Anyone who has ever been in a long term relationship will tell you that it weathered some very rough times, even moments rife with uncertainty about its viability. More than any other reason, people come to therapy with relationship-related questions; to get help with troubling issues, process a break-up, or work on themselves so that they can have more gratifying relationship experiences.
I find counseling these couples especially rewarding, and lately, it’s much of what I’m choosing to do in my practice.
There are many differences between individual and couples therapy. Perhaps the greatest is that individual therapy is inherently biased because it represents one person’s perspective of an experience. Couples therapy is dynamic. The elements of a relationship occur in the here and now, unfolding in my office. Not only do I learn about past history from both partners point of view – and these points of view are often radically different – I can also observe interactions between them which often reveal a more “truthful” story of how they act towards each other. In couples therapy, the relationship is my client, not either individual, yet some of my interventions are directly aimed towards changing each partner’s behavior.
When a couple first comes into my office, I can immediately get a sense of the energy between them. Important information is broadcasted by them from the start. Do they sit together? Are they touching each other, or are they at opposite ends of the couch? As they begin to talk, I observe how each makes contact with the other or with me exclusively. Are they respectful? Do they listen? Does one finish the other’s sentences? Instinctual or unconscious movements; an eye roll, a laugh, an intake of breath, a stiffening of posture, fill in the details, a painting or dance forming itself before my eyes. I always take note of how open and welcoming or defensive they actually are despite their request for help, and I use that insight to guide the specifics of how I approach them. It is never easy for anyone to reveal what they feel is the worst of themselves; I always feel honored to be invited into the private and vulnerable world of the couple.
Most couples come to therapy when communication about an issue or problem has become ritualized. Conversations are circular, repetitive and lead nowhere except for greater frustration. Each partner stubbornly maintains their position and often blames the other for the trouble at hand. An impasse has been reached, perhaps several of them. One or both are hurt, disappointed or resentful. Partners strike out or may turn inwards, withholding, as a means of self-preservation.
When a couple is having trouble, most often their defenses are raised. One or the other’s heels are dug in. Getting each partner to stand in the middle with gloves down and hearts open, just the tiniest crack, takes careful navigation. Sometimes I act as a “witness,” other times in the role of a referee. When I am successful at breaking through the couples defensive postures, with either diplomacy or a hammer, I hold both accountable for creating their troubles as well as for their solutions. My role then becomes more like a coach. I slow the “game” down so their meaning doesn’t get missed or swept under the rug, then I help them change the rules of interaction. Using all the information I’ve gathered from the couple’s stories and actions, I re-frame the problem from a new, more balanced perspective, hoping it will cross through the blood-brain barrier so that it can be absorbed. I have the advantage here in that most people are able to really hear information coming from someone a bit removed in a way that they simply can’t hear coming from their partner. At this point, I am usually more directive than I am with individuals, assigning specific tasks to each partner since they now understand that they share mutual and equal responsibility for where their relationship stands and the direction of its future.
The position someone takes around a conflict with their partner, rebellious or compliant, is often rooted in their individual family history. Unresolved family conflicts and unmet needs follow us into the present and get projected onto our significant others. Over the years, I have identified a handful of relationship styles that can lead to breakdowns in communication and a sense of hopelessness and despair.
I’ve also discovered some interventions that may be useful in challenging negative projections and improving communication. While these are not meant as a substitute for therapy, you can use the ideas presented here to identify troubling patterns in your relationship and then follow the behavioral suggestions to help heal them.
The “extrovert” versus the “introvert” partner
One person gets their energy from high levels of stimulation; the other requires solitude to feel grounded. Introverts are not necessarily shy or anti-social, but they often prefer one-on-one or small group settings because they fell more in control. Extroverts tend to respond more quickly, hitting the send button or blurting out their thoughts before filtering them. Introverts need more time to process and come back to a conversation while an extrovert may want to talk it out. Neither approach is better, and the differences can be complementary. But, when a conflict arises, it is often each partner’s characteristic style of handling it, rather than the details of the issue itself that actually creates the problem.
My suggestion: It’s important for the extrovert to understand that how they communicate rather than what they say may be overwhelming to their introvert partner. Pushing a conversation with explanations or conclusions can result in a lock down in which the introvert feels like a deer caught in headlights, causing further withdrawal inward. The introvert, on the other hand, must understand that his or her partner has the best intentions, and the urgency to engage reflects a desire for intimacy and connection or anxiety about leaving conflict unresolved.
It can help if the couple establishes a general “rule” to take some time and space apart in moments of conflict with an agreed upon time to return to the conversation; an hour, maybe the next day, depending on the amount of time it takes for the introvert to regroup so that they aren’t flooded and the extrovert to cool down, both waiting respectively to feel centered again. Most of us can’t think clearly, express ourselves rationally or come to reasonable conclusions when we are least emotionally aroused. Otherwise, we risk saying things that may be hurtful rather than helpful, or we may throw up our hands just to end the conflict without it actually being resolved.
The “rational” versus the “expressive” partner
I work with a lot of activists, teachers and social workers who have partners that may not come from the same tradition or training. While this partner approaches conflict with compassion and reason based on their experiences, the other may have been raised in a home in which everyone yelled at each other. Swearing and insults flew freely and fights blew big but were quickly passed over, everyone going on with their day as usual. For them an eruption of anger is normal and even preferable to bottling it. Once they have had a chance to vent, they don’t understand why things can’t then just move on. When those words land on the person that has worked hard to use reason and ownership of their part in the conflict in their lives to avoid shaming and blaming, anger and insults mean a lot. They feel shocked and sometimes deeply wounded. On the other hand, to the non-trained partner, “I” and “feeling” statements from the “rational” partner come off as condescending and manipulative.
My suggestion: Decide on certain language that is off-limits such as “fuck you,” or “bitch,” or “I want a divorce,” etc, but also understand that these words are the result of extreme frustration, like a tea pot letting off steam at the boiling point. They are not necessarily meant to personally injure. It’s no worse to always overreact passionately in the face of conflict than it is to always react reasonably without any genuine expression of emotion. Build the boundaries by setting limits, and if you’re the rational partner, examine your style of “arguing” for its possible rigidities or hidden hostilities. A more genuine expression of feelings may be experienced as less false or aggressive and lead to a more meaningful conversation.
The “avoidant” versus “aggressive” partner
Though a subtly different dynamic than the “rational versus expressive” one, the “avoidant versus aggressive” interaction is no less painful. Most observers would blame a verbally aggressive partner for a couple troubles because of his loud and in your face style, but a passive partner who seems to turn the other cheek may secretly blame the other, refusing to take ownership of the couple’s difficulties. While the passive partner may feel bullied or abused, the aggressive partner may feel like he or she has been quietly undermined, dismissed or abandoned. The more the passive person shuts down or pulls away, the more the aggressive person leans forward and pushes in, demanding resolution or retribution because he or she feels like their partner doesn’t care.
My obvious suggestion: The aggressive partner should try backing off in order to give the passive partner room to step forward and work towards becoming more assertive in their communication. This behavior needs to be positively reinforced by empathic listening. Of course this is easier said than done because in the middle of a conflict, each partner must stop to reflect on their personal contribution to creating the difficulties.
A stop word can help. Choose a word that either partner can invoke to prevent a conflict from escalating or to call a time out to reflect and gather your words. Use the break to think about how you might be maintaining the conflict. Make a leap, stop acting defensive, and consider that what your partner is saying about you might be true. When both of you are ready, apologize for your behavior. “I’m sorry if I was ……..” Then each should talk about ways to change how you’re interacting. This dynamic generosity – the generosity of love, of support, of spirit – is especially important. One person needs to be willing to start approaching the other with generosity and the other will most likely follow suit, softening and reciprocating in this new way of being present with one another.
The “laid-back” versus the “organized” partner
Opposites attracted in this relationship, at least at first. One person was drawn to the other’s spontaneous and relaxed attitude while the other felt attracted by possibilities of greater certainty, order, and focus. Yet, over time, as the differences proved greater than imagined, each partner became increasingly frustrated. The free spirit now sees their partner as inflexible and rigid; the organizer sees the free spirit as irresponsible and flakey. The desire to change each other grows and they become locked in an unending argument over whose way of doing things should prevail.
My recommendation: Use a stop word to end the argument. Reflect on those qualities about your partner that originally attracted you. It was those qualities that are lacking in yourself and an unconscious desire to attain them that created a feeling of chemistry in the first place. Each person can do something to move closer towards the other’s style of interacting by assuming the behavior they first admired in the other. The organized partner can remind himself that just because he feels a sense of urgency, it doesn’t mean that all matters are urgent. Meditation and practicing letting go can help. For the laid back partner, practicing focus, single-mindedness, planning activities, may satisfy a secret desire for order and security and finally change the dynamic in the relationship.
The “committed” versus “one foot out the door” partner
It is very hard to make much progress in couples therapy when one person’s sense of commitment has changed. A partner may be at their wit’s end after years of frustration or unhappiness, one signature away from a lease on a new apartment. But until he or she feels ready, they have become resigned to live in the relationship, finding evidence for their unhappiness in each failed interaction with their partner. For them “the grass may be greener on the other side.” He or she has made their decision and nothing can change it. The other partner is, however, committed to making the relationship work and willing to make comprises or even sacrifices in order for it to continue.
My advice: Consider this. It’s incredibly easy to see a partner as the source of your unhappiness, and maybe sometimes they are. But just as often, they are the scapegoat for it. No one else’s life is as entwined, and it may feel as if the other is accountable for things that may actually grow from your own unresolved conflicts and unmet needs. Each partner can do a personal inventory of qualities about themselves that may have contributed to the impasse in the relationship. In other words, instead of blaming a partner, consider how your own behavior makes matters worse.
The committed partner might be served by also considering what it is they are holding on to. Are they sacrificing at all costs? Are they in love with the fantasy of what a partner or relationship “could be” rather than what they really are? Acting like the relationship has to continue as a matter of personal survival may not always serve its betterment. Sometimes a more neutral stance allows what is best to happen slowly become apparent. Don’t be so sure of anything. Despite what you think, your survival doesn’t depend on the relationship. Take an inventory of what’s valuable about yourself. If there isn’t going to be reciprocity, leave open the option that the relationship probably isn’t going to work.
Until a decision is made, stop blaming. Again, find a generosity of spirit within yourself – praise, support, and seek to make the partner’s life easier even when your feelings are hurt and resentment has been longstanding. If one partner changes his or her behavior, then chances are the other will pick up on it and do the same. Even if the relationship is ultimately not viable, you can part on more peaceful terms and enjoy kinder times as you come to your decision.
We all have it in us to be better partners. Every relationship can be improved. Relationships are never perfect and maintenance always necessary. With an attitude of generosity versus self-centeredness, self-responsibility versus blaming, open-mindedness versus defensiveness, intractable patterns can be broken and new, more satisfying ones formed.
There are many reasons to prefer being single. The lack of responsibility for another, the freedom in time and in choices. There are also many reasons to prefer being in relationship, such as the feeling of security that comes with knowing someone has your back, and the opportunity to grow and create memories with a partner who supports and respects you. Whatever you chose, honor yourself by asking yourself why it is that you seek out or avoid certain people or kinds of relationships, especially if it seems to be a pattern. Think about the ways in which you can be your best self, both alone or with a partner, and make sure that you are responsible for making that happen and don’t depend on anyone else to do it for you. If you want a relationship, seek out partners that inspire you, not only those that simply need you. Choose instead of waiting to be chosen.