Doing Couples Therapy Like Sully Sullenberger

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Sully Sullenberger was piloting an Airbus A320 with about 150 people sitting behind him when birds flew into both his engines, and suddenly he was dropping through the air in a silent airplane. What was his first act as Captain? He turned to his First Officer and said, “Open the manual.” They were falling through space, everybody was screaming, and he wants to look in the manual? We can learn something from that for couples therapy.


Our brains are designed to get simple in an emergency. The DNA that survived belonged to the early humans who could act without thinking when a carnivorous kangaroo or bear-sized hyena was after them (yes, that actually happened), or when the only food they’d seen in a week was about to run away.


The problem is, when our life partners who looked so beautiful when we met them start to snarl at us, our instincts kick in and we do stupid things that seem like our only choice at the moment. We act without thinking.


The airline industry figured this out a long time ago: in an emergency, it is hard to think, so we need to make simple checklists of things to do that will save our asses. When your partner criticizes you, turns you down, or rolls their eyes, you probably want to fight back or walk out, and your gut thinks it’s an emergency. And those are usually the perfect things to do–if you want to make your marriage worse. What would have happened if Sully had shouted, “Oh no you don’t!” and jumped out the window, or slugged his copilot?


Here’s a safety checklist containing a few of the most vital things we want to help you learn in couples therapy:

The next time you want to do that thing you do that makes it all worse…


Sully? He made aeronautics history by landing his massive, inert hunk of metal on the Hudson River. Because procedures like these work, you’ll find that they start to become habits that replace your old reflexes. Instead of shouting, you will learn to cool off and speak reasonably. Instead of withdrawing, you’ll start to say, “What do you mean?” With every safe landing your relationship will improve. You may be astonished by how much your partner starts to resemble that beautiful person you met for the first time.

Dr. Dan Quinn

Clinical Director - Licensed Clinical Psychologist (CA23350), Dan supervised the therapy and research of doctoral students at The Wright Institute, in Berkeley, where he has been a clinical supervisor. He has spent many years studying a multitude of therapy techniques, including relational psychoanalytic, cognitive behavioral, gestalt, solution-focused, and Internal Family Systems. He draws from all of them, depending upon the needs of the client at a particular point in the process. Dan was certified as a Positive Psychology coach after studying with its founder, Dr. Martin Seligman. He has 35 years of experience in the corporate arena, and was the CEO of a highly successful technology consulting firm.

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