Why couple therapy won’t ‘fix’ your relationship in the way you expect

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then 9504443699_d6effb8b17_zgradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

The quote above, from the Austrian poet Rilke, says something about the couple therapy process and how changes in a relationship are often achieved not by applying a new technique but rather by a gradual shift in awareness and perspective.

Many couples who are struggling in their relationships come to therapy to be fixed. Or, more accurately, they come to get their partner ‘fixed’. They hope that the therapist will tell their partner what he or she needs to do differently or what techniques the couple needs to put into practice in order to solve the problem they come with.

While there is a place for techniques and tools in helping couples tackle their problems, it is naive to think that these alone will lead to sustained improvements.

In my experience couple therapy is more of a stuttering, unpredictable process than a linear improvement. Over time I would expect a couple’s relationship to improve but it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. There may be periods where nothing seems to be improving at all.

But if the couple is able to stick with the process and hold a little less tightly their desire for a solution to their problem, something different can emerge.

Often that something different comes from each partner being willing to feel their pain, and sometimes to share it, without immediately blaming the other person.

Frequently one of the things that needs to happen in couple therapy is for each person to understand how they have contributed to the stuck place the couple finds itself in. Once we begin to recognise our own responsibility we can then stop pointing the finger so quickly at our partner. This takes the pressure off them a little, which can open up a space for something new to enter the relationship.

In my own relationship I’ve found that, when I’m unhappy about something, the simple act of being heard by my partner can make a difference. It often means that the thing that was annoying me so much doesn’t seem quite so difficult any more.

As couples we can sometimes get stuck in an “I win, you lose”  mentality, in which power struggles take over and we feel that unless we get our way it will be unbearable. The reality is that it is always going to be difficult for two people to share their lives and that we need to find ways of making space for the differences but still allowing each person to have their feelings acknowledged.

John Welwood, one of my favourite writers on relationships, says in his book Journey of the Heart, : “Techniques rarely have any impact when used as short cuts, to bypass letting a difficulty affect us, work on us and move us to find our own genuine response to it.”

(Photo courtesy of Tom Blackwell, creative commons, at Flickr.com)

 

 

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What scares us about intimacy

I think that most of us, if asked, would say that we want an intimate relationship with someone. A relationship in which we can truly be ourselves and feel close.

So why is it that so many people struggle to find this in life?

This is a complex question. But one strand to it is the fear of either being engulfed by our partner or being abandoned. In other words, we can experience our partner as either too loving/controlling/intrusive/demanding or too absent/uninterested/cold.

Our experience as infants can feed into this drama and prime us to see relationships through a particular lens. For example, an infant may experience their primary caregiver (usually mum) as being “too present” and not providing enough space and freedom for the child to explore. This chid may grow up to experience a fear of being smothered or controlled in adult relationships.

However, an infant experiencing their caregiver as sometimes cold or uninterested may be particularly sensitive to what they experience as rejection or abandonment in adult intimate relationships.

“Engulfment fears generally lead to withdrawal in relationships, while abandonment fears lead to clinging,” says therapist John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.

Each partner may at times feel a fear of engulfment or a fear of abandonment, but often each person gravitates towards a particular stance. This obviously creates tension and unhappiness.

“She’s always trying to get me to do things with her, but hates it when I just want to relax watching some sport on the TV,” he says. Or she may comment, “He seems more interested in his job and his friends than in me – I feel like he doesn’t love me.”

The effect of this is that one partner is often pushing for something more, while the other is trying to pull away – which is known as a push-pull effect.

Partners can be stuck in this dynamic for years, without understanding why they can’t seem to get genuinely close. Or people can change partners and then find the same patterns of push-pull in each new relationship.

Part of the way out of this stuck pattern is understanding how our early experiences may have influenced the way we relate to people as adults. If we can feel empathy and compassion for ourselves as a child, who felt either deprived or dominated by parents, we may be able to see our partner more clearly and take his or her behaviour less personally.

We may also find ourselves, gradually, being able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner and to let go of judging them.  Which is a good foundation for truer intimacy.

Why acknowledging our wounding helps our relationship

While most parents do the best they can, they cannot be perfect.

All of us, I would argue, have some degree of emotional wounding from childhood and the particular wounding we bring will be triggered in our intimate relationships.

While that may sound negative, and can cause lots of problems in relationships, it is also potentially positive because when we can acknowledge our own wounds – and become more aware of our partner’s – a healing can take place in the relationship.

Unfortunately, many adults are unaware of, or have buried, their emotional wounding. So, when their wounds are activated in their relationship they blame their partner for it.

Our wounding

For some children the wounding they receive from parents, or others with power over them, is severe – emotional, physical or even sexual abuse.

For many others the wounding may have been less traumatic. It could have been a parent who was not able to meet your needs because of a busy job or other commitments. Or perhaps having a sibling who seemed to get more attention or approval from one or both parents.

Some children will have grown up with a parent who was quick to anger or was controlling in other ways.

In some cases the child may have got the message that they were valued more for their achievements – their academic grades or sports performance – than just for themselves.

How it is triggered by our partner

As adults we take these earlier wounds into our relationships with partners, where they often get activated in a painful way.

Here are some examples:

  •  coupleKaren grew up with an angry father who sometimes scared her. She picked a husband who seemed very calm, but he seems annoyed more often and she feels afraid and panicked.
  • As a child Peter felt that his mother often disapproved of his behaviour, even though he tried to be a good boy. He now finds that his partner seems often disappointed in him and feels that he can never get it right for her.
  • Sarah’s father abandoned the family when she was a girl. In her adult relationships she finds herself with men who, for different reasons, seem to let her down and whom she finds it difficult to trust.

These are just some examples – there are many more.

Acknowledging and staying open to our wounding

One of the opportunities in couple therapy is for both partners to recognise and acknowledge – often for the first time – the wounds that they may be carrying from childhood.

Therapist John Welwood, in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, says that when we find ourselves shutting down in our relationship it is often because our partner’s emotional wounds have triggered our own wounding.

So, our partner may be angry about something but because we associate that anger with rejection, we shut down when they are angry. Instead of shutting down, when our partner triggers our wounds, we can try and stay open to what we are feeling and to what is going on for our partner.

“If my partner and I can learn to speak together about the wounded places that give rise to our emotional reactions, this will also help us remain more awake when the wounds are triggered,” says Welwood.

My experience in working with couples is that when they are both able to talk about and feel the feelings of that earlier wound, something can shift in their relationship. Each is able to soften slightly, and to offer their partner (and themselves) more understanding and compassion.

“Coming to terms with our woundedness helps us navigate the complex emotional dynamics of human relationship and gradually bring a more all-embracing love into this world,” says Welwood.

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

Are you a rescuer, persecutor or victim in your relationship?

Many couples that run into problems find themselves on the ‘drama triangle’. This is a model that maps the unhelpful behaviour patterns couples can find themselves in. It was developed by US psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in the 1970s.

The persecutor, rescuer and victim are all roles that people in relationships can play. These roles interact with each other, so there is always someone in a more powerful position and someone with less power.

triangleWhile individuals may shift between the different roles, they usually feel more comfortable in one of the roles, due to their personality and the behaviour patterns in their family growing up.

What are the roles?

A rescuer will often have grown up in a family where the child’s needs were not acknowledged and so he or she grew up looking after others’ needs in order to feel loved. The rescuer was the good, responsible child who avoids confrontation.

The victim got the message from their family that they were not able to handle their own problems and so grew up expecting others to step in and make things okay. They can often feel anxious about things.

The persecutor is the person who criticizes their partner. But it is important to realise that underneath the persecutor is a victim – someone who, as a child, did not have their needs met and often feels powerless. Putting their partner down helps them escape their inner self of low self-worth and makes them feel powerful.

A rescuer can be controlling

Often couples will begin their relationship with one of them in the rescuer role and the other in victim role. The rescuer gives the victim the message: “You need me to help you – just do what I tell you.” While the rescuer seems helpful and nice on the outside, they are actually being quite controlling of their partner.

The person in the victim role often feels their problems are overwhelming and they can’t cope.

The two make an unofficial deal – that the rescuer will get to feel good about themselves and feel that they are in charge, while the victim gets looked after and doesn’t have to take responsibility.

Becoming the persecutor

What can happen is that the rescuer gets fed up with their role, maybe they feel their efforts are not fully appreciated or they just feel tired out. So they then start to criticise their partner, therefore becoming the persecutor.

Another possibility is that the victim gets fed up with being the victim and becomes critical (the persecutor), which makes their partner into the victim.

The way out

The way to help a couple step out of the drama triangle is to, first, get them to see what is going on and how the two of them are usually playing one or other role. With this awareness the members of the couple can be encouraged to take more responsibility for their needs by accessing their inner ‘adult’.

The adult is that part of us that does not take too much responsibility for our partner (the rescuer), neither does it expect our partner to make us feel good (the victim). The adult is able to clearly express what he or she wants, instead of trying to manipulate or intimidate their partner to get what their needs met.

 

 

 

 

How what annoys us in our partner can teach us what we need

 

 One of the common themes in couple therapy is each partner complaining about behaviour in the other that they find really hard to deal with. ‘If only my partner would change that behaviour, then everything would be ok,’ they say to themselves.

A common example in heterosexual couples is the ‘rational’ man who finds his partner’s emotionality irritating, while she complains that he is too logical and unfeeling. Or there is the partner who is fiery and sometimes quick to anger, while the other is extremely laid back and avoids conflict.

Another instance is where one partner is very responsible, in areas such as household finances,  while the other is much more spontaneous and loves splashing out on purchases.

Opposites attract

arguing couple.thbThe interesting thing about these kind of ‘opposites attract’ couples is that, when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that often they found their partner’s differences endearing in the early stages of their relationship. So, the over-rational man was charmed and excited by his girlfriend’s high emotions, while she felt somehow secure with someone who seemed so stable.

But this initial appreciation of differences can begin to fade when the honeymoon period is over, which is usually from six months to two years into the relationship. A major life event, such as the birth of a first child, can also bring to an end this phase. At the end of the honeymoon period these opposite qualities in the other person start to seem less attractive. In fact, they can become downright annoying.

‘I loved her fieriness at the beginning, it was exciting. But now it feels more like she’s always nagging,’ he complains. She replies: ‘His laid-back nature was very reassuring when we started going out, but now it feels like he’s so determined to avoid an argument that we never resolve problems.’

Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone describe this process in their book Embracing Each Other, arguing that we are all made up of many different parts or selves. Some of these parts we feel comfortable with and others we unconsciously ‘disown’ because they were not welcomed by our family or environment growing up.

When we are in an intimate relationship all these different parts, or sub personalities, are present, they say: ‘It is not just two people who sit down for a nice, friendly, sensible chat. We each have within us numerous selves or sub personalities, each vying for attention, trying to get its needs met.’

Viewing the problem as potentially healing

A couples therapist who works in a soulful way will view the kinds of relational conflicts couples bring as not necessarily negative but as potentially playing a positive role in helping each individual to grow and mature.

This is because, although the process of falling in love is mysterious, we are often attracted to people who have a quality that we have disowned or repressed in ourselves.

So, for example, a child may grow up in a family where showing anger is taboo or the opposite,  where one of the parents is excessively angry. The child may then, unconsciously, repress his anger because it feels wrong or scary. But it is not just his anger but also his fieriness or willingness to risk confrontation by sticking up for himself that is also repressed. As an adult he may find himself attracted to fiery women because they carry that part of him that he has disowned and, at some level, misses in himself.

The therapist can help each partner to move away from such strong judgments of their partner, and instead help the individual to get in touch with their own disowned qualities. In this way, each partner can take responsibility for their own psychological growth and therefore not expect their partner to ‘carry’ all the anger or all the vulnerability or whatever the quality is that is being disowned.

 

 

The ‘four horsemen’ of relationship breakdown

American couple therapist John Gottman has been researching for many years the reasons why relationships fail.

He has identified four important reasons, which he names the Four Horsemen. These are:

  • Criticism – which is often expressed by saying ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’
  • Contempt – insulting or putting someone down in a way that shows you think they are inferior.
  • Defenstiveness – not taking responsibility for your behaviour and instead criticizing the other or finding excuses.
  • Stonewalling – refusing to talk about something or withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict. In reality, the partner who stonewalls is withdrawing as a means of punishing the other because they are communicating separation and disapproval.

In gender terms, women are more likely to criticize and men to stonewall. So, a woman may crticise her partner, who then stonewalls by ignoring her comments or withdrawing and this makes the woman angrier and so she criticizes even more.

Of these four behaviours, the most important in determining whether a relationship will survive or not is contempt. Where there is contempt expressed by one or both partners there is far less chance of them staying together.

It’s important to realise that contempt does not just mean insulting the other person but can also include sarcastic comments or even rolling your eyes to other people when your partner says something you don’t like.

The reason contempt is so poisonous to a relationship is because it is not just criticizing the other person, it is putting yourself in a superior position. It is a rejection of the other person.

Criticism vs complaint

It is better to complain, rather than criticize. By complain, I mean expressing your feeling, such as annoyance or hurt, about a specific behaviour of your partner.

Criticism is often more generalised and blaming. It often includes phrases like ‘you always…’ ‘you never…’ ‘you’re the sort of person who…’. It is hard for someone to respond constructively to this kind of criticism and they are more likely to become defensive.

A complaint would be: ‘When you forgot to get me a present for our anniversary I felt hurt and angry.’ A criticism would be: ‘You never show your appreciation for me – you just don’t care.’