The Secret That Generates Success in Couples Therapy

Source: Source: 123RF used with permission

Going for couples therapy is not an intellectual exercise. No one goes to learn about the latest breakthroughs in scientific research. We simply want our lives, and our lives with our partners, to improve. Full stop.

There is a crucial readiness stage that must come about in couples therapy before the wanted results—the improvements in the relationship —can be achieved.

Changes, even when desired and desirable, create stress. For the sake of moving forward, the need to reconfigure ideas once considered fixed, and even foundational, may need to be held more flexibly or modified entirely.

How do you potentiate the readiness stage so that you can make your relationship more energized, communicative, loving?  

How do we mobilize the conscious intention to move beyond fears and anger so we can make things better?

Learning to listen to our partner with a non-judgmental, compassionate spirit takes us a long way toward acquiring this secret information. With it, we can get unstuck and stay that way. I will outline how one couple achieves it below. Their secret lays in adopting what Carol Dweck refers to as a ‘learning mindset.

The learning mindset is like a miner’s cap. With its front lamp glowing, partners are emboldened to journey into caves of confusion where issues can be re-visited and successfully reprocessed. It is the miner’s cap—the learning mindset— that sheds light and hope on our foray into possibility.

From this perspective, couples therapy can be a romantic journey, attaining down-to-earth currency. The parameters of true emotional intimacy can become clarified and realized.

Think about this couple’s situation: Loretta and Ryan’s initial complaint was that conversation mutated into destructive argument time and again. Loretta asked me to teach them step-by-step communication guidelines. Ryan was skeptical that this would help. He said, “I can try to learn how to talk differently. But Loretta’s priorities are the real issue. Does she really want this relationship to work? She makes it hard for me to feel that she does.”

Loretta closed her eyes, took a deep breath and spoke, “I work long days, ten to twelve hours, four days a week and during crunch time a fifth. I come home exhausted.” She paused, looked me in the eye and continued, “On a particularly tiring day, of which there are many, I crave getting home, lying down with Ryan, having him stroke my hair and caress me gently but not sexually. I want to feel safe and  loved, and to recharge. I want to be with him, but not feel pressured to do anything more than get my energy back and feel alive again.”

Ryan said, “Seeing her fall asleep by mid-evening feels like a personal insult. She doesn’t understand how frustrating it is for me to look forward to being with her and then see her conk out as soon as she gets home..” What he looks for, upon Loretta’s return, is conversation and sexual attention.

On numerous occasions, Ryan has resorted to shaking Loretta awake and trying to persuade her to stay up and keep him company. He believed at this point that she was tired, not from her job, but of him.

The first times he did this, Loretta was annoyed but also felt guilty at being unavailable to him.  She tried to stay up with him. She had insecurities about whether she could be a good partner. This was a fixed belief, which predated her relationship with Ryan. The tendency to blame herself for a friend’s or partner’s upsets pained her continuously. She also believed, however, that his shaking her awake was not something she deserved. It crossed a line.

The shaking, though it wasn’t brutal, was unsettling.. She started feeling, “He’s selfish and uncaring.”

The couple seemed to view me as an arbiter who could help them ‘fight fair’ and debate the merits of their respective positions. Each pointed out and explicated the flaws and inadequacies of the other. I, however, had no interest in helping them debate.

I told them, “I want to help you establish communication guidelines, but I don’t think they are the ones that you’ve been expecting. I want to walk you through an exercise in holding conversations that can help each of you focus on helping your partner to feel deeply heard and understood.”

I continued, “A by-product of the exercise is that you will each explain what you feel in a way that clarifies, for you both, what goes on inside yourself at moments when you feel distressed about how you are together.”

This would provide an opportunity for Loretta to unpack the complexity of acknowledging that she was not present as much as Ryan needed her to be.  At the same time she could voice feeling that she would not and could not tolerate him taking out his frustration and loneliness through aggressive physical acts.

By framing these messages within the structure of this exercise, the hope and intention was to have Ryan understand them as neither accusation nor attempts to shame or control him, but as honest expressions of Loretta’s inner needs.

I explained further, “As far as the role of Speaker goes in this particular Speaker-Listener exercise, uou both have got to avoid blame. The focus of what you say must remain on how you feel and not on your partner’s shortcomings. But you do need to describe the circumstances—including what your partner is doing or saying—that corresponds with the onset of your distress, anger or pain.”

Again I continued, “As Listener, you don’t have to agree with what you hear. You do have to agree to do your best to provide your partner with the experience of having your full non-judgmental attention. Do you think you can try to do this?”

Each agreed they would.

I reiterated, “You are doing your part as Listener only if the Speaker concludes from your response that their perspective has been grasped and held with compassion. “

Anticipating a question, I added, “What do you do with the impulse, if you feel it, to respond to rebut what the Speaker says by judging, explaining, rationalizing, or justifying how and why the circumstances they describe occurred? In other words, should you feel like, calling them out on their part in the what they describe? Do you ever respond in this exercise by presenting a viewpoint that is at odds with what the Speaker is presenting? In case these questions occur to you as we do this exercise, I want to make it clear that the Listener is called on to refrain from any such responses. They would work against the goals of the exercise.”

Loretta spoke first and Ryan, with my support and coaching, mirrored what she was saying. He did not defend himself when it was clear from her words that she felt his behavior had caused her distress and sadness, not to mention anger and disappointment.

“It will be my job,” I said, “to help to get you back on track if you do respond defensively. Is that good with both of you?” Loretta said yes, and Ryan nodded in agreement. 

Ryan stayed with what she said and responded by saying, for example, “I understand that when I shook you to awaken you it made you feel that I was selfish and had no idea what it felt like to be who you are. I understand that I caused you to feel violated and distrusting.”

Ryan later said hearing Loretta speak had shaken him. Somehow he had avoided or simply was too confused to register how distraught and disappointed she had become with him.  

Earlier he had justified his having shaken her by saying, “She needed to know how I felt and this made it clear.” He became able to question that belief as we proceeded with the exercise. It became clear to Ryan that he was hurting himself when he treated her roughly. His perspective shifted. He demonstrated himself capable of adopting a learning perspective.  He was able to challenge and reformulate his understandings of what was in his best interest.

For her part, when it was her turn to be the Listener, Loretta was able to hear how lonely and upset Ryan was. She could acknowledge to herself and to him —on the basis of what he said to her and how he said it— that he sincerely missed her and wanted to be different with her than he had been. Although it did not bring absolute forgiveness, it sparked increased compassion.

Miner’s Cap with Lamp

Source: Source: Shutterstock, used with permission

She confided that, in her past relationships with men, she would feel guilty and adopt a caretaker role if things weren’t going well. “I think I am finally breaking out of that,” she said.  On the strength of newly developed internal flexibility, she stepped beyond past expectations. She relinquished the tendency to interpret her current situation as just a repetition of her past pattern. This took courage and willingness to see things in a new light. She had her miner’s cap on.

After a series of these exercises, both partners agreed that resentments were diminishing and that each was more available to make plans with a sensitivity to what the other had said disturbed them about their life together.

Many couples separate without ever realizing that, without the explicit intention of making one another feel heard and understood, attempts to talk through difficulties rarely succeed. The secret, obvious as it may sound when spoken aloud, is often buried beneath the blame, anger and fear that characterize many couples’ dysfunctional patterns of communication.

Loretta continued at her demanding job but by planning more deliberately with the time that they did have to work with, a new trend developed between them, and she and Ryan were able to really look forward to being together. This was something they were too angry to think about arranging when they started their work with me.

Emotional and sexual intimacy increased as the elements of blame and resentment decreased.  The relationship appears to be on an upswing. Will they sustain it?
If they hold onto lessons learned about non-judgmental, empathic conversation possibilities for staying connected swell exponentially.

Further Readings:

You can learn more about creating emotional safety here.

A method of communication that has helped many couples create a new beginning is available here.

Which part of any conversation is most crucial to relationship success?

Tired of dealing with your  partner’s explosive anger

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