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.
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 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.
John Gottman is the pre-eminent researcher of intimate couples – both in conflict and getting along. One of Gottman’s insights – and one 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.
One of the big goals in relationship work is to help shift people who are intimately bonded from a place of defensiveness and anger to one of connection and safety. It’s a process and requires patience, but it is a goal many have achieved. One of the steps along the journey occurs when one partner will shift, if just for a moment, from that hard, self-protective, space and reach out to the other. The gesture may be a glimpse of vulnerability, or word of tenderness. It is what Gottman calls a “repair attempt” and when a couple is clicking, these repair attempts are acknowledged and reciprocated and the temperature lowers to safe levels.
However, one thing I have noticed over time is that men, more than women, tend to respond to the softening from their partner with a continued recitation of old hurts and past insults. I often wonder at this tenacious grip on earlier pains in the face of (what seems to me at least to be) ardent attempts by their partner to reach out. It seems to me that what these men are saying is that they still don’t think their partners really, deeply, understand the pain they experienced (and if my partner doesn’t understand the depth of the pain I experienced, how can I believe and trust that they will not strike out again). This dilemma points to one important goal in any successful couples therapy, which is to help the partner understand that when he brings up these old wounds it is not because he wants to continue fighting. He just desperately needs assurance that his partner is safe for him and she gets how their conflict just knocks him off his feet. He needs to hear that she does not want to hurt him so deeply and will be very careful – even if she is, herself, hurt or frightened. It may be a slow, halting process, but once that trust begins to settle in he will almost always find himself free to be who he has always wanted to be in this complex, rich, intimate dance.
Many (most) women who come into my office with their partners to work on their troubled relationships are quite high functioning. At least from my observations, these woman really display a skill in multi-tasking. Sometimes, this remarkable functionality keeps her busy – so busy that I get the impression that she’s racing to keep ahead of something. While I am not a fan of long dissections of our childhood to get at what is going on now, I also believe its impossible to understand that now without some flavor of the past. Our families of origin are where we learn our earliest and most indelible lessons. True or false – here is where we first learn about ourselves in the world. Are intimate relationships safe? Am I worthy of love? How do others really see me?
The highly effective woman will often come into my office with the most poignant, powerful dilemma. On the one hand, she has gotten it done throughout her life – often in the face of an utter absence of love and support from her important caretaker(s). She grew up believing that there was nobody she could ever really lean on. In fact, the idea of really leaning on anyone is so frightening – What if they can’t or don’t want to be there for me. What if my need is an imposition or a reason for them to judge and dismiss me as not worthy of love. Better I take care of myself.
Yet that is exactly what a close, bonded, adult attachment relationship is – Knowing that you will be there to catch me if I fall. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of. There are lots of ways that can happen for us. Guys need it in their ways. He may think of it in terms of sex or as being okay and still loved even if he screws something up. She may just need to know that she can collapse every once in a while – to be exhausted or overwhelmed or scared and it’ll be okay. She will be okay. She will still be seen as strong, worthy, desired – still be loved.
I have frequently said that a turning point in my marriage came when my on-the-go wife accepted my naps. For the first couple of years my afternoon fade into crankiness bucked up against her “How can you waste perfectly good day time,” plea. Eventually, to the blessed relief of my amygdala and the balance of life in the cosmos, weekend naps were accorded their rightful place in our home. I came across another confirmation in Slate today – an article which describes how lack of sleep contributes to heightened couple conflict.
Fatigue isn’t the only other stressor that may tax a couple. I have worked with couples who have no time with each other and haven’t since their first of three children came along or who have suffered with financial setbacks that have necessitated pulling back on a previously comfortable lifestyle or who have opened their home to one’s parents. While the heart of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is the exploration and calming of attachment-related anxieties and wounds inflicted in the whipsaw-like cycle which grabs the couple, we can never ignore the presence of stressors which attack and challenge connection we all hope to maintain in our relationships. Many years ago, Holmes and Rahe engaged in a study which attempted to identify and rate the intensity of various life stressors. A review of these events is an excellent summary of the kinds of external “psycho-social stressors” which can put pressure on a relationship and result in conflict over repeated issues – which may just be seen as symptomatic of the stress as much as (or more than) anything else. These include: trouble with the law, bankruptcy, illness, trouble with in-laws, beginning or ending a job, a child leaving home (or hitting adolescence), change in residence, change in work situation and loss of a close friend, among others. This is why, in any assessment of intimate stress, we must always ask, “What is happening now in your lives? Has anything changed recently?”
In Emotionally Focused Therapy, we speak of a cycle which captures the couple in distress. Often there will be a partner caught in the cycle who will experience deep, visceral anxiety over being left alone. That feeling of utter isolation has brought to my mind an iconic scene from Kubrick’s classic 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Frank, one of the two astronauts on the craft which is run by the malevolent computer, HAL, is performing repairs outside. HAL manages to cut Frank’s life-line and we see this desperate figure floating out into nothingness. The spot we see on the right is Frank, struggling for air….unmoored……lost. This is the image that strikes me when I hear of the desperation of the partner who feels emotionally abandoned in the relationship. She (not always, but often she) will struggle against this panic. It is Frank’s panic as he disappears into a vacuum.
So often, when one partner experiences the panic of isolation in the void the response will be heightened protest – a very intense effort to achieve some connection….some oxygen. This may be experienced by the other partner as attack. His (not always, but often his) experience brings to mind the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. The thousands of landing craft approaching the beach. Reinforced steel doors shield the soldiers from any assaults. Then, with a spin of a locking-wheel, the door swings down to create a ramp for the the soldiers to disembark. However, many of these men are decimated by machine gun fire before they can move a muscle. It is a violent assault and you want to swing those doors back up to protect the men. People who experience themselves to be the target of the anger and desperation of their partners, tend to (emotionally) curl up in a self-protective ball. Often, withdrawal to “safety” is the only conceivable step.
Thus, begins the cycle of pursuit/protest and withdrawal/protection that so many couples bring with them to couples therapy. The task we face is to slow down this rapdily spinning cycle. Over time, if we can slow it down, we can begin to create some safety in the couple’s interaction. One will feel less dismissed/abandoned/despised and the other will feel less attacked/demeaned/despised. Slowly we begin to incorporate a positive momentum in couples interactions. We create a positive cycle. I imagine a propellor on the Titanic. The scene from the movie can be accessed on the web. In a panic, the watchmen phone down to the engine room. These people have no time to reverse the course of the great ship. We watch the propellers slow to a stop and then reverse themselves.
The hope of the work we do, is to support couples in their passage from propellers spinning in their cycle at full speed – slowing to a stop – then picking back up at full speed, supporting a positive cycle.
Thank you James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick – marital theorists all!
Dan Wile, Ph.D. is a remarkably gifted – and funny – couples therapist who has written a number of fine books on the realities of joining our lives together. Two of his classics are After the Fight and After the Honeymoon. Here is what Wile has to say about the inevitable differences that arise between us in relationship:
“Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul, Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but then when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wants sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice wants when she already feels close.”
“…there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.”
I think couples in conflict often engage in two conversations. One is overt, constantly repeated and endlessly frustrating. The other is almost always unsaid – and unacknowledged. If we can get to that second conversation, we can find the peace and connection we so desperately need in our intimate relationships. Instead, we get all tangled up in the conversation that doesn’t go anywhere. Like birds flitting back and forth above us, what we see is that which transfixes us and grabs our attention. I have seen it over and over again in my office – the sad, ever-so-discouraging dance of the upper conversation that almost guarantees that both people will just….feel….bad and not feel heard by the other. This conversation is always about something. “You don’t help around the house …..I do too help. What about last week when you were tired and I vacuumed downstairs…..Oh great, thanks a lot – am I supposed to bow down because you vacuumed once?” “How come you aren’t even trying to go back to work to bring in some money?…..I have tried. You just don’t know what it’s like out there….You aren’t doing nearly enough….You have no idea what I have done.” These conversations don’t go anywhere because they aren’t’ about what’s really going on inside for each person.
The real conversation – the one that can get somewhere – is the attachment conversation. It is about our needs that are deep and tug at our hearts. These are also needs that can be satisfied once there is a safe way to express them. They can be the need to feel truly cared for – or to feel competent and valued – or to know your partner is not going anywhere. They are almost always about the need to be actually seen and still loved and accepted. This most critical and meaningful conversation can be very difficult to have without the help of a relationship professional. My bias (and observation) is that Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a wonderful platform upon which these “conversations for connection,” in Sue Johnson’s words, can occur.
I hear it so often in my office. One partner or the other (usually both) will report that in the height of some nasty fight they escalated into, one of them said something so wounding that the target is still bruised. He or she struggles with how to make sense of a world where they are supposed to be working on their relationship and at the same time things are said which couldn’t feel more destructive. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain that good people can inflict on one another when they have escalated to the outer reaches of their own cycle. It is an inescapable fact that when two people are reacting to each other from the raw and vulnerable places inside – and they are swept up in their cycle of fear, anger and reactivity, they can spin so fast (almost instantaneously) that both feel out of control. It is for sure that these deeply hurtful statements aren’t made during a placid dinner conversation right after, “Please pass the peas.” These missiles that are launched almost always occur when the cycle is spinning so fast, that the centrifugal force of both people’s emotional reactivity throws them to the extreme edge of their experience. So, rather than mull on the thing said, it’s far more helpful to view the statements as symptomatic of a cycle that has gone from “zero to 60” in a nanosceond. The path to healing is to begin to find ways to catch ourselves at the very beginning stages of this emotionally reactive cycle – to slow it down at the outset and step out of this tightly choreographed automatic dance.