The Center for family Learning


The Treatment of Stage Three Marital Conflict

                 A complete chapter from the 1987 text, The Evaluation and Treatment of Marital Conflict (Guerin, Fay, Burden & Kautto - Basic Books, 1987).



     This book on marriage and marital therapy presents a comprehensive and detailed model for clinical work with conflictual marriages in varying degrees of distress and dysfunction. In print for twenty-five years and still in hard cover, it was termed “ one of the best and most useful books ever written in family therapy”  by Nichols and Schwartz (2001) in the fifth edition of their text Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. The first half of the book presents the context and framework through which any marriage can be studied clinically, evaluated and treated. The goal of the treatment is for the marriage to improve and sustain an improvement in functioning across the areas of partnership, companionship and intimacy. In order to do this  the marriage is placed in the social and multi-generational family context that provides one of the major sources of developmental and situational stress that surfaces the emotional vulnerabilities  in each individual spouse and the inherent flaws in the structure and process of their marriage. This process inevitably triggers an activation of the key marital triangles and creates the clinical challenge at hand.


       The second half of the book applies the clinical model of intervention with its specific techniques to case illustrations from the practices of the authors, all in creative detail.  The goal of the presentations is to provide clinicians with a method to evaluate marriages in conflict, stage the severity of the conflict and develop a plan of intervention that will facilitate its return to optimal levels of functioning.


     Couples in stage three present clinically with severe marital conflict. The conflict has been going on for over six months, and the projection and triangulation is intense. Each spouse blames the other, and both are totally unable to obtain or maintain self-focus. In these cases the clinician is almost exclusively concerned with trying to lower the anxiety and emotional arousal in each spouse and slow down the couple's instantaneous reactivity to each other, that is to say, their tendency to react to each other emotionally without much in the way of cognitive perspective. This chapter outlines an effective method of treatment  by depolarizing and deintensifying the triangles, creating self-focused vision of the marital interaction  and helping each spouse to see and to own their own contribution to the conflict as well as how to use their strengths to get back on course.