Medical Metaphors Boost Relationship Communication


Judith Nelson, assistant professor of counseling, and four other educational leadership and counseling researchers were published in The Family Journal for their study on medical metaphors in relationships.

No one can deny that relationships have the capability to be fun and exciting. But they can also be challenging and a lot of hard work.

Sam Houston State University assistant professor of counseling Judith Nelson has practiced counseling in the field of marriage and family for a number of years, observing much within the issues of infidelity and commitment. Her counseling emphasis focuses on commitment in relationships.

Nelson, Chi-sing Li, Daniel Eckstein, Pedra Ane, and William Mullener remedied these issues for their recent article, “Antidotes for Infidelity and Prescriptions for Long Lasting Relationships: Four Couples’ Activities.” In October 2008, the article was featured in a special edition of The Family Journal, which was focused primarily on treating infidelity.

The article is part of the group’s ongoing research agenda and was not specifically based on research itself. Instead, the group collaborated “healthy knowledge” they had gained throughout the research process, according to Nelson.

“Our research has been on the topic of commitment. We did a large scale survey about a year ago,” Nelson said. “Out of that we have expanded it, interviewed people about their notion of commitment, and have written several other articles based on commitment. It’s a topic that a variety of people are interested in.

“I’m interested in what keeps couples together and how I can help them through counseling. It’s not an easy thing because of the complicated society today,” Nelson said.

The article describes four activities that couples can reference in discovering the opinions and issues of infidelity between each other.

“When you have infidelity in a relationship, it’s like a trauma,” Nelson said. “Some couples I’ve worked with in counseling have even described it as a wound or a hurt. So thinking back, I came up with the idea that we could use medical terms as metaphors.”

Throughout the article, Nelson describes that the use of “medical metaphors” in talking about improving the relationship can act as a counter to unfaithful behaviors in long-term relationships.

By using words in counseling such as antidote, immunity, vaccine, and booster shots, individuals can express their emotions pertaining to unfaithful experiences. According to Nelson, using these words can help build immunity against the temptation of being disloyal.

“Often people don’t pay attention to improving their relationships. They get into one, and they immediately have problems. That is just the nature of relationships,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, some couples haven’t given thought to how to protect themselves from hurting each other and how to prevent it from ever happening.“

Through the article’s activities, couples can be honest with one another about their personal perceptions concerning infidelity.

The first activity allowed the couples to discuss openly their early childhood memories of role models and commitment.

The study found that the best predictor a person’s future marital satisfaction is one’s own perception of the happiness of his or her parents. Parents were the most often cited source of encouragement pertaining to relationships, according to the study.

Nelson and the other authors imply that communicating in this manner acts as a “vaccine” by re-visiting past experiences, whether they are good memories or bad.

The second activity focuses mainly on flexibility and intimacy. This activity supports the ideas that even though couples age and circumstances change, staying flexible and separating sex from intimacy will help keep a relationship together, according to Nelson.

In the third activity, the couples assess commitment.

By talking about perceptions of relationships and marriage, both partners’ personal insights become more concrete, according to the article.

“This activity also challenges couples to consider what role spirituality and religion will play in their relationship,” Nelson said.

According to the article, commitment is the string that securely tethers the balloon of infidelity. A survey completed in 2007 by Nelson, Eckstein, and two other colleagues, which found that more than 50 percent of the individuals surveyed saw commitment as foundational to fidelity, supports this metaphor.

In activity four, the focus is on trust and forgiveness.

There are often times that within a relationship, mistakes are made. Forgiveness is given by faith, only to be followed by the healing process. If trust is to be found within a relationship, forgiveness is essential, according to the article.

“I wanted to counsel in a different way,” Nelson said. “Not just counseling one on one, but counseling the system. And that’s what marriage and family therapists do. We counsel the couple system and the family system.”



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SHSU Media Contacts: Raegan Castillo
January 29, 2009
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