Each and every couple experiences problems at some point in the relationship. There really is no perfect match or the most compatible partnership. Every duo will experience conflicts, struggle with communication, and at times each person may even feel attacked, criticized, disconnected and alone. For some couples, they may move farther apart emotionally and avoid each other. For others, one person may become the pursuer and the other the avoider who withdraws. The person who withdraws can resemble a person who does not care and who is cold and distant. This could not be further from the truth! Often this person, typically male but not always, is actually flooded by his emotions, experiencing an increased heat rate and may be sweating because he is quite anxious. He withdraws because it is not emotionally safe to engage. Meanwhile, the pursuer, often female, will then become more critical, blaming, attacking or she will withdraw as well. She does this because she feels she needs to turn up the volume so her partner can hear her.
We all need to be seen and heard.
Emotionally Focused Therapy connects to Attachment Theory. This means that the emotional needs we all experienced as infants and children translate into adult attachment needs. We needed to know that our caregiver would be there for us, not only for food, but for skin-to-skin comfort and contact. Infants sometimes need to be cuddled because they are lonely, just as adults do. We know these needs do not evaporate when we become adults. We look for this same type of comfort and care from our husbands and wives, our girlfriends and boyfriends. It is universal and proven by much research: adults in relationships need to be seen and heard, valued and considered special by partners and also respected when independent.
Will you be there for me? Will you abandon me?
Most couples enter couples counseling because they are engaged in a cycle or dance of arguing, attacking, withdrawing and the negative cycle doesn’t seem to end. Eventually, things will worsen to a critical point if they do not seek help. Couples need to engage in more tender moments, expressing deep needs and fears to each other. This is risky business! We do not want to have those conversations if we are not feeling safe, nor should we do so. Our brains are hard-wired for self-protection. However, if we choose to work on the relationship and improve the dynamic, that is exactly what we need to do to create a different type of bond.
Can we really repair this relationship? Or is it broken?
Emotionally Focused Therapy will help you identify and isolate your negative cycle of conflicts. This is a frustrating process because it means disengaging from the fight and stepping back. Is the fight getting you where you want to go? No. If it were, you wouldn’t be seeking counseling. I will help you isolate that cycle, name it and start to understand it better through exercises and mindfulness. Once you can calmly detach from it you have more power to change the interaction. These intense fights are really cries for help with the attachment bond. What both people in the couple are yearning for is more security, a deeper bond, a calm connection with serenity and knowing that they are accepted, special, and loved and that they will not be left alone.
How do you know if your relationship can be repaired? There is no magic formula. John Gottman has done a plethora of research regarding the predictors of divorce and he isolates what he calls the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. While this research is accurate and helpful, I would caution you to realize that many couples experience this and with couples counseling work through their issues. John Gottman has many helpful books and I highly recommend The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
My approach allows you to uncover more tender or softer emotions that live beneath the anger. For example, a husband might be stonewalling or ignoring his wife each time she reminds him about their upcoming anniversary that weekend. His stonewalling is a self-protection method. What is the story he tells himself? She doesn’t trust me. She doesn’t think I care or remember important event. She thinks I am a bad person. She might leave me. He may even be triggered because he is reminded of his mother or ex-wife who he failed to please. He feels like a failure. He tells himself: I will close down my emotional self. Meanwhile, the wife may tell herself a story like: I cannot say anything to him. He does not listen to me. I am unimportant and he does not value my opinion. He does not value me nor does he consider me special. He might leave me. Or, more precisely, he has already left me emotionally because he is no longer my best friend or confidante, as he was in the past.
What is your story?
In couples counseling, it is important to understand your story. Where did it come from? The attachment needs that are not getting met in your current relationship – to feel important, to feel loved, to be regarded as special – what does that resonate with in your childhood? Can you remember a time in the past you felt the same or somewhat similar feelings? How can your partner best comfort you today? Could he simply hold you when you are feeling distressed? Could she give you space to be alone for a short while and talk later in the evening? What are you needing and how can that be expressed so your partner can hear it?
When we are in a marriage that is so often distressed and we are arguing regularly, we cannot hear our partners. Maybe even other people outside the relationship look quite appealing because those are easier connections to maintain. Those people like us! But the truth is, they do not truly know us and rub against our raw spots, like our intimate partners. It is important to understand that these fights are primal. They are about love, connection and deeper attachment needs.
Attachment styles may vary depending upon who we are in a relationship with and at what point we are at in life. Some styles are secure attachment, anxious, avoidant and disorganized. Attachment styles begin in infancy and refer to how a baby attaches or bonds to a caregiver. If we are securely attached as babies then we are set up to securely attach as adults and have healthy relationships. We experience caregivers who attend to our emotions and in essence take good care of us. However, that is not the only factor. Past relationships with spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, bullying at school, siblings. You name it, these experiences influence our bonds.
Couples who are securely attached rarely walk into my office. These pairs may even appear boring or dull! But really they are in a very harmonious relationship, though of course they still have problems. They work them out pretty well. No couple is problem-free. But other attachment pairings will have bigger, more painful problems. An anxious or dismissive style means a person may often fear abandonment by a partner and act worried or anxious or preoccupied or push those feelings down and numb out, using addictions to avoid painful feelings. Sometimes they come through for us with our emotional needs but sometimes they do not. Anxious style folks can still have wonderful relationships though it helps to be paired with a secure individual. However, a very common pairing is an anxious with an avoidant. Avoidant partners learned that it is very important to be on their own, strong and not needing anyone for help or support. They often call themselves independent. They can be quite successful in life like this…for a time. However, interdependence is what we need in relationships and this extreme focus on the self or independence is often a rejection of the need for others and does not culminate in a happy, healthy relationship. They may feel it is weak to rely on others or relationships are overrated, same with emotions. They are superior to all that. Underneath the surface they can be what I call secretly emotional – extremely sensitive with big hearts – but because of their wounds they are now guarded and standoffish. Their armor is intense and precludes real connection and intimacy.
What can I do today?
Try asking yourself some questions. What can I learn from this? What can I do about this? Difficult experiences are opportunities for change. Couples counseling requires a great deal of courage and growth from couples. Are you willing to step back from your cycle and learn something from it? Try some humility. Is it really all your partner’s fault? If you are fantasizing that the grass is greener, I can assure you it is often not. Starting from scratch with a new partner means you will most likely find yourself in this same exact spot in the future. Do you imagine there is a more compatible partner for you? If only your partner was a better match? I hear that a lot and I encourage you to work on your current relationship. Even if there is a better match for you, in your case, it is worth the time and energy to process your current relationship so you know you have done everything you could and you don’t go through these same issues with a future partner.
Reach out for couples counseling if this sounds familiar. I specialize in this field and will help you through this process.