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Joan Phillips
Mar 05, 2012

Newton's Laws as Applicable to Marital Therapy

I recently ran across Newton's laws and felt like I was reading a short concise statement of what happens in a lot of marital therapy. So bear with me....

The First Law states that objects at rest tend to remain at rest, and objects in motion tend to remain in motion, unless they are acted upon by an external force; the Second Law states that an applied force on an object equals the rate of change of its momentum with time; and the Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

So when couple comes in it seems to me the first step, even before any problem solving or cognitive restructuring or metpahoric expressions of the marriage can take place... the couple needs to address that they need to do something. They can't let the relationship be "at rest" and they themselves will have to apply some "external force" to move things along. Sometimes the relationship is barrelling along with great motion and needs to slow down for some examination and re-direction. But whether in motion or at rest- the first law has to do with things seem to stay the same unless you change something you are doing. Some couples seem to think that the mere fact they actually came to therapy is that action that will change the relationship- but while it is a valuable step- it is not really a force acting on their marriage, it is a gesture of contemplation of change. To sum the first law up- Things tend to stay the same if you don't do something different. Thus "objects at rest tend to remain at rest, and objects in motion tend to remain in motion, unless they are acted upon by an external force". Hopefully the external force is not an affair, betrayal, losing hope, or other catastrophic events.... all counselors would love it if couples came in at the first inkling of "things are not right" and took the time to examine their relationships while repairs don't have to be that huge. But we all know that's a fairly rare occurrence.... so on to the next "law".

Newton's second law is "applied force on an object equals the rate of change of its momentum with time". While the use of terms like "force" and "object" aren't that comfortable- the message here is quite relevant. How much your marriage will change is going to depend in how much effort you put in over how long a time period- as a couple. One week of better communication or reduction of conflict will not in the long run have the effects most couples seek. But over time, and with consistent application of "force" of love, intention, and will, most relationships can change for the better.

The last law may be harder to generalize, but still struck a chord with me..."for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". This might on the face of it seem to support those partners who just feel they can't ever do anything right or that attempts they make to improve situations just make them worse. But to me this speaks to the fact that there is little to no "neutral" in any marriage- everything a partner does will tend to improve or chip away at the relationship. Something as seemingly small as a deep sigh, or an ambivalent agreement to put away folded clothes... these small expressions often build up to a mountain of resentments and unspoken conflicts. Similarly, frequent expressions of appreciation and love over time do add to a good relationship and keep a balance as a partner may respond in kind. Certaily paradoxical interventions in family therapy utilize a sense of this "law" in prescribing the symptom or in magnifying a behavior- leading to the law of human nature coming into play when the client then does the opposite of what is prescribed, or at least questions the process and thus introduces those new forces that can change momentum and direction!

So, while marriages don't follow laws of nature in the measurable and repeatable phenomenons that nature presents us, they DO have general "laws" that when addressed will help almost any relationship thrive. When I get overwhelmed with the theories, techniques, approaches and myriad of ways counselors and therapists work with couples, it is useful to me to find some guiding thoughts and principles to help me work with couples. Not "laws" but certainly demonstrable facts of many relationships. Right now I am finding the new book by Harriet Lerner, "Marriage Rules" to be a good compendium of relationship "laws" that can guide both me as a counselor and the couples that I work with.

Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

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