheras say that’s not necessarily the best place to begin. First, couples have to explore whether they really are committed to each other and what that means.

“A good partnership turns out to be a way of looking at things, rather than just finding the right people,” they say. Couple Power therapy is based on what is possible for two people together, not about what might be wrong with them.

The Sherases offer several specific actions (not in any particular order here) a couple can take to create a loving, fulfilling relationship.

1) Remember your relationship has the potential to be whole, as in the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Discuss the needs of the relationship, rather than each individual's needs.

2) Talk about what you imagine your relationship to be, making up your very own vision statement. If it helps to use a business model, think of your relationship as being on the same team and come up with specific goals.

3) Take a trip and/or do something new together that neither one of you has done before.

4) Acknowledge your partner everyday. Thanking a person for something they did or acknowledging his or her good intentions is rewarding for both people.

5) Turn that typical "no" to a "yes" when it comes to doing something your partner asks — whether you want to do it or not.

6) For those who are dating or looking for a partner, think about specific and realistic expectations — whether you'd like to be with someone who is flexible or assertive, for example.

7) Make friends with a new couple and do something fun together.

The Sherases urge people to think about what matters most to them—someone who is flexible? decisive? thoughtful? assertive?—and to consider whether a potential mate possesses these qualities. This will help people figure out whether they think a certain person will make a good match.

When it comes to gratitude, everyone wants to be acknowledged for what they do. No one feels like they get enough, say the Sherases. “We are often stingy with it –- even though it costs us nothing. It is a meaningful way to give a gift to the person you love.” And remember: the best way to get acknowledgement is to give it. You can also ask your partner for specific recognition, they say.

Simple ways of expressing acknowledgement and generosity are a practice in cooperation. Knowing your commitment to each other and understanding cooperation will help put good communication in service to the relationship, says Koch-Sheras.

The Sherases have identified “the four C's” that they recommend couples use as a guide — in the exact order listed here — for achieving a healthy relationship: “Built on a strong foundation of commitment, a relationship is nurtured by shared cooperation as a team, empowered by communication and language and supported by a community of peers.”

Couple Power provides practical techniques for keeping relationships joyful and profoundly fulfilling on a daily basis, say Koch-Sheras and Sheras, who have helped hundreds of couples in their professional practice to have dramatic and lasting results with this process.

More information is available at www.couplepower.com.

Peter L. Sheras is an associate professor, University of Virginia Curry School of Education program in clinical and school psychology. Contact info:  pls@virginia.edu, 434-924-0795 (office) or 434-531-1281 (cell).

Phyllis R. Koch-Sheras is an adjunct assistant professor, University of Virginia Curry School of Education program in clinical and school psychology. Contact info: (434) 971-4701, sherfam@aol.com

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