When I meet with a couple for the first time there are a couple of things I want to understand about them from the outset – aside from what brings them to my office now. The first element of any assessment is their interactive process. How do these people relate? Are they volatile (or exercising a lot of self control not to be volatile in my presence)? How quickly does one or the other person become emotionally reactive and when that happens, what does their partner do in their own reaction? Emotionally Focused Couples Therapists, in their early interactions with a couple in distress, are ever vigilant for indications of this particular pair’s cycle. It’s at the heart of the healing work we do and it’s darn near guaranteed, that if a therapist can help a couple understand the process by which each becomes emotionally reactive to the other (and then is responded to with an equally emotional reaction) we have traveled leagues in the direction of creating safety and an emotionally calmer domestic environment. But there’s yet another critical part of any assessment of a couple in distress.
How is life treating them?
By this question, I mean, what sorts of natural stresses or traumas are they experiencing? When life transmits a blow that would knock anyone off their feet, it is natural that this will contribute to the stress that two people will experience – and reflect in a wicked interactive cycle of fear and distress. Pregnancy and birth of a first baby is one of those experiences. “We never argued like this before little Mitzi came alone,” is not an uncommon cry in my office. A couple who decided to marry only after they discovered their pregnancy is another example of a powerful life stressor. (Life stressors can be thought of as a finger that plucks a guitar string, setting it to vibrating energetically.) I have worked with a number of couples that found one partner, or both, moving to a new locality, away from their network of care and support. The dislocation of such an experience will cause people to bounce around in some psychic earthquake that can register beyond Richter scale readings. Illness or other challenges besetting a child, job loss or any other blow to people’s financial security, falling victim to a crime, deployment to and return from active military service, illness or disability of a parent – these and other thunderstorms that inundate people with worry and woe cannot help but set off the cycle of anxiety and painful interactions described here as a cycle. Almost always, when people come into my office, they have their subjects that they are struggling over. Yet to take that “10,000 foot view” of the problem, it is easy to see how a major life challenge has left people exposed, vulnerable and so easily subject to the interactive cycle of distress that reaches through the doors and windows of their home and infects their lives and renders them fearful and miserable. It is always helpful to give ourselves a break and understand the impact of life as it …. happens.