Nicole and Michael came in a quickly scheduled appointment. They looked worn and beaten.
It was only a matter of seconds before Nicole burst into tears and claimed she really did not want to leave the relationship but she felt she had no choice, it was, in her words “unbearable”. The fights, the misunderstandings and the brooding resentments had gone on too long and she felt she had to do something.
We need to do something
The point where “we need to do something” comes at different points in a relationship for different couples and often precipitates a visit to a relationship therapist.
It would be easy enough if you knew in your heart that you didn’t want to continue with the relationship. That you were convinced you should cut your losses.
But many people can still see the potential in the relationship and fundamentally value their partner and the potential in the relationship.
Of course sometimes we do stay on too long for other reasons: fear of loneliness, pride, financial reasons amongst others. Knowing when to stay and when to go, when to invest and when to pull out is a fine art in relationships as well as business.
Often the crisis is reached when the bickering, the sniping and the feelings of aggrievement reach boiling point with both partners.
The peace tent
When you both feel like you are the victim and your partner is the villain war is likely to continue for a long time. Coming to relationship therapist is a bit like agreeing to come to the peace tent. It is the first step in what hopefully will be a long truce followed by prosperity.
One of the first things a relationship therapist will do, as I did with Nicole and Michael, was to encourage them to share their feelings and explore the experience of both parties.
Often there is so much hurt and so much pain all each party can do is to focus on this. Getting the feelings recognized clears the air and allows both parties to feel they are ‘validated’ , that is that they matter and their perspective is appreciated.
The next step is to stop the hurting. Like two fighters who are bruised and bloodied and keep landing punches the warring parties need to be protected and each party needs to gain a sense of emotional safety. Emotional safety means the capacity to be honest without being attacked. Emotional safety is vital for trust to grow and the negative cycle of attack and defend to desist.
The temptation to “have the last word” is often very strong but needs to be resisted.
At this point some people think that expressing their needs necessarily involves a complaint/attack against the other.
Thankfully there are ways of talking about our needs without them being an attack or a demand on our partners. We can discuss our feelings and what we perceive to be a need while taking responsibility for them. Each of us has a choice as to how we behave in a relationship and these choices are usually informed by a knowledge of how the other party feels, what he or she likes and so on.
When anger is there
Sometimes – as is the case with Nicole and Michael, one person’s expression of feelings seemed to invoke a strong anger response in them.
What to do in these circumstances?
First we need to get clear that we can’t control our thoughts or our feelings but we can control our behaviour and we routinely do. Your behaviour, including speech should be as conscious and as “chosen” as possible.
Anger can arise and we can, for various reasons choose not to express it at a particular time. This is not emotional dishonesty but wisdom. Sometimes it is not helpful to express a feeling.
However a relationship is a place where we can feel safe to share our feelings and we can trust that our partner is willing to share their feelings as well. The time and place of that sharing may need to be chosen carefully.
This part of was Nicole and Michael’s problem – they were sharing their feelings in destructive ways woven into the negative cycle of attacking and defending. Feelings had become weapons.
There are communication strategies and many other things that will be needed to get their rocky “relation-ship” back on an even keel and not smash into the break up rocks.
As an immediate measure I suggested that as this new decorum will need to time to be established, they commit to a four week period where we will put their relationship in “intensive care” and just the same way we would with a patient whose life supporting systems were at risk, we would not expect them to be jogging along like normal but establish an intravenous drips of caution, calm, respect whilst undergoing an intensive period of therapy for four weeks.
From that time better choices may be made about whether they do really want to invest in the relationship or turn off the relationship life support.
More from David Indermaur our Relationship Psychologist in Perth in our next blog.
For help with your relationship in Sydney, please check out our Sydney Psychologists.