The emotional and psychic pain brought on by problems in relationships can be devastating.
The intensity of the stress stems from the fact that our romantic relationships are where our hearts and minds naturally go for sustenance and shelter in this harsh and fragmented world of ours. When this primary support system breaks down, when relating with our partners is more a source of tension and frustration than it is comfort and nourishment, then we are that much more insecure – in our homes, in the world and in our own skin.
There are many dimensions to the relationship and couples therapy that I provide in my Manhattan therapy practice, but for today, I want to address an issue that must be dealt with effectively at the outset of relationship and couples therapy:
How do we deal with the past and the intense feelings that go with it?
owning the past (but not living in it)
To take ownership of (but not live in) the past means that we take what has been good and bring it forward, while learning to let go of, and grow beyond, the relational patterns that have been producing so much hurt and pain.
This approach involves helping couples to begin cultivating certain skills and attitudes at the outset of therapy. These include:
- Constructive communication – self-expression of thoughts and feelings that is honest and real, while also being constructive and forward moving. This is radically different than the ‘attack/defend mode’ of communication that couples often fall into as a result of feeling hurt, angry, frustrated and hopeless.
- Taking responsibility – the attitude and perspective that each partner in a relationship needs to adopt, which states that “the problem” is NOT your partner; it’s the negative patterns of communication and behavior that EACH PERSON plays a part in perpetuating.
As couples practice these skills and attitudes (inside and outside of therapy), they begin to have a visceral sense that – “Yes, it IS possible for us to change the negative patterns and to rebuild our connection.” As hopelessness slips away, new possibilities begin to emerge.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we must address the emotional aspect of the past. Undoubtedly there have been disappointments, betrayals, broken promises, failed attempts to connect and exchanges of cruel sentiments. Thus, we are faced with the question:
intense emotions about the past
When couples enter therapy, they are very often (and quite understandably) drawn toward ‘venting’ their frustrations, hurts and resentments. This is a natural response to the pain that has been created by so much conflict and distance. The intense FEELINGS that people harbor make perfect sense, but the idea that we can simply ‘get the feelings out’ without consideration of how it impacts the relationship is actually quite counter-productive.
Thus, it’s vital as a couples therapist to take great care to provide clear and supportive guidance that ensures the conversations in therapy are useful and productive – not simply more of the same fighting (i.e. attack, defend, blame, criticize, withdraw, yell, etc.) that they do at home.
Of course we are all guilty of sometimes going on the attack, criticizing and becoming defensive when we are in pain. We do this because it offers us a momentary release/reward of adrenaline and because it’s how we learned to respond to our feelings of hurt and anger. However, we pay a high price when we engage in such behaviors because they perpetuate the very dynamics that have caused so much hurt and mistrust in the first place.
And sure, couples almost always do ‘some’ venting in the therapy session, but it is remiss for any therapist to sit passively and let couples flounder in their familiar patterns. Couples come to therapy precisely because they NEED HELP TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY – a principle that I take very seriously.
managing emotions & communicating effectively
I have found over and over again that helping partners take responsibility and communicate more effectively includes helping each partner recognize and successfully manage his/her own emotional experience. This involves helping partners increase not only their emotional awareness, but also their options regarding how to handle (and give expression to) their thoughts and feelings.
I have clients ask themselves a range of questions, including:
- What feelings do I repeatedly experience in this relationship – and what do I do with them? [Yell? Withdraw? Sulk? Get overly controlling? Get overly compliant?]
- What do I want and need from my partner that would help me to feel safer and more secure in the relationship?
- What are some things I do that I KNOW irritate my partner, perpetuate tension in the relationship – yet I do them anyway?
- What are some things I can do on a regular basis to make my partner feel safer and more secure in this relationship?
Such questions, and the conversations they lead to, are just the beginning.
A priceless result of effective couples therapy is emotional growth for each partner – and the recognition that we need not stay stuck in destructive patterns, that together we can begin to make different choices and to create new realities. I’ve seen time and again that once people are sufficiently helped to develop the tools to communicate better and to stay connected to their partners, they use those tools.
The relationship gets better.