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What are PAIRS Couples Workshops?
by Ellen Purcell

PAIRS is the acronym for the Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills. It is a series of  internationally known couples workshops, developed over 30 years ago by Dr. Lori H. Gordon, a marriage and family therapist. PAIRS couples workshops are now taught around the world.

    PAIRS couples workshops are taught in a classroom setting with typically 12 - 16 participants. Using interactive exercises, which are both fun and challenging, people learn the SKILLS needed to be in a joyful, long lasting, enriching relationship.

These skills -- sorry to say -- do NOT come naturally to most, as our very high divorce rate shows. And the divorce rate is just the statistical tip of the iceberg.

    Repeated surveys indicate that at the 10-year mark after couples marry, only about 10% respond that they are happy.

We have divorce rates of about 50% or higher .... about another 10-15% separated, but not technically divorced.... another 10-15% miserable in a very unhappy marriage.... and about another 10% in what has been called the “invisible divorce” -- living together, but living separate lives, not connecting in any meaningful way emotionally or physically. With odds like these.... why is there still the incredible resistance to learning the skills we need?

What are the Strengths of PAIRS?
PAIRS is different from many other couples workshops in several ways. As a bottom line, it is different because it is so effective. PAIRS is effective because: It provides the time to practice. It covers the many sides that come into play in relationship tension:

  • The understanding of the person’s own history
  • The skills of how to diffuse the anger
  • The skills of new communication techniques to stay connected through the tension

A primary way the PAIRS Relationship Mastery Program is different is that it provides the time needed to practice and really learn the more productive, happier ways to respond when we find ourselves angry, frustrated, hurt or just confused by our partners. There are many wonderful couples workshops and books and tapes available, but my experience is that most people have been using unproductive ways of relating for many years... and it takes a concentrated effort of repeated practice before a new way can be learned.

    I jokingly ask if people would expect it to be reasonable to show up at a health club on Friday evening, and say, “OK, I’ll work out here until Sunday night... and then I want to be completely thin and fit!”

Most people see the humor in that... and yet, they seem to think that a couple of days is all it will take to retrain their “emotional muscles” to perform as they want. If it were that easy, everyone would just attend weekend couples workshops and there would be no divorce, no unhappy relationships.

Truth is, it is work. The work can be very pleasurable, and it does get easier and easier -- like every other skill. When you first try to ski or golf or play tennis, you are awkward, your muscles get sore... it feels different and unsettling, because it IS moving in a way you haven’t before. So, in a relationship, if in the past, when you got angry, your way of reacting was to clam up, shut down and pout.... it is going to feel very, very awkward to speak up and -- using the non-blaming skills we teach -- say what is going on, and what you wish were going on instead. And, of course, conversely, if your past “natural” reaction to anger was to yell and stomp around, it will also be very, very awkward to learn the new, better, less damaging ways we teach to do that yelling. Yes, our couples workshops teach how to vent anger -- actually, in several different ways. But... probably nothing like your old ways.

I also have to mention that the classroom setting of PAIRS couples workshops -- with many people all working towards a positive outcome -- seems to accelerate everyone’s progress. PAIRS is unusual in that even people who typically really dislike group settings, seem to enjoy this class. Perhaps it is more like a “team” in the way everyone is pulling together to figure out this process to be happier and more joyful in everyday life. Who doesn’t want that? A good team, all working together can accomplish more than one or two well-meaning participants.

What Does it Help Couples Understand?
In my experience of teaching PAIRS couples workshops since 1992, there seems to be a common thread: people think if they are in love, that will be enough. They just need to love each other, and it will work out fine.

    PAIRS helps couples understand that love is essential, but it is not enough.

Again, I’ll use an analogy. Say, I love being up in an airplane, flying through the beautiful clouds. I’ve always enjoyed it, and I think I’d be a good pilot. I’ve been a passenger for hundreds of hours of flying. So... how about getting into the cockpit and taking off? Would you let me fly you somewhere? Again... it is obvious that the love of flying isn’t enough. What would I need? SKILLS training. What to do when. Practicing those skills with someone close by who can make sure I don’t crash. Hours of practice. This is the same for surgeons, race car drivers, professional golfers... You know, Tiger Woods has a coach and still practices every week!

    So, PAIRS couples workshops help us understand that we are all imperfect, we ALL need the skills training. There is nothing wrong with getting trained to do something that is as complex as having a relationship with someone we love.

As a matter of fact, using the pilot or surgeon analogy -- I think just about everyone would rather put their confidence in that pilot or surgeon who has had excellent training and practice than take our chances on the luck of an untrained person!

The good news is that learning the skills of having a long-lasting, passionate, healthy partnership is interesting and fun. Most participants in our couples workshops tell us they look forward to class as just about the highlight of their month! So, this doesn’t have to be hard, or painful, or stressful -- it’s even better to take this training when the relationship is new.... while there is still time and evidence of lots of loving goodwill. My dream would be to take PAIRS couples workshops when they get engaged, so they can avoid the pain and disappointment that is so evident all around them. What a great wedding present! The gift of understanding, compassion, skilled listening and communicating.

When we reach the end of our lives, there are not many people who say, “I wish I had just bought one more car....” The regrets that most feel are that they did not show the love they felt for their family and loved ones better.

Now is the time to make your relationship a top priority with PAIRS couples workshops!

PAIRS in Virginia is an effective marriage counseling alternative to help couples restore clear communication, avoid fighting, diffuse anger, solve problems together and reenergize intimacy.   Our classes teach you the skills you need to sustain a happy relationship!  Call 703-476-5644.

 For additional information about PAIRS, visit the PAIRS Foundation website.


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