Russ Harris on Making Relationships Work

19 November, 2020
What are the keys to strengthening your relationship according to the tenants of acceptance and commitment therapy? Today, we'll review the work of psychotherapist Russ Harris.

Russ Harris is part of a group of psychotherapists who subscribes to the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) approach. British in origin, Harris is one of the most famous ACT specialists. He does individual and couples therapy for when emotions are running high and things are challenging. Today, we’ll share his theories about how to make relationships work.

Russ Harris is the author of one of the most widely-sold self-help books, called The Happiness Trap. He has several other successful books as well, including ACT With Love. This article will focus on his key ideas about relationships and conflict management using the guiding principles of ACT.

The challenges of being in a romantic relationship

Relationships have their ups and downs. One day, you might feel incredible with your significant other, and the next things seem terrible. The biggest challenge is usually related with dealing with each other’s emotions.

Emotions are naturally variable. At the beginning of a relationship, your emotions tend to focus on the care and keeping of your partner. Once the relationship is established, however, the intensity with which you feel these pleasant emotions diminishes somewhat.

A couple with problems.

In summary, relationships can produce certain unpleasant emotions that can come as a surprise when you experience it for the first time. A lot of us grew up with the idea that our partners would meet every need and fulfill all our expectations, and the fact that they don’t can cause some angst. This vicious cycle makes you and your partner focus more on what your partner does for you instead of thinking about how they positively contribute to the relationship.

You start to pay more attention to the needs that aren’t being met instead of the expectations that your partner is meeting.

Couples are also negatively affected by some popular myths that society feeds. These are mistaken beliefs that affect people’s expectations about their partners. They can also inform your ideas about the roles that each person is supposed to play and what you should be getting from the relationship. Here are some of the most significant myths:

The perfect partner

There’s an idea that, if you look hard enough, you’ll find your “ideal” partner. That person that meets all your needs at the expense of their own. This message is everywhere: books, romantic movies, and even fairy tales. If you internalize this message, you’ll struggle to have a healthy relationship.

If you cling tightly to the idea that your partner should be perfect, you’ll compare your relationship with other people’s relationships, which isn’t usually helpful or healthy.

The beliefs about how a relationship should be and how your partner should act often clash with reality. These kinds of unrealistic expectations can actually have the opposite effect on your relationship and bring to light all of your partner’s faults.

Soulmates

There’s another popular idea that we’re not born whole and that our “other half” is floating around out there, waiting to be found. How many love songs lament that “Without you, I am nothing”?

The problem with that idea is that it puts the responsibility for your needs and happiness on the other person. In addition, this leads some people to believe that a relationship is all about making up for your partner’s faults. This idea is counterproductive to making relationships work.

Instead of nourishing your relationship, ideas such as these can make you dependent and scared to be on your own. Neither of those is a foundation for a solid relationship.

Love is easy and lasts forever

Making relationships work is always easy at the beginning. Over time, however, the differences between you and your partner come to light. In modern-day jargon, we call these “incompatibilities”.

The idea of being incompatible with your partner takes us back to the concept of “the perfect partner.”  If you feel like you’re incompatible with your partner, it’s hard to feel happy and committed. If you want your relationship to survive, you need understanding, complicity, and intimacy. You have to be willing to compromise. Accepting your differences is crucial so that they don’t become a weapon you use against your partner in moments of crisis.

Making relationships work with psychological flexibility

Russ Harris uses the term “psychological flexibility” when talking about romantic relationships. This term refers to being open-minded in your day-to-day life with your partner. It involves trying to stay in touch with the present moment so you can effectively nourish your relationship.

Greater psychological flexibility helps with a lot of conflicts that come up with your partner. Here are some examples:

  • Recognizing and accepting individual differences between the two of you.
  • Distancing yourself from the differences that are the most likely to cause conflict. That way, you can facilitate making decisions together in the face of incompatibility issues.
  • Adjust the expectations you have of each other and the relationship, especially ideas about “the perfect partner” that most often lead to arguments.
  • Focus on the experiences you’re having in the present. Prioritize the interactions that you have here and now. Stop dwelling on things that already happened and don’t get worked up about the future.
  • Reduce the impact of unpleasant thoughts and emotions that get in the way of strengthening your bond with your partner.
A couple dancing and making relationships work.

Who’s Russ Harris’s book for?

Here are some of the potential readers Russ Harris believes can benefit from his book:

  • Couples who want to enrich their relationship.
  • People who have a hard time making relationships work and would like to learn from the exercises the book offers.
  • Those who aren’t in a relationship at the moment but would like to be more prepared for the future.
  • Professional psychologists looking for ideas for couples therapy sessions.

The book gives a summary of the different uses for acceptance and commitment therapy and how you can integrate it into your relationship. At the end of every chapter, he shares a series of activities for couples and therapists who want to put the theory into practice.

No one book is a cure-all, however. Russ Harris writes about theoretical concepts and techniques to improve your romantic relationships. Some of these strategies might work for you, while others won’t. It depends a lot on the quality of your relationship and what stage you’re in with your partner. Consequently, Harris normalizes breakups as simply another kind of relationship process. This is another reason why we recommend that any kind of intervention be supervised by an experienced specialist.