Choosing to go to couples counselling when one’s relationship is not working is not something one jumps up and down with joy at the thought of. Let’s face it, bringing one’s private relationship issues to a stranger is probably the last thing one feels like doing at a time like this. And yet when a third party, like a therapist, is able to stay neutral, not take sides, and remain equally connected to both partners, frequently what occurs is the couple is able to calm down enough to begin to discuss difficult topics. Topics that are either swept under the carpet, screamed about in the heat of the moment or shared with a third part, a person who is not one’s partner, like a friend or a family member. The topics can range from money to sex to parenting to housework to in-laws to wanting more closeness or more space, more time together or more time apart, but the process is usually one where couples tend to either be conflictual, or where one tends to take more responsibility than the other (usually one of the partners in this dynamic may become symptomatic: drug and alcohol issues, depression, affairs etc), or where a third person is entangled in the couple’s relationship problems, usually a child who absorbs the parents’ stress and becomes symptomatic.
The attempt, in couples counselling, to talk about things that are usually too triggering to talk about directly with our partner and not with someone else, signals the beginning of a mature connection. A connection that is solid enough to allow for one’s partner’s opinion to be heard and not reacted to. A connection that necessitates one to open up and discuss things that bring up discomfort. A space that allows for the couple to start to interact in a less reactive and more thoughtful manner, with the understanding that differences are a given in relationships, and that it is not about trying to convince one’s partner to do what we want them to do, or to change their behaviour to suit us, but rather to manage oneself and one’s own reactivity when we bump up against our partner’s different point of view. Couples therapy also aims to invite people to manage expectations of one’s partner. What exactly does one expect from one’s marriage or otherwise committed relationship? Did one expect to be predominantly satisfied? How much of this satisfaction and well being was one expecting would be generated by one’s partner? In other words, how dependent is one on one’s partner for well being, happiness, functioning, life satisfaction? And how realistic are these expectations? Who is responsible for what?
In my experience couples seek out therapy because there is either too much distance, too much conflict, there is a symptom in a partner or a symptom in a child. In all these cases difficult topics and different points of view are avoided or if they’re not avoided they’re fought about and not resolved. Marriage researcher and expert, John Gottman’ longitudinal studies indicate that 69% of perpetual problems in couples never get resolved when they are embedded in fundamental differences in each person’s thinking and values. What couples can work with is how they relate to each other in response to their differences. When the problem is seen to reside with the other person there is usually a tendency toward blame, criticism and defensiveness. When the focus is narrowed in on the other as the cause of one’s own relationship unhappiness one can’t see how one is contributing to the pattern. Couples therapy can help identify one’s part in the relationship dance. What one can do differently is respond to one’s partner in a more thoughtful, self-regulated way. One doesn’t have to agree but neither does one have to attack/ defend / cut off/ stone wall or blame the other for a difference in value or point of view. How one manages one’s own discomfort (fear, anger, sadness, anxiety) in response to one’s partner’s behaviour or position makes the difference between a happy marriage and an unhappy marriage according to John Gottman. It’s not about the children, the housework, the finances, it’s about how one interacts around these things. It’s about the amount of emotional reactivity toward each other that surfaces when discussing differences.
In a distant couple relationship, there appears to be surface calm. A sense of harmony. Yet in digging a little deeper it becomes clear that one or both have stopped sharing what they think, how they feel, and who they are, with each other. The distance is felt as a loneliness and dissatisfaction, a sense of being emotionally distant and cut off. The pair may physically be present but emotionally they are else where, often in rumination, dissatisfaction, longing, anger, negative thinking about their partner or relationship. It is common when people have grown distant in their intimate relationship that important people in one or both the partners’ lives may know more about them than their partner does. It is easier in this dynamic to talk honestly about what one wants and thinks to a dear friend or a close family member than it is with their partner. This ‘triangling’ – seeking out a third party to talk to about one’s issues with one’s partner oftentimes leads to more emotional distance and difficulty in the relationship or marriage.
Couples in conflict
A distinctive feature of a conflictual relationship is the partners’ dissatisfaction and anger with one another. While the atmosphere of a conflictual relationship is often one of negativity it is generally accentuated by equally intense times of closeness and passion and often calm. The reciprocity between couples in conflict is usually one of conflict followed by distance followed by reunion, until the cycle starts again. It can feel like a roller coaster ride, one which at times can become addictive because of its intensity, both positive and negative. As much as these couples do not want conflict they don’t seem to be able to find a different way of dancing with each other. Much of the focus in a conflictual marriage is directed from one toward the other and vice versa. Both partners believe the other should change and if they did their relationship problems would vanish. However, it is this very belief and intense focus on each other that paradoxically keeps the pattern going. Here the partners each think the problem (be it money, sex or parenting) should be resolved for their conflict to disappear. When people think that an issue must get resolved for the conflict to disappear they tend to polarise. The problem is not their differences, it is their emotional reaction to those differences.
A symptom in a spouse- over /under functioning reciprocity
My view of symptom development in any person is that it emerges not simply from one cause but multiple. A multitude of factors contribute to a particular person in a family system or couple becoming symptomatic. Factors such genetic predisposition; such as as the person’s upbringing and development in the family and environment they grew up in; the amount of stressful events in their life; the level of emotional maturity of the person’s family of origin; the amount of inherited anxiety from the multigenerational family system. A relationship with an intimate partner is not the cause of a symptom in another, yet their particular relationship pattern is another contributing factor. Usually in couples where one develops symptoms such as a physical illness, a phobia, acute anxiety, depression, or where their ability to function in life is generally speaking challenged, there is an ‘over-under functioning reciprocity’ between the two. Whilst counterbalancing reciprocal functioning exists in all relationships: high energy people tend to marry low energy people; calm people often marry vivacious people etc. in couples where one develops a symptom, one of the partners’ way of being becomes more dominant than the other. One’s way of thinking tends to influence the relationship more than the other. One is more dominant and the other more passive. Both participate to the pattern of reciprocity and they are both there in mutual agreement, albeit this mostly being out of awareness. Usually this dynamic plays out as it is comforting to both, the more submissive partner likes to have someone to direct them; the more dominant partner can feel lost without having someone to direct. While an underfunctioning-overfunctioning reciprocity can work for some couples, when the pattern becomes too intense it can lead to one partner becoming symptomatic. The person most liable to experience symptoms is the one who makes the most sacrifices by changing his/her behaviour, feeling or thinking to safeguard harmony in the relationship. This can be either the over functioning or under functioning partner.
He/she will do and change themselves for the other in order to feel comfortable in themselves- in this way giving up parts of themselves in the process until they can’t go further without developing physical, emotional or social symptoms.
Triangling with a third- usually a child
Different families are blessed with good fortune, others are not as fortunate. Some families have more stressful events to contend with than others. At the same time, some families are calmer and more mature than others. Depending on the combination of level of maturity and the amount of stressful events in a family, children will grow up either in a stressful or a calm environment and as a consequence either symptom free or with symptoms. The development of a child in a calm, non-reactive, mature family system will be different to the development of a child in a stressed, reactive and less mature family environment. Those children growing up in less fortunate conditions tend to get more entangled in their parents’ anxieties and problems. They tend to absorb more stress from the family and predominantly from their parents’ relationship disturbance. While the mother/primary carer-child relationship has the most influence on the child, the degree of anxiety and level of maturity of the father (or other parent) and family members plays an equal role. A child’s healthy development is helped by the primary carer’s ability to relate to the child’s reality needs. The mother/primary carer is comfortable with the child’s dependency on her in the first few months of life, she doesn’t feel trapped or crowded by the child. As the child grows the mother acts in ways that support the child growing away from her and gaining their own autonomy. On the other hand, a child’s healthy development in hindered by the way the mother/ primary carer relates to the child through her anxiety and emotional needs. The mother may experience wellbeing from the child’s dependence on her, the wellbeing derived from meeting her emotional needs for closeness. As the child grows, the mother does not act in ways that promote the child’s growing away from her. In part because of the child’s dependency on her and in part because of her inability to separate from the child, the child stays stuck to his/her mother emotionally. This process of differentiation ranging from high to low in the child begins in the family not in the child. However even though it begins in the family it is soon reinforced by the child and so the cycle of reciprocal functioning begins where both mother and child depend on one another for their ability to function in life. In couples where the child develops symptoms usually both mother and father (or both partners) are anxiously focused on the child whilst the child absorbs that anxiety. In these relationships often there is a surface calm, the marriage appears to be harmonious, the focus and attention is not on the husband and wife but on the child’s emotional, social or physical needs and/or dysfunction. Usually the mother or primary carer is more focused on the child and the father or other parent supports the mother is this child-focus. This couples’s relationship is usually emotionally distant but looks and feels close through the couples’ respective anxious focus on the child.
Whether a couple’s problems manifest as conflict, distance, a symptom in a partner or a symptom in a child, it is often the sense of chronic dissatisfaction that propels the couple to seek out counselling. Couples counselling can help discern the issues in each couple, which are always complex and always sit in a bigger and broader context- the couples’ respective family of origin. By exploring the multigenerational patterns in the couple’s respective families, couples often gain perspective on their own issues and are able to lift out of the intensity and pain they feel so stuck to, to start to work out a way to respond and think about their problems differently.
Kerr, M.E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation. New York: Norton.