Couples Therapy – The Easy Stuff

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.

Ambivalent Attachment – In Childhood and Marriage

Back in the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth conducted what may be the most important psychological study ever.  It was the Strange Situation Stuambivalentdy and this link describes it clearly.  Basically, Ainsworth and her associates observed mothers and babies in the first year of their lives and then brought them into her lab where a room was set up for them – a chair for mom and toys on the floor for baby.  There were a few steps to the procedure, but basically, mom would leave the room and then return.  Ainsworth noted the reactions of the babies when mom left and when she returned.  Those reactions varied, but could essentially be classified into three categories, each of which described the “attachment” bond that existed between mother and child.   The great majority of babies were “securely attached” and they responded with great distress when mom left the room, but were able to be comforted by her upon return.  A smaller group were termed “avoidantly attached” and these babies didn’t display outwardly any distress at mom’s exit and seemed to be engaged more with their toys than her, so it seemed like they hardly noticed when she came back in the door.  Another group of babies were “ambivalently attached” and they, by far, showed the greatest distress, both upon their mother’s leaving and upon her return.  When mom came back to the room, she could not calm her child.  The baby would lean into her for comfort and then arch away from her, crying intensely.  The child would kick at her and be very hard to comfort.  Observations of these ambivalently attached babies also reflected that when mom was sitting in the room, they were often preoccupied with her continuing presence, making sure periodically that she was there.

Ainsworth and her associates found there to be a connection between the highly activated, anxious and distressed behavior of these babies and the quality of parental care and “attunement” they had received at home.  More specifically, what they had observed in the previous year of spending hour upon hour in each parent’s home was that the “ambivalently attached” babies experienced very inconsistent attutnement.  Sometimes they would be lovingly cared for when distressed and other times ignored or even rebuked.

Now comes a New York Times article which describes numerous current studies that demonstrate that the same inconsistent care and connection in marriage results in ongoing baseline, high levels of anxiety and distress.  It turns out that inconsistent, trustable, love correlates to high blood pressure, lowered immunity and other indicia of a chronic keyed-up, insecure state.  What we find so painful as babies is the same thing that undermines our well-being as adults, as we relate to our primary care-giver – be it a parent or an adult intimate partner.

Life……Happens

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 brinstormgs 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.

Therapy Thoughts – The Dramatic Epiphany

My first therapy experiences occurred in the 1970’s, when Gestalt Therapy and dramatic breakthroughs were all the rage.  Connecting with one’s inner child and going toe to toe with the oppressive, internalized parental figure was the common and popular approach.  Part of my training was with a descendant of Bob and Mary Goulding, the developers of a pvolcano.2owerful mashup of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis which they called Redecision Therapy.  I also experienced Lifespring, which was a “kinder, gentler” cousin of the notorious Erhard Seminar Training, a very intense process that would blast through people’s defenses, with the support and (I believe) coercion of their many peers, sitting in the big conference room with them.  I had dear friends who went through Lifespring and came out with heightened energy and focus.  They would repeat to me a mantra of “reasons or results” which dismissed rationalizations for not pursuing your given life path.  If people possessed the ego-strength to deal with the rapid dismantling of their carefully constructed and long-held psychological defenses, they might  benefit from this dramatic epiphany counseling.  I have colleagues today who endorse dramatic approaches such as this, but I remain skeptical, myself.  It has been my observation (and experience) that dramatic “breakthroughs,” when facilitated (or engineered) by a therapist have a continued risk of falling back into previous modes of thought and behavior, unless reinforced thereafter.  It seems to me another example of the tendency to find a single “magic bullet” which will cure distress, without the investment of time and care which accompanies the incremental change that is more organic and less sudden.

While therapy that works will often find a person experiencing a moment (or moments) of epiphany, these, alone are not enough.  More importantly, if the groundwork isn’t laid, if we don’t carefully approach the molten material laying inside, the hoped for healing will be pushed beyond our current grasp.  I have worked with some gifted, resourceful and wise therapists over the years.  Those who supported me while I moved through my changes, at my speed and with the inner resources I then possessed, were among the greatest gifts of my life.  People can only do….well, what they can do.  Working with anyone in pain who is seeking relief will always entail a delicate and rich dance.  A therapist has many tasks and they include support and protection of the wounded heart that sits within us as well as the gentle prod which over the course of the work facilitates change.  I worked for two years when I first arrived in the Northwest with a blessedly wonderful woman, Peg Blackstone who, I grieve to say, died some years ago.  Peg taught me this lesson and I thank her in my mind and heart repeatedly.  Change is organic.  It is incremental and very personal.  Much of what we do that now causes us distress is almost always a useful strategy we devised long ago to protect ourselves.  So much energy went into this protective effort, which for so long was so vital, that when the threat receded, we were left with a strongly held suit of protective armor.  That armor separates us from the love and connection – the peace – we crave, but to simply step out of this suit will leave us naked and vulnerable.  We need to grow a new protective skin – which isn’t quite so thick.  Watch your skin next time you cut or scrape yourself.  Your body tells you – healing is incremental.

It’s Not Complicated – Acknowledgment Rules!

I often hear clients in couples therapy ask for “tools.”  I’m usually a bit wary of these requests, because exercises and tools tend to get shed and forgotten when jagged conflict blasts through the windows and doors.  “I” statements that sound so sensible and helpful in a therapist’s office morph, with high stress and conflict into, “I think you’re a thoughtequationless piece of crap,” or worse.  However, there is one set of rules that are so reliable they could be reduced to a mathematical formulas.

Partners in chronic conflict are beset with a firm fixation on their hurts, disappointments and violations, experienced at the hands of the other.  We try so desperately hard to get the other to understand how their behavior hurts us.  Yet, with dogged consistency, the other will either argue back, shut down or (maybe this is the worst) agree that they should do better and then continue the same dispiriting behavior.  Any of these responses are guaranteed to stimulate within us a need to repeat the message with greater volume and intensity.   So here are some basic rules that will help extricate struggling intimates from this maddening cycle.  Rule 1: Acknowledging what your partner is doing right =:Lowering of the stress between you. Rule 2: Lowering the stress between you + acknowledgment = Increase in the behavior you are seeking.  Rule 3: Continuing to mostly point out your partner’s shortcomings will lead to continued troubling behavior from them as they give up on trying to satisfy and please you.

While this rule also applies if you are dealing with a recalcitrant kid or a frustratingly under-performing employee, we see it almost all the time with couples in distress.  Think back of the last time you wanted to give to someone you cared about.  How did it feel when their face beamed and you knew you had satisfied them?  Now think of the last time you made the same attempt to please them and they not only failed to acknowledge your effort in their direction, but criticized you?  Just like an unwavering mathematical formula – just as surely as E=mc² – you will discourage further efforts with criticism and encourage further efforts with acknowledgment.  Of course, the highly distressed and frustrated individual might respond, “That’s all well and good, but why should I have to bow down and kiss his/her feet if they do only what I’ve been asking for over and over and over again?”  The answer is…the formula.  If you want positive behavior, acknowledge it.  U.W.’s John Gottman says that a solid relationship has a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction.  That’s close to the relationship of positives to negatives you’re looking for.

It is also important to know that the loneliness, hurt or distance you have been experiencing – and trying to get your partner to understand – will be much more easily transmitted and taken in if  the level of anger, dissatisfaction and despair are lowered and your intimate environment becomes safer.  Acknowledgment doesn’t have to include brass bands and hosannas. Usually that’s not really called for anyway.  Yet, a nod and a statement of acknowledgment and appreciation will be infinitely more effective in getting the behavior and care one craves than a reminder of how hurtful or disappointment that person is.  I’d suggest, as a tool, you try it for a week or two and see if it doesn’t start shifting your partner’s behavior.  It might be incremental at first, but remember that almost no significant change is dramatic.  Our lives are organic.  Every change is incremental – but one block adds to another and over time a strong structure is in place – built day-after-day with those incremental positive changes.

Therapy Thoughts – How Often to Come In?

There was a time when I would be very accommodating to couples who wanted to come in every other week or every three weeks.  The reasons calendar.were certainly understandable.  Finances are always a consideration.  Many couples are very busy and have to work to squeeze in a couples therapy appointment when they can.  Two jobs and children will do that to you!  Then, a while ago, I realized that this was a big mistake and a disservice to my couples.  Here’s why –

Albert Einstein shared this brilliant insight: We cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem.  No better words could describe effective relationship therapy. In a prior post I discussed the rule that what couples are talking about really isn’t what they are talking about.  To repeat what I said there, people come into a therapist’s office locked into this repeated disagreement that is driving them nuts.  A very common example many of us have experienced involves division of household chores.  The woman, usually, complains (often bitterly) that he does not help around the house.  She feels like his maid and she is very angry about that.  The man will often respond that this is just not so.  Why, just two days ago, he did all the dishes after dinner and she gives him no credit for the mowing, gutter work and other chores he performs.  Her exasperated reply is that he doesn’t understand.  It’s the day-to-day chores that keep the house running that all fall on her.  He gets defensive and comes up with more evidence of his own contributions.    Many maddening couples’ conflicts look like debates.  One person states their side.  The other responds by stating their side.  The first repeats what they said to begin with, maybe trying to say it a different way, maybe ladling on more supportive evidence.  Whatever the words that spill forth, these conflicts usually reduce down to “I’m right,.”  “No, I’m right.” “No, I’m right.”   Like I said earlier, it drives these poor people nuts.  The chance of a satisfying resolution falls just behind that of Donald Trump converting to Islam and losing the wig.

One of the keys to effective Emotionally Focused Therapy is the dawning understanding by each partner that the process of their conflict is what needs healing.  They will never resolve the content of their disagreements without understanding and finding the safety to share the needs that underlie the cycle of conflict.  The content is a proxy for what’s really eating at each of them.  Understanding their particular cycle will almost always lower the anxiety and energy which fuels the intense and painful conflicts they endure.  Yet, this is a new way of thinking.  Without consistent reminders and the efforts of a therapist who can point out who the raging disputes over……whatever is upsetting them, a couple will fall back into the thinking that brought them into the therapist’s office to start with.  Thus, if couples only come in once every two or three or four weeks during the initial phase of this work, they will almost never get it.  They will spin round and round in their cycle.  They’ll maybe get it during a particular meeting, but then completely lose the thread if the gap is greater than a week.  So, really, in this kind of work, any schedule for meetings that extends beyond one week, is, I believe, a waste of time and money.  My recommendation – don’t engage in relationship counseling (particularly Emotionally Focused Therapy) unless you are willing to devote the first three or four months to weekly meetings.

Therapy Thoughts – Ending Sessions

door.closeCouples therapy sessions last anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes.  Any less than an hour isn’t enough time for themes to develop in the room and people given enough space to explore them together to a satisfying resolution.   Plenty of times, an important subject isn’t raised, or sensitive button pushed, until midway through a meeting and ending on the 50 minute or hour mark feels like an abrupt and unsettling “hard stop.”  More frequently than I, or other couples therapists, would like to admit or experience, even the 90 minute duration won’t end in a nice feeling of something valuable having been tied up, with the clients released back into their world carrying a helpful insight into each other or with a meaningful connection made.  I think one difference between an experienced couples therapist and a newer professional is the ability to manage our own anxiety when a session ends with that unsettling static still in the air.  One person may be holding back (more) tears.  The other may be get up from their seat and hand you their payment in stony silence.  A worry passes through the therapist’s mind, “Will they come back?  Did I blow it somehow?”  Well, welcome to the world of the therapist as a living, breathing person.  We want to help – that’s why we’re in this business.  So, you can imagine the uneasiness when a couples session ends with simmering anger and complicated feelings still spinning within and between the partners.  It’s important for everyone to take a deep breath and realize that these harsh-feeling endings are not a disaster for clients or the work you are doing.  Almost never will a couple feel so distressed after a session that they will decide to abandon the couples therapy altogether.  In fact, oftentimes, couples return the next week and report that they found a way to work through that difficult patch and, while the therapist is all ready to continue with the theme that ended the last session, the people have come in with something entirely different to talk about.  While it is important for therapists not to become anxious about unfinished endings, it is equally important for couples who emerge from such sessions to understand that it’s okay and normal in the world of couples work to periodically end on an off-note.  It happens.  It will be okay.

Lawyers and Personal Conflict

angry.couple.1I like lawyers.  Some of my oldest, dearest friends are lawyers.  It’s really the same thing that has me coming back year after year to teach counseling skilargumentls to law students.  Lawyers, as people, are smart, funny, generally very positive and full of life.  This is even more so for law students – with their youth and energy.   Yet one thing has always bemused me about lawyers – They are a conflict resolution profession that hates interpersonal conflict.  Take mediation, for example.  The classic approach to mediation is to sit the disputing people down together and have them talk to each other.  The mediator’s job is to help this process by creating a safe environment where each person will have their space to express what’s on their mind and help in phrasing it in a way that is both true for the speaker and also said in way that can be heard without defensiveness.  It is almost guaranteed that if we are accused of something (or feel we are being accused) we will automatically become defensive and the speaker will be hugely frustrated at the fact that they are not being heard.  This is just one of the realities of interpersonal conflict resolution – helping people speak to each other in a productive fashion.  Lawyers, however, find the possibility of sitting in the presence of emotion that can become hot and possibly escalate to be too potentially destructive, so they choose, almost invariably, to separate the people (or groups) in argumentdispute.   This is kind of consistent with one of the most poignant elements of lawyers’ discomfort with conflict – how they fight at home.

One of the real problems with legal training is that lawyers feel they have to “win” an argument.  Often by “winning” this means being able to explain their position either clearly enough or with enough supportive evidence (and examples from the past) that their partner will ultimately relent and admit that they are right.  So how does one deal with the reality that you don’t “win” marital arguments?  When what is at stake is each person’s deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities, “winning” seems beside the point.  It certainly won’t get us what we want, which is peace and connection.  I wrote a blog post about a year or so ago about the two different conversations couples have when they are in conflict.  The one that we try to win is the unwinnable one.  How’s that for a conundrum?  The way out of it, I think, is to understand that no relationship will touch on our deepest needs, fears and vulnerabilities like our intimate partnership.  If we are going to have these feelings, this is going to be the place.  Learning to understand them, express them, listen to them and connect with them, while often uncomfortable, is the way out of that maze.

That Intuitive Sense of Safety

As one who has worked in the field oembracef intimate relationships for many years, one abiding fascination of mine is the question: What draws us to our partner?    Sadly, many who are in conflict and estranged don’t remember, or dismiss the idea that they were really attracted at all.  As Dan Gilbert says in his wonderful book Stumbling to Happiness, we see both the past and the future through our present experience.  So if we’re really alienated from our lover, we have an almost impossible time thinking of how we felt when we were first drawn to that person.  However, I have observed another reality in my work.

When we get beyond the physical attraction and compatibility, I find over and over that what drew individuals to one another is the force of an intuitive sense of safety.  Like magnetic attraction, it is unseen and not easily measured, while at the same time, it is intense in its invisible strength.   Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based upon Attachment.   This is a deep need in the center of our being for connection and it exists in all of its intensity when we are infants and persists until our dying day.  However, many of us (perhaps most of us) had these tender, vital and consuming needs thwarted when we were very young.  This left many with a deep, yet not consciously recognized, sense of shame for our fundamental being (after all this is what was rejected when these needs were unfulfilled).  Perhaps we may not resonate to the word or notion of “shame” but somewhere inside we carry some combination and gradation of feeling completely alone or inadequate or unlovable.  We may silently despair of ever being with another person and being truly accepted – to find that safe harbor where we don’t have to protect ourselves from buffeting winds of judgment or rejection “if they really knew what was inside.”  Most of us who carry these wounds inside, learn to cope and carry on.  We can be very attractive, smart, sociable, supportive, accomplished or supremely self-sufficient.  Any one or a combination of these attributes – or any number of others – help us get through life.  Yet, there is a niggling voice, if we are attuned to it, which yearns for a safe place – “where I can be myself.”

I think what often draws us into the intense bond of an adult intimate relationship is that the voice whispers to us (so that whether we actually hear it, the voice registers) that “Here, you have found someone who understands.”  Somehow, you intuitively sense that this person may have experienced loss, or fear, or shame in the recesses of their early life that somehow resonates with your own and that they are safe.  If this is so, then it certainly explains the intensity of the hurt, anger and sense of betrayal when, in the throes of the inevitable intimate conflict, this person flips from uniquely safe, to dreadfully unsafe.  To have taken the risk to open up, only to be judged and rejected is horribly destabilizing.

But there is good news!  With time and working with a good couples therapist, we can find that the judgment and rejection were actually the reaction of their partner to their own fears and pain of feeling rejected themselves.  It takes time, but that safety can be regained.   This will be the subject of future posts.

The 69%

John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along.  One of Gottman’s insights – and onedifferences I find of, perhaps, the greatest value – is this: Of all the couples he has studied – with those who separate after a brief time together to those who are together for 60 years (and through all those years others marvel at what a strong, enduring bond they display) – among all of these couples, roughly 69% of their conflicts are perpetual.  They will never be resolved.  Put another way, if each person is waiting for the other to just compromise (“If they’ll move a little toward me, I’ll move toward them.”) each will be continually disappointed, irritated and estranged.  It’s just not going to happen – for either person.  The areas of conflict  are myriad and examples provided by Gottman include differences in: Approach to finances; Preferred love-making style or frequency; Approach to child-rearing; Sociability; Relationship to extended family or in-laws; Emotional expressiveness; Work before play vs. Play before work; Neatness/Organization; Private time vs. Alone time; Punctuality; Activity level; Religious observance and Approach to conflict.

Think about it.  Of these differences (and others) about 69% will be there on the first day of the relationship and remain until the 60th year.  “Why, then, don’t all relationships blow apart?” you might ask.  Excellent question.  The couples who endure and thrive are those who are able understand and appreciate the underlying values that support the other’s approach.  Also, it is so important to understand that the other’s persistence in making their way through the world in their way is not a rejection of us or a statement that we are not important (after all they are probably feeling that they are not important to us because if they were, we would not be so upset about them being the way they are).  I have seen many people sigh with relief, and lower their shoulders in relaxation at the understanding that this difference is not a toxic and irredeemable flaw in their relationship, but, rather just something that comes with all connections between two different people and which is shared by long, long term relationships.