It is very common for couples to contact me and, in our first conversation prior to an appointment, ask for help in these areas:
One might think that all of these issues are varied and drastically different from one another. What might ‘anger’ issues have to do with ‘infidelity’”? What does ‘communication’ have to do with ‘parenting’ or ‘intimacy’ issues? Actually, this is where therapy becomes therapy vs. communication coaching or teaching.
Follow me here……I can teach you communication skills, I can provide you models for effective parenting, I can provide you with self soothing/de-escalation skills to interrupt patterns of impulse and anger, we can even identify blocks to vulnerability or access to one’s own emotional responses, and, there is tremendous initial value and insight by acquiring these skill sets….this is important stuff for sure.
However, these are what I deem to be behavioral changes vs authentic changes. Have you ever heard of, or known a ‘dry drunk’ (excuse my slang)? This is person who has changed their maladaptive behavior (alcohol = bad idea) for a less damaging behavior (sober = better idea)…but what about the reason the person drank, or had the affair or was a rigid parent or was prone to rage in the first place? Changing behavior may not change the underlying dynamic…at all. Dry drunks are difficult by nature, a person who has had an affair and stops is no less prone to a relapse than a person refraining from alcohol…..unless underlying issues are addressed.
Behavioral changes are only part of the process. They are put in place to prevent more damage from occurring to the relationship, and, ‘they’ are in no way the fruition of a couple’s journey towards true partnering for life.
What all of these issues in fact have in common is, how we are attached or bonded, to others and ourselves. At the core of us all we have experienced some loss or disconnect in our primary attachments very early in life. Having had firm attachments to a healthy primary care giver, we are able to develop a strong sense of self and maintain that self even in the deepest of relationships. When we have experienced poor attachment or bonding, or, when we have had a strong bond to a primary caregiver with a strong deficits, we develop our own deficits in our ability to access our self. It is from these broken attachments (which literally we all have to some extent) we can cause problems in our relationships. In Susan Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, she describes healing these attachments to one’s partner and within one’s self as the basis of the most effective approach to couples counseling to date.
As a couples therapist for over 16 years, this model has been extremely complementary to the work I do with couples. This level of work with couples is profound. Each partner is able to see how their own woundedness is working them from the inside-out, affecting perception of their partner, keeping them stuck in a cycle but not understanding exactly what the cycle is, how it starts or how to interrupt it.
As a couples therapist, I will often meet with partners individually, early on, to get a separate assessment of their current perception(s), a sense of their strengths in problem solving and communication, where blind spots might be and, family/relationship history. This more progressive/aggressive approach to treatment is a departure from traditional couples counseling. However, I have yet to work with a couple who has not appreciated this part of the process, and, benefited from it.
The direct benefit to the client is really being heard, without judgement, knee jerk reactions, making a big plan right away or, taking either side. How it makes the process more efficient is by providing me clearer insight into isolating who is contributing what to the overall dynamic. And when I say ‘efficient’ I mean it saves everyone time, money and allows us to get traction in doing the individual work necessary in closing the distance between partners.