The Power of Hope
As a marriage and family therapist, the couples I work with tend to wait until problems in their relationship have significantly escalated before they seek therapy.
Fortunately, amidst the distress, by the end of the session I usually experience a feeling that keeps me loving the work I do with these couples.
It was that same feeling that encouraged me several years ago to ask myself the questions, “What is this feeling?” and “How can I make it happen consistently in therapy?” The answer that came to me then, and that continues to empower me now, is hope.
Hope is a life force. It keeps people moving toward their goals and dreams. It keeps people alive in difficult circumstances. An individual’s personal relationship with hope influences his or her daily actions. As hope is nurtured in therapy, clients move from hoping for a happier and healthier future, to actually having one. In couples therapy, “hope happens” as couples move from a position of uncertainty about the future of their relationship to a belief and feeling that their relationship can improve.
When I first decided to study hope there was little to no research specifically related to couples therapy. There were myriad definitions of hope, and various disjointed ideas existed. Thus, a primary task of my research was to find a definition of hope that would bring enough clarity to the concept to then be able to describe clearly how hope can be nurtured in therapy. What started out as a journey to understand hope within the specific context of couples therapy, has developed into a theory of hope that has far-reaching applications.
Definition and Foundations of Hope
My research led me to a simple, yet comprehensive, definition of hope: “a belief and a feeling that a desired outcome is possible.” In addition, I identified four foundations of hope: Options, Action, Evidence, and Connection.
To demonstrate these foundations, imagine a yet unachieved desired outcome in your life. As you think about how much hope you have about achieving that outcome, you will notice that your hope is partly based on your belief and feeling that you have options to choose from to achieve that outcome. The greater the number of options you perceive you have, the more likely you are to feel hopeful. Second, your hope is sustained (or diminished) by your belief and feeling that you are both willing and able to act on those options. Third, your hope is influenced by the evidence you have that the desired outcome is possible. For example, if you’ve accomplished a similar task, or seen others like you achieve that goal, you’re more likely to feel hope that you can also. Finally, your hope is related to your feeling of connection to others who support or help you to achieve the desired outcome. Having hope is inherently relational. Our hope increases as we are surrounded by others who support our hope, whether those “others” are humans, a higher power, or even pets.
Applying the Theory to Relationships
Given this definition and these four foundations, several interventions emerge to help individuals and couples increase their hope for improving their relationship.
First, your available options for achieving your desired outcomes are greatly influenced by how you view the situation, particularly the apparent obstacles that stand in your way. Your view of those obstacles often determines the number of options you perceive you have. For example, many couples believe that conflict is a sign of inherent problems in their relationship when, in fact, conflict is an inherent part of close, intimate relationships. If you can view the next conflict as an opportunity to connect and grow, you are much more likely to stay hopeful about the future of your relationship and find more options to choose from to handle those conflicts.
Second, a belief and feeling that you are willing and able to act on options can be increased by simply committing to a time frame to work on a desired outcome with an attitude of hope; that is, a belief and feeling that you are able to achieve your goal. Too often, desires get stifled by spending time debating in our minds the obtainability of the goal rather than putting energy into action that will make the goal more possible. This happens in distressed relationships as individuals use each new interaction as data to ask themselves the question, “Do I stay or do I go?” Rather then getting stuck in this dilemma, commit to staying for a certain amount of time and put your energy into being the best you can be and asking your partner to meet you there. Don’t ignore the voice that asks “do I stay or do I go,” simply acknowledge it and choose not to dwell on it for the time being. Many times, as people commit to a brighter future, the brighter future begins to emerge. And if it doesn’t, they have fewer regrets about moving their hope to something (or someone) else.
Third, you can actively look for and seek out evidence that you can achieve your desired outcomes. Sometimes this evidence comes as you tell others about your hopes. One couple I worked with told another couple of their challenges and desire for their relationship to be happier. The other couple proceeded to tell the couple in distress about similar challenges they had had in their relationship five years ago, that they had since worked out and found themselves to be very satisfied with their relationship. The couple came to therapy with renewed hope because of the evidence the other couple had given them that their relationship could improve.
Fourth, you can work to achieve greater connection with people who support your goals or who have a role in achieving these goals. I have come to see that the connection component of hope is the most powerful because it is in connecting with others that we increase our evidence, build options, and believe and feel we are capable of acting to achieve our desired outcomes. For couples, this sense of connection is so important to regaining a sense of hope for the relationship. Thus, I routinely tell couples to build into their relationship connecting rituals – going on a date each week, ending the day by telling each other what they appreciate about each other. Amidst the busyness that most couples face, connecting must be a priority and must be done purposefully or it may not happen. When couples who are unsure about their future begin to connect again, it builds hope that things can improve and gives them a foundation to handle issues that need to be addressed in the relationship.
A therapist once said to me that part of our jobs as therapists is to “create a space where hope can prevail.” I have come to see that this “job” goes well beyond the walls of therapy. Each of us can be a beacon of hope for someone else as we help them discover options, work toward action, remember evidence, and create connections around their goals and dreams.
David B. Ward, Ph.D., is assistant professor of marriage and family therapy in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy.