Think Like a Therapist© is your lay source for becoming your own psychotherapist. Think Like a Therapist© helps you learn about yourself and others as if you were actually in counseling—minus the time and expense. Your session begins now! Think Like a Therapist© is not a substitute or service for the treatment of any mental health problems. Please see a clinical mental health professional to address your mental health symptoms and illnesses. Copyright © 2012 Charles O’Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Think Like a Therapist©: Your Relationship, Part I
You tell me that you’re having relationship problems and would like to work on your “communication” to lessen the tension and conflict in your marriage. Your previous experience in counseling was unhelpful and felt like a verbal wrestling match without a referee: You and your partner fought while your counselor said little. Your couples counselor before was more active but got caught up in the details of your accusations. Reflecting on these sessions you tell me that they served only to help you argue better. You claim victory because from your perspective both therapists sided with you and not your partner. With my encouragement, however, you’re honest with yourself— that this is not the outcome you had hoped for. You and your mate agree to work with me, skeptical but very much in need of a professional who understands not only relationships but also the uniqueness of your partnership.
I begin by validating your distress and how exhausted, confused, and raw you both feel. Anxiously, you add that it is your “communication” that must improve to save your relationship. I assure you that you do communicate well. You look at me puzzled and unsure of what to make of my response. Let’s be honest: You don’t need me to communicate effectively. You are already experts at sending clear messages through your criticizing, blaming, defending, and withdrawing. After all, your gestures, like rolling your eyes, or sometimes what you don’t say through silence, speak volumes about how your feeling. You get it and add, “We both want to communicate in a way that resolves and lessens conflict.” Your partner adds, “Where there doesn’t have to be a winner and loser.” I acknowledge your hopes and mutual goal of communicating in a more authentic, genuine, and loving way.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), I have a different way of listening. My training and experience allows me to hear beyond the content and details of your relationship—namely, the many reasons that your partner is at fault—to identify the unspoken need that you convey through these details—that you want a partner who is emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaging. Instead of refereeing or judging who is right and wrong, I look for how you communicate. This becomes the therapeutic foundation from which new, more rewarding ways of interacting emerge. Because, after all, you know how to communicate; you’re just speaking a language that neither clearly expresses your need nor allows your partner to meet it.
I assess how you communicate by working to understand the interactional process that unfolds and results in conflict. Common patterns between couples include: pursuing and withdrawing, mutual attacking, or mutual retreat. You mention that there is a lot of criticizing and blaming that leads to defending and withdrawing. You both are left feeling alone and upset due to the vicious relational cycle that you have co-constructed, meaning that neither one of you is to blame for the relationship that you have collectively created.
You come to understand the purpose of your behavior and how it contributes to your pattern of pursuing and distancing. You learn that your defenses or behaviors are yoked to your vulnerabilities or emotions. Your behavior is an expression of your emotional insecurities. When one partner pursues out of loneliness in a hope of not feeling so alone in the relationship, the other withdraws feeling overwhelmed and inadequate by the pursuer’s criticism and blaming. The dance is complete when the pursuer feels rejected by the distancer’s withdrawal and either pursues more intensely hurling demands, threats, and insults or gives up and retreats emotionally. The withdrawer is left feeling even more inadequate, like a failure, paralyzed, afraid, and angry.
Your dance may look something like the following, where your loneliness (or any other emotion) is triggered and leads to your pursuit (or any other defensive behavior), which stirs up your partner's feeling of indadequacy (or any other emotion), which leads to his or or her withdrawal (or any other defensive behavior), in turn leaving you feeling lonely. This interactional cycle will continue until successfully interrupted and replaced with a new pattern of relating.
Loneliness --> pursuit --> inadequacy --> withdrawal --> loneliness
Our session ends with your relationship deconstructed and you feeling hopeful it can improve. You state you have an awareness of how your behaviors are tied together and how you each trigger one another’s vulnerabilities. I offer to help you interact differently to replace the dance that you both agree has kept you miserable for too long. Excited and eager you wait for guidance only to hear that we have run out of time. See you next week!