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)

 

 

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.”