Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

The One Thing That Prevents Couples From Changing and the Question That Can Fix It

change is good photoI was walking through a store the other day when a simple painted sign stopped me in my tracks. It read, “Change is good….you go first.” I immediately picked it up to check the price, thinking, “I absolutely have to get this for my office.” It succinctly describes one of the biggest ongoing dilemmas I face as a marriage therapist. It sits on a small cupboard in an alcove halfway between the path from my waiting room to my office, and as I walk past it several times daily, I’m hoping it will somehow inspire my married couples who feel so stuck in their difficult relationships.

Why is it that so many people may have increased insight about what they might need to do to change their relationships and yet feel restricted from altering negative patterns that maintain relationship distress?

The short answer is fear. This might seem confusing at first. Many people are removed from any awareness that fear might be keeping them stuck. However, upon investigating the layers of emotion that lie beneath the frustration and unyielding hopelessness that are so close to the surface for most distressed couples, there are long-buried softer raw emotions that bear the scars of previous relationship wounds.

Years of distress are inevitably entwined with multiple instances of hurt and invalidation. The longer people experience relationship pain, the more they don armor laced with more protected emotions: frustration and anger, which feel more powerful, and distance us from additional potentially harmful circumstances, or numbness and apathy, which display a lack of feeling manifested from desensitization to repeated hurtful interactions.

Both emotions are effective in the short-term for protecting us from partners who have hurt us in the past and who might hurt us in the future. Unfortunately, they are emotions which also prevent the potentiality for safe emotional bonding and connection.  

When people are hurt in relationships over time, the hurt breeds fear of being hurt again. It’s easy for me to view it with a military metaphor, because sadly, it is illustrative of two people warring on different sides. In short, it’s as if couples are dug down in foxholes to protect themselves from verbal artillery from their partners. Each wants desperately to come out waving the white flag to invite a truce and repair, but each is afraid that if he/she comes out first, the other will still be armed and use figurative weapons to harm the now disarmed and vulnerable partner.

It’s a game of relationship chicken to see who will capitulates first, and is loaded with perception of being the weaker partner. Since neither wants to be weak nor wounded, both stay hunkered down in their fixed positions.

Ultimately, you cannot create secure emotional bonding without vulnerability, which means there is always the potential for harm. C.S. Lewis said it like this, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

In other words, couples will stay protected, but their relationships will likely be “irredeemable,” which means that they will not be saved, improved or corrected.

Many if not most couples continue to come to couples therapy hoping their partners will be the ones to make the first move, while they continue to stay protected from potential harm. I’m usually trying to create safety for both partners to simultaneously drop their weapons and risk new engagement outside of the figurative foxholes. This is a very common and yet tricky reality to navigate. The conundrum represents a large portion of my practice. Fear of hurt and/or rejection is a powerful emotion to combat.

A Simple Way to Risk

Soooo, what is a practical strategy to reach out while maintaining some level of scaffolding for safety? It’s like moving into the deep end of the pool knowing you have something to grab onto if you need it.

I think the answer lies in a simple question anyone can ask a partner: Ask, “What is one thing that would help you feel safer in our relationship?” The question is a relatively low risk way to signal a desire to reach out and acknowledges that the other partner might be just as afraid to risk in the relationship. By implying that you want to do something to make the relationship feel safer for the other partner, it communicates that you do not wish to cause further harm. It signals one’s disarmament.

I can’t say it’s a no-risk question, because it’s not. It could be rejected quickly, e.g. “Why do you care? Why are you asking now? Since when do you care about my safety in our relationship? I’ve been trying to tell you for years, so if you don’t know by now, you’ll never get it,” etc., etc., etc., etc.

Expect a response like that. Couples have a hard time trusting change. It’s typical to be wary of a partner’s authenticity. You will not make things worse by reassuring your partner that you are sincere. It’s diffusible with something like, “I want to do something different. I don’t want us to both hurt anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner. I’m attuning right now. Do you see me trying right now?” It needs to be a soft response, connected to the authentic desire for compassion and repair.

I can’t make guarantees that taking a low-level risk won’t fail, but I can guarantee that going into the interaction intentionally can potentially shift the relationship in a small but significant way, changing the trajectory of the entire relationship from increased disconnection to possible connection.

I can guarantee, however, that if you stay hunkered down in your foxhole, waiting to emerge until you see that your partner is completely disarmed so you are certain you won’t get hurt again, you will likely find yourself in the relationship distress of conflict or distance which C.S. Lewis described as “unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

If you do shed your armor, you can always put it back on again.

You decide.

 

Reference:

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (2017) HarperOne.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_elwynn’>elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

The Art of Noticing: Putting the “App” in Appreciation

thanks photo

“See?” exclaimed a husband in therapy, “It will never be enough for you.  No matter what I do, you will always want something different or more, so I might as well just give up trying.”

There is a process that I regularly witness between couples in therapy that genuinely saddens me.  What happens is that I will observe one partner really trying to please the other partner, but the efforts are viewed as disingenuous or minimal, so they are disregarded or criticized, at which point the partner gives up.

This phenomenon occurs with both partners in a marriage regularly.  Here’s a typical example:

Sandy was exhausted from caring for her young children, driving them around, and keeping the house picked up.  She was hurt that her husband didn’t make a bigger effort to support her in daily household chores, and that it seemed like he was content to ignore her all night while expecting sex before bedtime.  She was offended that he wanted to be physical with her after seemingly preferring to be alone most of the time.  When she tried to talk about it, he would withdraw by leaving the room or just refusing to engage in conversation.

Her husband, Sam, admitted that he gave up on household chores because, “It’s never up to her standards,” and the criticism he received was painful.  He added that he did reach out for physical connection because it was the only time he felt really accepted in the relationship.

It’s common that after a session of therapy, partners will gain a little more courage to try again.  The problem is that when they do try, their efforts do seem small.  That’s because after years of rejection, making small shifts can feel like enormous risks.  Then, their partners either don’t notice the small efforts, or actively reject the efforts because they are afraid that if they “reward,” the small effort, their partners will think it’s enough and stop there.

So, with the above example, Sam returned to therapy and explained that he volunteered to do household chores without asking, and instead of his wife noticing and expressing gratitude, she asked why he didn’t do a few more things.  In return, Sandy explained that she tried to risk being more physically affectionate with her husband by hugging him when he came home, but that he “pouted,” all night because she didn’t want to have sex.  Thus, both partners experienced more rejection and felt discouraged to continue.

Change can be very tricky between couples, because the two people are so sensitive to each other emotionally.  No one wants to feel like he or she is making efforts to change while the other person doesn’t notice or isn’t trying to change as well.  Both partners want love and acceptance.

It’s important to know that NOTICING is a skill that can be actively expanded and implemented.  Then, people need to realize that APPRECIATING and ENCOURAGING is powerful in priming more change, but nothing will destroy a partner’s desire to try faster than criticism, even if the criticism seems small.  Most people don’t realize the huge impact their criticism has on partner withdrawal and disconnection.

So, why aren’t people better at using encouragement and accepting their partners’ changes instead of criticizing?

  1. They want so much more than their partners are often willing to give up front that they really don’t notice their partners are trying to change.
  2. They are afraid that if they accept the small effort, the partner will think that’s good enough and stop trying.
  3. They are afraid that if they accept the larger effort, it won’t last.
  4. They don’t trust the change, because it may be viewed as manipulation.

Here’s how to implement the art of noticing and appreciating in order to promote change:

Look for and acknowledge ANY change efforts.  People want their efforts to matter.  Many times, I have pointed out, “You see, he’s here right now with you in therapy trying to improve his relationship with you—this is him trying to change.  You are experiencing it right now.  Especially since couples therapy is the LAST place most men want to be.”  Or, “Did you notice her reach out and put her hand on your leg when you were talking about how painful it is when she rejects you physically?  That is her trying to reach out to you and comfort you in a way that you desire.”  When I point this out, most partners acknowledge, “Yes, this is hard for him (or her) and I can see he’s trying.” I can also help them add, “I just get scared that he will stop trying or things won’t ever get better, even though it helps me to know he’s here with me right now.”  This helps the rejected partner understand what is happening more clearly.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think in PARTS.  For example, “There’s a part of me that can see you trying and gets excited that thing might get better, but there’s another part of me that gets afraid it won’t last or this is as good as it will ever get, and that thought is so scary that I want to make more demands.”

Understand SHAPING.  There is a behavioral concept called “shaping,” in which people reward approximations of behavior in order to move someone toward the desired behavior.  It is used a lot in parenting, but it actually applies in all our relationships.  I reject pure behavior therapy as an application for change, because our emotions interact with our behaviors in complex ways, but it is true that acceptance and praise are rewarding, and we are more likely to become approaching and try harder in those circumstances.

Understand that criticism and contempt are more powerful in a toxic way than appreciation, praise and encouragement are in a relationship-building way.  In other words, one line of criticism can wipe out a month’s worth (or more) of genuine effort in seconds.  People give lip service to this, but then behave as if their criticism shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIIFED OR NOT.  For emphasis, I repeat, CRITICISM KILLS RELATIONSHIPS, AND IT DOES NOT MATTER WHETHER YOU THINK THE CRITICISM IS JUSTIFIED OR NOT.

Even if you notice and encourage your partner when you see a change, EXPECT RELAPSE into old patterns.  People need to be allowed to get it wrong without being severely punished even if they have been nearly perfect.  Sometimes people won’t try to change, because they are afraid that they won’t be “perfect,” at it and if they aren’t, their partners will flare up (because they do).  Most patterns change like the stock market—a general trend upward with lots of ups and downs in between.

Recognize that NOTICING really is a skill that you can acquire.  If I asked you to watch your spouse’s or child’s behavior and notice what they were doing well, you would be able to tell me.  Everyone knows how to do this but we forget that noticing does take some effort on our part.  It’s rarely natural.  Instead, we tend to view partners through a lens based on an accumulation of interactions over the years, and we don’t notice variations in the present.  Also, undesirable behavior always gets our attention more readily than desired behavior.

It is highly unlikely that your partner will even try to fully meet your expectations until he or she believes that you notice and appreciate his or her efforts.  People need to feel safe from rejection and criticism to take relationship risks.  This is the standard.  Your partner is not an exception.

Lastly, I complement you on finishing this longish article and by doing so implementing a small immediate change to make your relationship better.  See, I noticed!  Did you notice?