Our Approach

The PEX Method

Over the past 30 years at the Couples Clinic and Research Institute, we’ve pioneered a new approach for helping people develop more satisfying relationships. 

The Pragmatic-Experiential Method for Improving Relationships (“The PEX Method”) translates new discoveries in the fields of neurobiology and relationship science into practical strategies for improving relationships.

Detailed in the books, Emotional Intelligence in Couple Therapy, and Developing Habits for Relationship Success, The PEX Method is scientifically-based, drawing from:

  • Long-term research studies that have identified exactly how people who are good at getting their partners to treat them well go about doing it.
  • Long-term studies that examine how emotional attachment occurs in couple relationships, and why an emotional bond is crucial both to the success of relationships and the well-being of individual partners.
  • New neurological studies which suggest how we can rewire our brains for more flexibility, enabling us to develop new habits that become so thoroughly integrated into our neural circuits that they become part of our second-nature.
The PEX Method helps partners build and use the skills of emotional intelligence to resolve impasses, recover from hurtful experiences, avoid frustrating interactions, and create truly enjoyable relationships.

Straight to the Heart of the Matter

Scientists have discovered that the dizzying array of bad things that happen in relationships can all be traced to a single cause – deficiencies in the core set of abilities that are necessary for relationships to go well.

By measuring the presence or absence of these abilities, researchers have been able to distinguish partners who are headed to a satisfying relationship from partners who are headed for unhappy futures (or break-ups) with over 90% accuracy.

This kind of predictive validity is virtually unheard of in most branches of science, and has captured the attention of therapists and educators around the world.

Most people believe that they have the abilities needed to make their relationships go well.

But available evidence suggests that this is wishful thinking.

Studies suggest that most people don’t meet the prerequisites for relationship success. It’s not surprising then, that half of all people who marry in the U.S. eventually divorce, and at least half of the couples who stick it out are unhappy with their relationships.

Most of us don’t have the habits needed to make our relationships thrive over the long haul. In fact, most people don’t even know what these crucial habits are.

But studies show that they are not optional.

If you want your relationship to go well, you simply must have them.

“If you want your partner to treat you well, you need to learn to think and act like people who almost always get treated well by their partners – and you certainly don’t want to think and act like people who hardly ever get treated well.”
– Brent Atkinson

One of the habits that are not optional involves the ability to react effectively when your partner says or does things that you don’t like.

When you feel that your partner is doing something that’s selfish or insensitive, it might seem to you that s/he is the one who needs to change.

But studies suggest that the most potent predictor of your partner’s willingness to change is your reaction to his or her selfish or insensitive behavior.

In fact, studies suggest that the ability to react effectively when feeling upset with one’s partner separates the men from the boys, and the women from the girls when it comes to having the emotional intelligence needed to sustain relationships.

Our book Developing Habits for Relationship Success will guide you step-by-step in learning about the set of habits that are so highly predictive of relationship success.

Why Is It So Hard?

The abilities that are needed for relationships to thrive are easy to understand and learn, but can be very difficult to do because at key moments, we often experience strong urges and inclinations that take us in the wrong direction.

Researchers have discovered that, when a relationship is distressed, each partner generally reacts to the other during arguments in highly predictable and patterned ways.

Thanks to some very helpful brain research in the past 30 years, we now know that this is because, across our lives, our brains get conditioned to produce highly specific response programs.

These are conditioned brain circuits that are pre-programmed.

“Atkinson saw evidence emerging from neuroscience suggesting that with the right kind of practice, even people who don’t have the benefit of well-attuned caregivers can still develop automatic internal tendencies and inclinations that facilitate relational competence.”
-Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Once triggered, they produce an amazingly-predictable pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Brain researchers call these brain states “executive operating systems” or “intrinsic motivational circuits.” Ordinary people call them “states of mind” or “moods.”

The important thing is not what they are called, but to recognize that these internal response programs can dramatically dictate how you interact with your partner. To improve your relationship, you will need to become familiar with the specific mood state patterns that happen inside of you during disagreements with your partner.

Your best shot at acting differently comes when you develop the ability to shift internal states when needed.

The ability to shift out of unproductive internal states cannot be willed at a moment’s notice…

…any more than musicians or athletes can perform skillful maneuvers without hours of practice.

Thankfully, hundreds of studies prove that the ability to shift internal states can be strengthened through practice just as surely as the mechanisms that enable complex musical or athletic movements. The PEX Method teaches daily exercises that…

  • interrupt the tendency to ruminate;
  • strengthen the ability to let go of upset feelings;
  • reduce physical arousal in response to perceived threat;
  • curb urges to judge, interrupt, counter, dispute, criticize and defend during disagreements;
  • foster the inclination to remain open and flexible during disagreements;

But the PEX Method goes beyond strengthening the ability to resolve disagreements.

It provides methods for cultivating truly enjoyable relationships.

Researchers have found that partners who build strong friendships can be distinguished from those who don’t by the degree to which they…

  • are curious about their partners’ worlds;
  • notice and acknowledge positive qualities that their partners have, positive; things that their partners do, or positive experiences that they have together;
  • look for common interests and shared goal and values;
  • make and respond to bids for connection.

Knowing this, you might think that the key to building stronger friendships is to put more effort into doing these things. But it’s not that simple.

In order for caring actions to count, they must be genuine.

Caring acts can be exactly that – caring acts.

The secret to cultivating intimacy has to do with figuring out how to “turn on” brain processes that automatically make us actually feel more interested in our partners, invested in our relationships, and desirous of satisfying forms of attention.

Using the PEX Method, partners engage in daily practices that prime their brain for naturally-occurring feelings of warmth, tenderness, affection, playfulness, and sexual desire.

You can read several stories about how The PEX Method helped partners improve their relationships:

Grace and Adam

“Somebody please get me out of here!” Grace had to check to be sure that she hadn’t actually blurted the words out loud. She’d come to this wedding reception as a favor to her husband, Adam, whose friend from high school was getting married. Adam was sitting at the main table, laughing and having a great time while Grace was stuck listening to a plump, middle-aged woman chatter about her poodle.”


Susan and James

“On a humid evening last September, Susan and James burst into our office looking like two high schoolers in the grip of a classroom giggle fit. Usually serious and reserved, James, 36, explained between chuckles that he had been telling Susan a story about his boss’s gaffe at a meeting earlier that day. Still chortling as she landed on our office sofa, 27-year-old Susan ran her fingers through her cropped, blond hair and tried to compose herself, then eyed her gleeful husband and began hooting all over again.”


Loretta and Jack

“Here we go again, I thought. Loretta and Jack were back in my office, dispirited and fed up. “I don’t think I love him anymore,” Loretta began, and what caught my attention was not what she said but the way she said it. Quietly, flatly, as though she was beyond caring. During our first round of couple’s therapy, one year earlier, 31-year-old Loretta hadn’t said anything quietly. She had been chronically pissed off at Jack and had let him know via frequent, name-calling outbursts.”


Maria and Tony

In the 15 years that I’ve been following developments in neuroscience, the most compelling clinical lesson I’ve learned is likely to rub you the wrong way. An overwhelming body of research now suggests that we clinicians rely too much on insight and understanding – and too little on repetitive practice – in promoting lasting change.


Debra and Steve

“At the tail end of a sweltering, humid Chicago day in 1993, I took my family to the community pool for a dip. As the children splashed gleefully, I sat nearby reading Robert Ornstein’s new book, The Evolution of Consciousness, unaware that my life was about to change. Seven years earlier, I’d emerged from my doctoral studies utterly dissatisfied with existing answers to the question of why people continue to behave in self-defeating, irrational ways despite clear evidence that their methods aren’t working.”


PEX Method Accolades

“Brent Atkinson has a plan that’s completely counterintuitive and wonderfully effective”
-The Oprah Magazine

“Brent Atkinson explains how…our self-protecting impulses can block the love we crave – but we don’t have to let them.”
-Oprah Winfrey

“Atkinson’s pioneering methods for rewiring automatic emotional processes in the brain are widely recognized.”
-Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

“The PEX Method is the only approach that adequately addresses the problem of blame and contempt in the early stages of relationship recovery.”
– Filip Pavlinec — www.paarinstitute.ch (Swiss Institute for Relationships)

“Any couples therapists concerned about increasing their effectiveness and avoiding relapse need to master this powerful new approach!”
-Thomas C. Todd, Ph.D.,
Recipient of the award for Outstanding Contributions to Family Therapy, Theory, and Practice by the American Family Therapy Academy.

“Destined to be one of the most important books on couples therapy of this decade… A tour de force of scientific sophistication and clinical wisdom. Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy will be a classic!”
Douglas H. Sprenkle, Ph.D.
-Former Editor, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy
-Recipient, AAMFT Award for Cumulative Career
Contribution to Family Therapy Research.

“The habits for relationship success illustrated in this book dramatically improved my own clinical work.”
-Teresa McDowell, Ed.D.,
Professor & Chair, Department of Counseling Psychology,
Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling.

“Atkinson draws on the latest research into the behavior of couples in intimate relationships and the impact of the emotional brain on human interaction. He provides a specific step-by-step guide to developing habits that greatly increase the chances of having a successful, loving relationship.”
-Harvey Joanning, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus,
Iowa State University and Texas Tech University.

“Training with Dr. Atkinson has by far been the most rewarding investment of my career and honestly, toward my personal and relational health and happiness.
-Angie Tsiatsos Phillips, Director, Colorado Couples Clinic

“Brent Atkinson’s Pragmatic Experiential Method skillfully blends mindfulness practices with neurobiological discoveries and cutting-edge research about why intimate relationships succeed or fail. Brent is a master trainer and his 5-day workshop gives therapists all the tools they need to help clients function at higher levels when the smoke alarm goes off. Two thumbs up!”
-Diana Shulman, J.D, Ph.D.
Author of ABC’s of Love
Los Angeles

Brent’s work and the work of the Couples Clinic as a whole is deeply grounded in the leading research in the field of marital distress and applicable to anyone who wants to learn to love well.”
-Kerry Lusignan, Director of the Northampton Center for Couples Therapy.

“This training was a GAME CHANGER. So much good, clear information that hones in on the aspects of couples’ work that is most effective in creating lasting change. I think the book [Developing Habits for Relationship Success] should be required reading for all clinicians and people in long-term relationships!”
-Kelley Watts, Psychologist, Houston, Texas

I highly recommend Brent’s trainings – they’ll make a big difference in your career and effectiveness as a couples therapist.”
-DJ Hilley, MSEd, LPC,
Madison, Wisconsin

“Brent is a phenomenal therapist and mentor. I use his approach daily in my private practice and clients love the guidance and tools. His approach makes improvement feel tangible, not elusive like so many other approaches. Oh, and PS…. I believe I have an awesome marriage of 20+ years because of all I have learned from Brent!”
-Carrie Hammond
Founder of the Colorado Couples and Family Therapy Center

I often say that the PEX Method would have been helpful for me to learn in my 20’s and would have made my first marriage go much better. His approach has helped me become a more confident person and much better able to manage conflict in healthy ways. I am grateful for what Brent developed and his contributions to the Marriage and Family Therapy field.”
-Mary Beth Harper, Founder, Collaborative Marriage and Family Counseling
St. Louis

“Over the last ten years I have asked Brent Atkinson to train my staff several times in his PEX Method of marital therapy. We decided that it is such a useful method that any therapist who wants to provide relationship therapy needs to have a working knowledge of The PEX Method. This model is complete, sophisticated and approachable.”
-Suzanne Drennan, Owner, The Psychology Center, Madison, Wisconsin

“As a psychologist and trainee in the Couples Clinic methods, I have integrated many valuable materials and concepts into my life as well as my work with couples. This is a comprehensive and transformational approach to healing relationships.”
-Jade Mueller, Ph.D.,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

“I enrolled in a week-long intensive training seminar with Dr. Atkinson 10 years ago in Appleton, WI. I am now in the Houston Texas area and am in private practice. Dr. Atkinson’s Emotional Habits for Couples, 12-Step Summary for resolving conflicts, and Core Differences in personality are a part of almost every couple session that I facilitate. They make an amazing impact in the healing of the couples that I work with. Thank you, Brent!”
-Mary Lambrecht, Founder, Family Help Counseling
Spring, Texas