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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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.

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.’

Handling conflict in relationships

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When we are annoyed or hurt by something our partner has said or done, how can we express our feelings in a way that they will really hear what we are saying?

A common approach in couple conflicts is to accuse our partner of ‘making’ us feel angry, upset or sad by their behaviour. While at times it might be ok to use this approach – sometimes we need to blow off steam – it often fails, as it tends to put the other person on the defensive.  It also allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our feelings.

This kind of criticism is often accompanied by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, such as, ‘You always take the kids’ side against me’ or ‘You never listen to me’. Again, this kind of blaming language is unlikely to get the other person to genuinely talk about the grievance you have.

While there needs to be a place for argument and conflict in any relationship, if a couple is in the habit of dealing with conflict in an accusatory and blaming way it is unlikely to help resolve problems.

Compassionate communication

One approach to avoiding this kind of blaming is called ‘compassionate communication’, also known as ‘nonviolent communication’. This approach, developed by American Marshall Rosenberg,  can be used with our partners or anyone else we may find ourselves in conflict with. It has four components:

  • Observation – we tell the other person what they are doing that we don’t like. But we do this without judging the behaviour.
  • Feelings – we say how we feel when they behave like this: afraid? Sad? Hurt? Irritated?
  • Needs – we say what needs of ours are being affected by their behaviour. For example, our need to be respected.
  • Requests – this is when we tell the other person what we want from them that will improve the situation.

An example: Sue is feeling more and more frustrated by how little emotional contact Michael is willing to offer. Many women would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so closed off? It drives me up the wall!’ While understandable, this kind of response is likely to make Michael even more closed off.

Shifting the energy

But when the complainant can be specific about exactly what behaviour she is unhappy with and what her feelings and needs are it can shift the energy away from blame.

So Sue could say: ‘When I get home and you don’t ask me about how my day was I feel lonely inside and distanced from you.’

She may add that this means her need for emotional closeness with her partner is not being met. She may then make a request. This could be that they agree to spend some time, perhaps over a glass of wine or while cooking the meal, re-connecting with each other by talking.

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg says that when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.

He says:  ‘Through its emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as to others – nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.’

 

 

What’s your attachment style and how does it affect your relationships?

2165411154_7058f0ae06It may seem strange to believe, but the way we grow up relating to our parents – our ‘attachment style’ – has a big impact on how we get on with romantic partners as adults.

When we realise our particular attachment style, and that of our partner, we can more easily understand the cause of arguments and disharmony

British psychologist John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, arguing that the bonds formed between infant and mother/caregiver had a lasting impact on a person’s life and relationships.

There are three main attachment styles:

  • Secure – these children develop trust in their caregivers and know that their needs will be met. As adults they are able to form trusting relationships and value intimacy.
  • Anxious/ambivalent – these children get the message that they cannot always rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. As adults they are worried that they cannot trust their partner and they may appear ‘needy’ or obsessed.
  • Avoidant – these children also got the message they could not depend on their caregiver.  In response they become self-reliant and independent. As adults they may devalue the importance of intimate relationships and fear getting too close to their partner.

Often in romantic relationships one finds people with secure attachment styles end up together and are able to form generally harmonious and trusting relationships.

The people that come to couple therapy tend to be from the third of the population that have anxious or avoidant styles. Often someone with an anxious attachment style, frequently but not always female, will get together with an avoidantly attached partner, frequently but not always male.

This is a recipe for unhappiness. The anxiously attached partner will often be possessive or jealous, seeking reassurance and comfort. The avoidantly attached partner, who values their independence and devalues ‘emotionality’, will feel boxed in and under pressure and react by seeking even more emotional distance. This, in turn, leaves the anxiously attached person feeling abandoned.

It is this vicious circle that can be so damaging and the fact that each partner is not aware of their attachment style and how it is affecting the relationship. Part of couple therapy is to bring these unconscious ways of relating to the surface so that they can be acknowledged and worked on.

By talking about attachment styles the therapist can more easily help the individuals look at their behaviour in a non-defensive way and not to see it as necessarily ‘wrong’. The avoidantly attached partner can be encouraged to gradually open up and connect more, while the anxiously attached partner is encouraged to back off a little bit in their demands.

These small changes can free up some valuable space for the couple to look at how they relate to each other. Recognising each other’s attachment style can help them make these changes because they take the other’s behaviour less personally and are more willing to question their own habits of relating.

Photo from Moriza at Flickr creative commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/

The role of affairs in relationships

Your heart is not living until it has experienced pain…the pain of love breaks open the heart, even if it is hard as a rock.

– John Welwood

If you find out your partner has had an affair it can be one of the most devastating experiences possible. The shock, sadness and anger experienced by the betrayed partner are often what bring a couple to therapy.

In couple therapy we need to give a place to these feelings and to acknowledge the hurt and the breakdown in trust the affair has caused.

But, if we are working from a soulful perspective, we also need to look below the surface, at what the affair may be signaling about deeper issues in the relationship.

In a paradoxical way, while not devaluing the pain and damaged trust that an affair can bring, it is possible that exploring the deeper meaning can actually help a couple improve their relationship in the longer term.

Getting to this place is a gradual and often difficult process. It will depend on the betrayer being willing to take responsibility for their actions and the painful consequences. The hurt partner also will need, in time, to look beyond the immediate experience of anger and distress.

At a basic level, one partner having an affair is signaling that something is not working in that relationship. This may be because one partner is feeling, either consciously or unconsciously, neglected.

When a couple has children, for example, many fathers experience feelings of neglect and exclusion, alongside the more acceptable feelings of joy and elation. If they are not fully conscious of the more troubling feelings and not able to talk to their partner or another trusted person about them, they can find themselves caught up in an affair in which they feel ‘special’ again.

Similarly, a woman whose partner seems to be constantly working or disinterested in her may find herself, without consciously intending to, drawn into an affair with someone who attends to that part of her that feels neglected.

At an unconscious level the affair can be a signal by one partner that they want more attention. When the other partner finds out about the affair it can, therefore, is a catalyst to looking at what may be missing in the relationship. But that transformative effect is more likely to happen if the couple is able to work through their feelings in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, such as couple therapy.

It may emerge in explorations of the feelings around the affair that earlier ‘betrayals’ have been re-awakened, such as the anger and despair of a child whose father or mother abandoned the family.

It may transpire that the partner having the affair seeks romance with others as a way of avoiding intimacy with his or her main partner. The couple therapist may ask, what is it about intimacy that this person fears? And what about the other partner, are they colluding in an avoidance of deeper intimacy?

These kinds of questions can help the couple look at their relationship and the expectations, hopes, fears and disappointments that they bring to it. Out of this can, potentially, emerge something different – a new and more authentic way of relating.

Helping both partners get in touch with earlier emotional wounding can shed light on the possible role of the affair and how it can, potentially, help them come to terms with earlier, unresolved pain.

Couple therapists Hal and Sidra Stone argue in their book Embracing Each Other that the partner having the affair is often acting out a deeper unmet need of that individual and of their relationship.

For example, a very responsible family man may find himself in a romance with a very sensual, free woman. He falls for her because, at a deeper level, she allows him to connect with his disowned wildness.

Or a woman who, with her husband’s encouragement, gave up her studies and career plans in order to be a stay-at-home mother, may find herself having an affair with a man who values her intelligence and ambition.

‘There is usually an intense pull to have an affair when something within wishes us to break form and move ahead,” say Hal and Sidra Stone. But an affair can be used either to maintain the status quo or to risk something new – it can shore up a relationship that lacks important elements or it can be a catalyst that releases new energies, ‘and either changes or ends our current relationship’.

But there are rarely clearcut resolutions or complete closure when it comes to affairs.

There is always the possibility that the ‘victim’ partner will be so hurt by the affair that they are unable or unwilling to continue the relationship, even if the other partner is genuinely taking responsibility for their actions and the consequences.

Nevertheless, as psychotherapist and author John Welwood argues, to allow ourselves to truly feel the pain of betrayal can lead to a deeper understanding.

Referring to a male client, whose pattern has been to end relationships by having affairs but who now finds that his partner has had an affair, Welwood writes in Journey of the Heart: “He began to realise that his pain was not just about being betrayed. On a deeper level, it was also a sorrow about never having given himself fully to a relationship. In opening to this sorrow he saw all the ways he had kept himself apart from Sarah, just as he had with women all his life.”