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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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Safety First in Marriage: Why it’s Necessary for Building Trust and Intimacy

16592637 - saving love marriage relationship 3d concept - heart on lifebuoyIf anyone asks my husband what I do for a living, he will say, “She makes people cry.”

While that’s an over-simplified misconception which he declares for shock value, there is a minuscule grain of truth in his response. That’s because I am generally trying to help couples have new emotional experiences with each other which build SAFETY and TRUST. When people express vulnerable emotions, and receive empathic responses in return, it’s a recipe for trustworthy intimacy. It’s safe. It promotes higher marital adjustment.

Research confirms that in close romantic relationships, support and caregiving elicits trust and security in relationships. Feeling nurtured and cared for is a critical component of stable, well-functioning intimate relationships. The world is stressful. If people have dependable partners to turn to for empathic support when life gets burdensome, they have increased well-being. In other words, the marriage can be a safe haven from the perils of the outside world.

In addition, it’s that type of safe environment that provides fertile ground for exploring and introducing novelty and play and passion…unpredictability within a predictable setting.

When I am supervising therapists in training, I am often asked whether a case is conducive to marriage therapy. My first question is usually, “Can you help them make the marriage safe enough so the partners can reliably reach for and receive emotional responsiveness.” Any barriers to that pattern of marital safety will keep the couple disconnected.

Here are some common elements that disrupt intimate safety in marriage:

  1. A partner reaches for support and gets a negative or neutral response instead. This could happen for different reasons. Sometimes partners miss emotional bids for support. Sometimes partners are ambiguous in their reaches for support. Some partners are uncomfortable with emotions and become paralyzed in the face of emotional need. The lack of empathic support may be intentional or unintentional, but will limit the possibility of future reaches and subsequent safe intimacy either way.
  2. A partner attempts to offer support but feels unsuccessful at having a soothing impact. This can also happen for a few reasons. If a partner expects emotional expression to stop and it doesn’t, he/she might perceive a lack of skills to comfort a partner, not realizing that sometimes comforting a partner might mean that the expression of emotional pain may continue. Sometimes, a partner offers comfort and it is openly rejected, which will also create withdrawal from future supportive actions.
  3. Ongoing ambivalence or equivocation. Partners who can’t make up their minds about whether they want to remain in the marriage and work on it or not, or who continually switch back and forth, are not safe. The unpredictability prevents any chance of risk for emotional intimacy.
  4. Addictions. People in addiction are generally turning to something outside of the marriage for comfort, and substances alter their behaviors in a way that makes them unpredictable, and therefore unsafe. A period of sobriety and predictability is required before any safe marital intimacy can develop.
  5. Affairs. Obviously, if your partner is turning to someone else, he/she is unsafe, and even emotional affairs will prevent emotional bonding within the marriage.
  6. Abuse. Abuse is scary and dangerous. Abusive partners often underestimate how dramatically they can destroy safety with one abusive episode.
  7. Past betrayals. A marriage can be made safe from past betrayals, but it’s much slower and more difficult. Also, if the betrayals are buried and ignored, they will still be present and will prevent closeness. They must be addressed in very specific ways to rebuild trust and safety.
  8. Threatening divorce. Sometimes partners threaten divorce as a way to send a strong message about how much they want change; however, threatening divorce is like holding a gun to a partner’s head and saying, “Make a move, and I’ll shoot.” People who threaten divorce often don’t realize how damaging it can be to overall safety.
  9. Turning to others for support. Sometimes if a spouse turns to outside family or friends, it can make the marital environment dangerous because it feels like the spouse is prioritizing those people higher. In other words, in a moment of high emotional need, the spouse may be more supportive of friends or family instead.
  10. Hostile emotions. Some people are so wounded that they have trouble expressing hurt, fear or other emotional pain because it’s too vulnerable, so the pain comes out as hostile anger. Anger is a distancing emotion. Even therapists have difficulty moving toward anger…it’s one of the hardest emotions for therapists in training to manage. Part of creating safety in marriage is helping partners regulate and express emotion in a way that they elicit empathic responses. Some people say, “Am I not entitled to my anger?” I answer, “Of course. You can have any emotion you want, and you may deserve to be angry; however, it’s an emotion that naturally pushes people away. It’s hard to be with. In fact, if I yelled at you right now, you would either leave or want to leave. You can choose anger, but you are decreasing your possibilities for gaining the understanding you really need.”
  11. Deception. Any. Lying or hiding is untrustworthy and can wipe out any previously accumulated safety in general, but if there is any history of deception or infidelity, it’s worse. I tell spouses, “It doesn’t matter how small the deception is…if you say you’re going to turn right and then you turn left, you immediately become as dangerous as when the betrayal was discovered. If you continue to lie, you will continue to place the marriage back at square one for healing, regardless of intent.
  12. Any unpredictable behavior. Even in predominantly safe marriages, anything too unexpected can throw partners off and make them question the relationship. This will vary according to relationship history and individual trust levels.

I can’t over-estimate how important predictability is for marital safety. Even seemingly minor deviations from the norm can feel threatening. If a partner feels like a stranger somehow, the safety in the relationship comes into question.

Here’s an example of how quickly something small but unknown can feel threatening. My husband is one of the most predictable people on the planet. Our marriage is layered with his trademark fidelity and affirmations of interest in me as his spouse. However, I can still remember a moment back in 1992 (see, I remember the year) when I was instantaneously thrown off balance.

We had been finishing the basement in our first home, and while I was unpacking a box for his new basement office, I pulled out a CD I hadn’t seen before. It was the soundtrack from the movie, Beaches, which had been released in 1989. The CD wasn’t mine. I remember sitting there, staring at it, realizing that it must be my husband’s. “I’m married to a man who has a Bette Midler CD,” I thought, “and I didn’t even know this about him. How could I not know my husband likes Bette Midler enough to buy a CD?” To this day, I can remember the uneasy feeling it gave me. I marched up the stairs, CD in hand, and began peppering him with inquiries:

Me: Is this yours? (holding up the CD)

Him: (glancing up) Yeah, why?

Me: When did you buy it?

Him: I don’t remember…a few months ago, I guess.

Me: Why?

Him: Why what?

Me: Why did you buy it? (sounding like I needed a flashlight to accessorize my interrogation)

Him: Because I liked a song on it. (staring curiously at my descent down the rabbit hole)

Me: What song?

Him: The one about a hero.

Me: Wind Beneath My Wings?

Him: Yeah, that one.

Me: Since when?

Him: Since when what?

Me: Since when do you like that song?

Him: Umm….I don’t know…since I heard it…am I in trouble for something?

Me: I just had no idea that you liked that song enough to buy an entire CD. How did I not know that about you?

Him: Honey. I like the song. I bought the CD. I listened to it in the car. Is that a crime? Do I need your permission to buy a CD and listen to it?

Me: I don’t care that you bought the CD. I just don’t know why you didn’t even tell me you liked that song…enough to buy an actual CD.

Him: I didn’t even think about it. I’m not sure why this is upsetting to you. How many CDs have you purchased without telling me…and I haven’t complained? And why do I feel like I’m on trial?

Me: Yeah, but you KNOW that about me. You know I like music. You never buy CDs, and you never listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Him: OK, well, I bought one. Now you know. I’m still not sure why you’re freaking out.

Me: Because it’s like I’m married to a stranger. What else don’t I know?

See how quickly I got thrown off? I really did have a strong emotional reaction, because it was so outside of his norm to display any real preference for music. To be honest, music was a raw spot in our relationship. Our music tastes were more different than alike. If I’m being honest, it kind of hurt me that he didn’t share one of his preferences with me. It was as if a part of him was unknown, which made me wonder what else was unknown, even though he had a history of being so reliable. It sounds so silly, but if anyone was the wild card in our relationship, it was I. He was so predictable to me that even this small discovery felt disorienting.

I have had a handful of clients who, with no prompting from me, have shared nearly identical incidents in their own marriages, when they found music they didn’t know their spouses liked. They described the same feeling of wondering if there was more they didn’t know…all because they found out something about a spouse’s preference that was previously unknown. It’s just human nature that if something feels unpredictable in a romantic, intimate relationship, it can feel scary.

People who grew up without reliable, safe attachment figures can have a harder time trusting even predictable partners, because they don’t have models for safe attachment. Sometimes those people need explicit education about what safe, reliable responsiveness looks like, so they can recognize and appreciate it.

If you are struggling with emotional intimacy in your marriage, a good place to start is to ask your partner whether he/she feels safe in the marriage, and if not, ask what you can do that would help build safety.

In summary, the real answer to the question about what I do for a living is that I teach couples SAFETY FIRST.

References:

A Safe Haven: An Attachment Theory Perspective on Support Seeking and Caregiving in Intimate Relationships (2000) by Collins, N. L & Feeney, B. C. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053-1073.

Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction (2005) by Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B. & Warren, L. Z. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

Photo credit: Copyright: koya79 / 123RF Stock Photo