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.



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

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Marital Gymnastics

marital gymnastics

Some of my best childhood memories are associated with gymnastics.  I can’t think of anything I enjoyed more than flying through the air to complete some type of handspring, flip or aerial.  I spent hours practicing the maneuvers, and my father installed a set of bars in my backyard so I could practice twirling around and around.  As I learned different tricks, my friends and I would engage in “daredevil follow the leader,” games in which we would challenge each other to increasingly risky conditions for completing our moves.  For example, one of us would complete an aerial on the asphalt or a back handspring on the concrete driveway and see if the other person would or could do it.  In retrospect, it was very foolish at our amateurish levels, but at the time it was one way in which we amused ourselves.

One skill I executed repeatedly with my friends was something called a “death drop,” in which I would sit on a bar and in one motion, fall backwards and continue to propel my body with enough momentum to release my legs and land standing up under the bar.  I started doing them in early elementary school and continued for years, until I could casually and almost effortlessly fall back on just about any bar and land on my feet.  It became second nature.

One day when I was about 11, I was visiting a sister at her apartment complex, and after becoming quickly bored with the adult conversation in the apartment, I excused myself to make a visit to the bars on the playground (bars which have probably since been removed for liability purposes).  I sat myself atop the only bar, which was much lower to the ground than those to which I was accustomed.  However, I remember believing that I was basically invincible, and that no bar was too low for me to propel my body fast enough to complete a death drop.

I was 100% wrong.  I sat on the bar, hands free, and threw myself backward.  Instead of landing on my feet as usual, I felt my face slam into the bark-covered ground below.  Blackness ringed by a halo of stars momentarily enveloped me, laced with a  feeling of more numbness than pain.  Then, after a few seconds, it hurt.  A lot.  My lip was puffy and bleeding, my whole face felt swollen, and I was spitting a mouthful of bark.  I remember that I didn’t want to be embarrassed by crying, and I was using all my energy to not burst into tears.  I had literally fallen flat on my face.

That incident became significant because it altered my attitude toward risk taking.  I still engaged in gymnastics, but I was far more careful about the types of bars from which I attempted the death drop.  The incident also collaterally affected other moves in which I could potentially land on my face.  Forever after that incident, every single time I attempted a front aerial, there was a part of me that was afraid of repeating the painful scenario.  I still performed the move, but with far more trepidation and far less hubris.   I knew that if I didn’t jump high enough or propel my body over fast enough, it would really hurt.  Landing on my face with such force changed me.   I never did recover my former levels of security in executing that move.  My capacity for risk-taking had been permanently compromised.  I definitely stopped performing aerials on asphalt.

It is difficult to improve in gymnastics, an inherently risky sport, without risk-taking.  I never did advance past the level I had achieved when I slammed my face into the ground.  I may never have progressed much anyway, since I wasn’t committed to pursuing gymnastics at a hardcore competition level, but my unwillingness to increase my risk-taking definitely crippled me from continued progression.  Something that had been previously carefree was now scary and potentially immobilizing.

I tell this story because in marital therapy, I observe couples who often quit taking risks with each because of previous painful experiences, and the relationships consequently regress or stagnate.  Sometimes the painful experiences are large and atypical, such as an affair.  Perhaps more frequently they are an accumulation of daily inconsiderate interactions—a raised voice, an impatient response, a dramatic sigh and an eye roll, a criticism, a non-verbal turning away, etc.  These may seem inconsequential in the moment, but ultimately they are small rejections of one’s partner.  Rejection is pain.  When people experience enough rejection, they still interact, but at a protected level.  It is as if they enter every interaction wearing armor in case battle breaks out.  In extreme cases, couples stop interacting (risking) at all.

I’ll try to illustrate how this prevents couples from healing or progressing with a typical exchange, and again, this conversation could happen between a therapist and a wife as easily as between a therapist and the husband:

Husband:  If I actually do try to help around the house, she’ll just tell me how I did it wrong and it won’t make a difference, except that she’ll be mad at me for more stuff.

Therapist:  Do you think she has any idea how painful it is for you to risk trying to make her happy and have your efforts rejected?

Husband:  I don’t know.  Probably not since I just end up giving up and going away and avoiding her.  There would be no point in talking about it.

Therapist:  Can you try to help her understand how painful it is for you?

Husband:  Okay…(turns to wife)…You are always mad at me no matter what I do.  There is no pleasing you.

Wife:  (extremely fast)  You don’t even try!  You don’t care!  (which feels like more bullets to the heart of the husband, instantaneously, decreasing the possibility that he will take any more risk, and increasing the possibility that he will encase himself in more armor)

Therapist:  Okay, hold on…what I’m asking you to help her understand is the type of pain you experience when she rejects you…can you see how that is different from what you just said?

What the above example illustrates in part, since in real life most therapy exchanges are hopefully sliced thinner than this one, is how much easier it was for the husband to talk to his wife about what she was doing wrong rather than about his vulnerable pain.  It’s highly unlikely that in real life a husband in this instance would talk about this to his wife, because it would be too risky.  It’s like giving someone the algorithm to hurt you.  That’s how it feels.  Since he’s not disclosing his pain, but covering it up by looking impassive, his wife believes that he doesn’t care about her and she can have no impact on him.  In essence, she doesn’t think he cares enough about her for her to wound him, so she will continue to injure him without realizing it.  These patterns are difficult to break because they feel necessary to stay safe in a relationship…especially when one’s heart has been really broken.

Sometimes I will have partners who are really trying to improve their marriages, but who really feel stuck because they are afraid of being hurt again, ask me how to take the leap.  I explain that risk-taking is infinitesimally incremental.  In other words, all risks are not equal, and spouses can decide to take intentional risks with each other that feel smaller in comparison to other things, and work their way up.  For example, spiritual and sexual closeness often feel riskier than other forms of interactions, so couples often need to work their way back up by creating less risky interactions.  Over time, safe interactions prime the pump for riskier interactions.

After my accident on the bars, I became paralyzed with the thought of skipping into a front aerial, as I so often had done before the accident.  The possibility that I would never again complete a front aerial was unacceptable to me, but I had to work back into it.  To make it less risky, as I had done when I was first learning the move, I started using a spring board again, which gave me more altitude than I could get from the ground.  I also had to add more yardage in running toward my launch spot instead of taking one high step into the move, as I had also done many times previously.  Very slowly, I worked up to ditching the springboard again and launching myself from the ground.

In marriage, sometimes we have to bring back the springboard, which is preferable to giving up on the relationship (in the absence of ongoing affairs, addiction or abuse), but the goal, metaphorically speaking, should be to launch from the ground again, perfecting the skill.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “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.”

Being vulnerable is a choice, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once.  Again, bring back the springboard and work your way toward self-sufficient buoyancy.  In the opinion of a marriage therapist, it’s worth it.  Then, you will really fly.

Reference: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, 1971, Harvest Book.