When Tom and Jane arrived for their first ever session of marriage counseling, Jane was “loaded for bear” and Tom was on the defense, but prepared for the attack, with a hand-written list of complaints. He wouldn’t have been there at all, except that Jane had given him an ultimatum – marriage counseling or divorce. Whew! I had my work cut out for me! (And you thought your job was hard!)
There were so many things wrong with this scene. First of all, it’s so tough when couples wait until they’re on the verge of divorce to find their way to my office.
Second, both of them expected to lay out their argument, or list of complaints, have me listen, decide who was right and who was wrong, and do something to set the other guy straight, thereby solving the problem. Because nine times out of ten, people come in wanting me to “fix” their partner.
But that is not what couple counseling is about. In reality, most of the time the issue is not really what people are fighting about at all. Most of the time, these two people who started out loving each other and looking forward to a shared future, have somehow lost their connection, their sense of trust and confidence that the other would be there for them when they needed support. There have been hurt feelings, disappointments, and anger. They may feel like they can’t do anything right in their partner’s eyes, or they may feel that their partner doesn’t really care about them. Scratch the typical complaints that couples make, and underneath this is what you find.
Sure, most people need better communication techniques. Most of us learned how to deal with conflict, solve problems and talk about difficult subjects rather haphazardly. So most of us could really benefit from a little bit of education in this area. But underneath it all, so often, it’s emotional distance that’s the real culprit.
An important study by Ted Huston of the University of Texas shows that the lack of emotional responsiveness is a better predictor of how solid a marriage is than the amount of conflict they experience. It appears that we’ve had the cart before the horse, and that it’s a lack of emotional responsiveness that leads to an increase in conflict, rather than the other way around. If in counseling you just focus on the complaints, you may never get to what’s really important; the loving connection and trust that’s been damaged and needs repair. This is the heart of the matter, and where the true work is done.
It is generally not apparent to couples that most fights are really protests against emotional disconnection. When we’re not sure if our partner cares and is there for us, it triggers a very uncomfortable feeling for us, and can set off our fight or flight reaction. So we either go on the attack and complain, or we retreat. We need to know that we can count on our partner to be there for us. Successful relationships have an underlying tone of “I love you and your happiness is important to me”. This is so validating, so secure and comfortable. It goes back to our primary parent/child relationship, and is played out again (more equally) in our love relationship.
So in couple counseling, you can see that the task is not to listen to each person’s complains about the other and “decide who is right or wrong” and “fix” the one who is wrong. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead, we work on re-establishing the connection that’s been damaged through hurts, injuries, misunderstandings, anger and resentments. Once the connection of love and trust – of being there for one another – is re-established, couples generally find they can resolve their differences much more easily, as they are working together again. They are back on the same team.
Jane and Tom, fortunately, were able to get this connection back. Although there had been a lot of hurt and anger, the love was still there, and they were able to find their way back to a loving, supportive relationship. Sure, they still had issues to work through, but now they had the confidence that they could work through them together. Was it easy? Of course not. But we all agreed it was well worth it.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.