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How to Use DBT to Strengthen Your Relationship


Have you found yourself in recurring arguments with your partner that never seem to get resolved? Do past hurts and unexpressed emotions prevent you from feeling truly close?

Although relationship issues can feel hopeless at times, there is an evidence-based approach designed specifically for improving communication and connection – dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT for short.

In this article, we will explore how DBT principles and strategies can be applied between couples to build understanding, manage reactivity, and foster more loving interactions when used consistently over time.

What is DBT?

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was originally created in the 1980s by psychologist Marsha Linehan for individuals struggling with borderline personality disorder and difficulties with emotion regulation.

DBT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that focuses on changing problematic behaviors through mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation skills.

A key aspect of DBT is the “dialectical” process – the integration of accepting yourself and others as they are while also striving for positive change.

Rather than focusing solely on understanding past causes like traditional talk therapy, DBT teaches concrete mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness strategies that can be practiced in daily life.

The goal is to empower individuals to manage intense emotions and interact with others in a constructive way. Over the past few decades, DBT has proven highly effective for a variety of conditions involving emotional and behavioral dysregulation like borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and substance abuse issues.

More recently, couples therapists have started integrating DBT principles and techniques into relationship counseling. The reasons this approach seems to work well between partners are:

DBT skills target common relationship problems like reactivity, communication breakdowns, lack of compromise, and unmet needs/expectations on both sides.

Its dialectical approach encourages acceptance and validation of different perspectives which fosters understanding between partners.

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Partners learn the same emotionally regulating strategies so they can support each other during conflicts or times of distress.

So whether used alone or in addition to counseling, learning DBT skills as a couple can have life-changing results in strengthening empathy, handling disagreements respectfully, and deepening the connection between two people.

Mindfulness for Couples

Perhaps the most fundamental DBT skill is mindfulness – full participation in the present moment without judgment. When practiced consistently together, mindfulness builds insight, empathy and presence between partners. Some ways couples can work on mindfulness include:

Joint daily meditation: Start with only 5 minutes a day of simply focusing on breathing. Over time, partners will relax together more fully.

Mindful activities: While walking, cooking a meal, etc. encourage each other to slow down and “be here now” through your five senses.

Noticing your partner non-judgmentally: Make a conscious effort to listen without immediately evaluating what they say. Notice body language, tone of voice etc.

Labeling your emotions: Say things like “I’m feeling irritated right now but want to understand you.” This helps prevent reactivity from taking over.

Appreciation meditation: Take turns each focusing entirely on noticing things you appreciate about the other person – their smile, humor, etc. Share these afterwards.

Simple mindfulness practices strengthen a couple’s attunement and ability to understand each other rather than prematurely arguing or withdrawing during conflicts. Its calming effects allow more constructive discussions.

Using Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills

DBT’s interpersonal effectiveness module focuses on resolving interpersonal problems while maintaining self-respect and the relationship. This can really help couples navigate disagreements constructively. Some key skills include:

FAST Skills for Requests – When bringing up issues, the FAST approach of being Firm, Act respectfully, Straightforward and Truthful can improve success rates. Couples learn to state needs plainly yet considerately without aggression or manipulation.

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DEAR MAN – To get others to meet your needs, DBT advises being Descriptive (state the behavior/problem), Expressing your feelings, Assertive (but not demanding), Reinforcing (positive consequences), Mindful (of how you come across), Appealing to shared values, and Negotiating a mutually agreeable solution.

G.I.V.E. – Mirroring this, when being asked something by your partner, Give information to understand where they’re coming from, “I” statements about how it affects you, Validate their perspective too, and suggest an alternative if possible.

COMPROMISE – Partners who can find middle ground during conflicts using techniques like “I’ll do X if you do Y” build cooperation through fair compromise rather than one person always conceding.

These specific interpersonal effectiveness skills give couples concrete strategies and language for tackling issues productively, ultimately strengthening trust and teamwork within the relationship.

Emotion Regulation is Key

Emotional regulation, or the ability to manage distressed feelings constructively, is perhaps the most challenging yet vital DBT skill for couples. With patience and practice of these techniques, partners can learn to soothe each other during difficult times:

Mindful Breathing – Consciously slowing your breathing from your diaphragm helps calm strong emotions immediately. This can prevent escalating conflicts.

Self-Soothing – Have a “crisis kit” ready with items that comfort each of you independently like photos, music or a soft blanket to reduce distress if needed.

Opposite Action – If angry or upset, try doing the opposite behavior by using a gentle tone, making eye contact or giving a caring touch instead of withdrawing or lashing out.

Pros and Cons – When highly activated, consider potential benefits as well as drawbacks before reacting to help choose wise actions.

Radical Acceptance – With time, we can accept our partner – and ourselves – are not perfect, and relationships require forgiveness, effort and compromise from both people.

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Asking for what you need – If your partner is too upset to listen, say something like “I need to take a break but want to understand you when I’m feeling regulated again.” Taking space prevents making things worse.

The ability to step back from reactions and self-soothe is key for resolving issues respectfully. By learning each other’s triggers and supporting each other’s use of calming strategies, couples develop deeper empathy and connection.

Review and Future Directions

As evidenced above, integrating dialectical behavior therapy approaches into relationships can yield significant benefits by targeting common relationship distress maintaining factors like reactivity, communication breakdowns, and lack of emotional awareness and co-regulation.

Core DBT skills for mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation translate powerfully when used consistently between couples.

Ongoing commitment is important, as like any therapeutic approach, lasting results require regular practice over weeks/months rather than one-off efforts.

The dialectical mindset of acceptance and change, validation and problem-solving equally, offers a holistic framework for navigating inevitable relationship difficulties respectfully.

Although more research is still needed, preliminary studies show DBT significantly improves relationship satisfaction when adapted for couples counseling or self-guided skill learning.

With compassion and understanding on both sides, DBT principles seem uniquely designed to strengthen communication, understanding and closeness between partners long-term.

In summary, dialectical behavior therapy was created as an evidence-based treatment for emotion dysregulation but translates incredibly well when applied between couples.

Its mindfulness, interpersonal and coping techniques can be learned independently or through a therapist to build empathy, handle disagreements constructively, strengthen trust and deepen emotional connection when used consistently over time.

With openness and commitment from both people, DBT may provide powerful relationship enhancement for any couple seeking to solidify their bond.


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