Making matters of the heart a top priority

Sharon Bond, Associate Professor, McGill School of Social Work and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program and the McGill Couple and Family Clinic at the Jewish General Hospital. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

Talk to Sharon Bond about love and relationships and she might very well bring up the Four Horsemen of the marital apocalypse. “Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling,” she says, citing the work of groundbreaking psychologist John Gottman. “These are the predictors of divorce. When there is more negativity than positivity a relationship is in trouble.”

But Bond isn’t a pessimist when it comes to affairs of the heart. On the contrary, as Associate Professor, McGill School of Social Work and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program and the McGill Couple and Family Clinic at the Jewish General Hospital, Bond’s professional raison d’être is to help repair and strengthen couples in peril. She knows, better than most, that a healthy relationship is the solid foundation upon which a happy life is built.

“Adult romantic partnerships are similar to parent-child interactions,” she says. “As adults we still need that secure base from a partner to help us weather the storms of life – just like we did when we were young.

“Often couples are no longer able to provide that base for various reasons – such as the betrayal that is felt when one of the partners has an affair. Then the relationship is no longer the safe haven or buffer against life’s stresses. In fact, it becomes one of those stresses.”

Impact on health

Chronic conflict within a couple can take a serious toll on health, says Bond, weakening the immune system and putting people at greater risk for developing physical and mental health related problems, such as substance abuse. A large percentage of conjugal violence and child abuse occurs within “high conflict” relationships. “Of couples that have experienced marital stress, 25 per cent are at risk for developing major depression,” says Bond.

Fissures in a couple often appear following a significant event that triggers a change in the relationship’s structure such as a loss, a death, the onset of illness or a financial reversal. Take, for example, a couple in which one person stays at home to maintain the house. Should that person become ill, it can cause significant upheaval in the core dynamics of the couple.

Relationships are also vulnerable during what Bond calls “lifecycle transitions” – such as retirement or the birth of a child. “I believe relationships are either couple-centered or child-centered,” she says. “But when the children are all gone, what’s left in the child-centered relationship to allow the couple to continue to the next phase in their lives together?”

Therapy varies depending upon the type of problem a couple is facing. Years of quarrelling can undermine the positive aspects of a relationship and erode it significantly, which is why a therapist’s primary role is often that of coach. “A large part of what we do is to increase positive interaction between people,” says Bond. “We show them how to talk and respond in a more supportive way, to get underneath the surface layer of anger and fighting so that they can unlock the gridlock in their dialogue. Once this is achieved, they can begin to explore the areas of misunderstanding and, hopefully, heal the wounds of the past.”

 Relationship comes first

Valentine’s Day provides people with the perfect opportunity to celebrate their relationship by putting it front and centre – not always a common occurrence in today’s busy world. “A relationship has to be nourished by regular attention,” says Bond. “Just like you have to go to the gym, you have to exercise your couple regularly.”

But Bond stresses this type of celebration shouldn’t be reserved for a single day of the year. In today’s high-paced world, many at-risk relationships suffer more from neglect than conflict, with both partners distracted by work and other outside interests. “Think of two busy professionals who are preoccupied by their jobs,” she says. “They have very little time and space for the relationship and this can lead to a total disconnect between the two.

“You have to make your relationship your top priority,” Bond says. “Cherish it and nourish it.”