Good couples therapy is complex, demanding and very, very rewarding. I’ve been at it for many years, now, and the gratification that comes with helping two people in conflict and deep distress find each other again and re-bond is just immense. Yet, what I have found, as well, is that many parts of helping couples is pretty straightforward and kind of easy. Noting, and reflecting back to people, some of the natural errors of thinking – their mistaken expectations – which only gets them in trouble comes up all the time. Here are some examples:
- Many times, a person will say or do something that is incredibly hurtful to their partner and their defense is often, “I didn’t do it on purpose.” That comment never mollifies the wounded partner. After all, if a person did miss the anniversary or leave a mess in the kitchen (despite the pleas of the other to be more aware of that), then they are either very angry (which needs to be talked about) or they are simply a sociopath (which means that the relationship is fundamentally destructive and the wounded person has some serious deciding to do). The part that hurts is the sense of neglect and not being valuable or cared for. That’s the issue to be addressed. It doesn’t help that the behavior wasn’t intentional.
- Many people still believe that “if I have to ask for it, it doesn’t mean anything.” They labor under the inevitably heartbreaking belief that to be truly loved means the other person can anticipate your needs, they know you that well. Maybe one day in the far distant future pre-marital counseling will include a procedure which permits us to mind read our partner (although I don’t think anybody would really want that). In any event, that capacity does not currently exist and it is not how adult people show love to each other. To expect love to be shown by knowing what we need without us having to tell you about it is, I believe, part of the magical thinking of childhood and that’s where we get this sadly deceptive belief. The honest to goodness truth is that many loving partners are overjoyed at the prospect of providing something to their lover, if they knew what was needed. We do have to ask for what we need. The disappointment comes when we are clear about our need and our partner refuses to provide. Again, that may be a result of anger or high defensiveness (which needs to be talked about), but from what I’ve seen, people want to show their love.
- Many couples let their connection just slip away. They take their relationship for granted. I have witnessed this frequently. Bill Doherty Ph.D., perhaps the Dean of American couples therapists has written an excellent book, Take Back Your Marriage, which is built around this very theme. Take back your marriage from your children, from work, from the computer, etc. I am lucky enough to practice in Bellevue, WA, where many couples are high functioning and extremely busy. I will often ask them to recount their interactions over the past week and they will say that they were so busy that there isn’t much to report. They hardly saw each other during the week. If people allow this to disconnect to become embedded into their relationship, they will drift away from each other and the next time they look up, their partner will be so far away that they will lose hope of ever getting them close again. That’s when the discussion of consistent “marital rituals” comes in and that, too, is a pretty easy problem to identify and discuss.