After writing about emotions in the last two issues, it seems like a good time to talk about changes in the way couple counseling is being done these days by some professionals, myself included.
Often, when a couple calls for an appointment, they describe the problem as “communication”, or “arguing”. This is what it feels like to them, what the problem seems to be. They are caught in a pattern of arguing or silent withdrawal that they can’t seem to find a way out of.
John and Donna are an example of one of the most typical patterns. Donna criticizes John; he gets defensive and angry, and in no time, they are in a fight. Most of the time the fight is not over anything truly important, but it just seems like they cannot stop the constant arguing.
Or maybe they have a couple of themes that just keep coming up and never getting resolved.
Tim and Jane are an example of another very typical pattern. Jane tends to be critical of Tim, and, feeling he can never get it right, Tom retreats into his garage or his computer and avoids her. Jane is then more upset, and more critical, and the pattern becomes entrenched.
What’s going on here? These people love each other, are committed to their relationships, but find themselves struggling and not understanding why. Are Donna, Jane and John just critical, complaining unhappy people? Is Tim really just a loner that shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place? Do they all just need to learn to communicate better?
Actually, there’s more to the story than meets the eye, if you look. The criticism and complaining are not the problem; they are the symptom.
We do not grow apart because of criticism and complaining. It’s the other way around. We criticize and complain because we’ve grown apart. So improving communication is not going to be enough; we need to look a little deeper.
Behavior that appears irrational makes sense when you understand what’s really going on. Generally what came first was a sense of growing apart, of the couple bond not being as strong as it was or should be. This creates a sense of unease, usually first noticed by the female, as women generally tend to be more sensitive to emotional nuances. However, we may not have the awareness, skills or courage to productively express this concern, this longing to re-establish the closeness and connection we crave. Often instead we start finding fault. Since nobody’s perfect, there is always fault to be found, and it can feel like a real complaint, but it’s actually a diversion from the truth. Of course, the partner who is being criticized cannot possibly know that, and responds defensively with either anger and counter-attack or withdrawal. Since this further damages the feelings of closeness and caring, the cycle escalates and continues. Most couples don’t even recognize that they are caught in a cycle, like being caught in a sticky spider web.
So the solution lies not in improving communication, but in strengthening the bond, the connection that has become frayed by life, disappointments, and experiences. It’s so important to have that feeling of closeness, of being each other’s number one supporter and best friend. Of having each other’s back, and celebrating successes together. When we have that, we are able to overlook or deal with some of the things that seem so irritating when we don’t have that connection. The tone of the relationship changes and becomes more comfortable, positive, and loving. For me, it’s one of the most satisfying things in my work to be able to facilitate this and watch couples fall back in love.
If you’d like to learn more, check out Dr. Sue Johnson’s recent book, Love Sense, or schedule a consultation with a psychologist or marriage counselor trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy.