When I ask couples what their goals are for counseling, one of the most common answers I get is “better communication”. But ironically, I don’t think I’ve met a couple yet who’ve needed actual help learning the “right words” to talk to each other. I swear I must have some of the most verbose, self-aware clients in Edmonton. But they’re still getting stuck, and I think the common assumption is “I must not be saying it right” or “my partner’s not hearing me”. This hasn’t been my experience.
Although the content of the argument changes from relationship to relationship, I’ve noticed that a lot of where couples get stuck is around the same themes: Nothing I do is ever enough, I’m alone in this, I can’t get my needs met, I’m not cared about in this relationship, and no one even sees me. There may be variations on these themes, but those seem to be the big ones in my experience. And if I can boil it down even simpler than that, it comes down to this question: in my most important relationship, the place I’m most vulnerable, what am I deeply afraid of?
This is a huge switch from where we started (communication skills), but an essential one. Now we’re having a different conversation that’s getting to the heart of their stuckness. And not because I’ve taught them anything about how to talk to each other – we’re just finally moving beyond whatever the surface topic was (laundry, navigating time together vs time apart, money, sex, etc) into what’s underneath. Imagine the following scenario…
Clara and Madeline have just moved in together, and at first all was going well, but then Clara started spending more and more nights away from home, out with friends at the bar. Madeline is starting to feel anxious about the increasing distance and spends the whole night texting her with increasing urgency, trying to get her to come home, and even falling asleep with her cell phone next to her. Clara gets angry that her time connecting with her friends is being interrupted, and accuses Madeline of trying to control her, then spends the night at a friend’s.
What’s underneath the surface here? Clara could be dealing with feeling alone in the relationship, or with fears about being abandoned. Madeline could be coping with a fear of being consumed by a relationship or controlled in it. Without the recognition of the deeper fears at play for each of them, it would be easy for them to get stuck in having the same argument each night. But if they’re willing and open to understanding each others’ reality, there’s a lot more room for them to move. Empathy and recognition of the wider story opens up possibilities.
As a relationship therapist, the other thing I try to bring to light right away is that our underlying fears and needs tend to trigger the other person’s underlying needs and fears. In the above example, Clara’s fear of abandonment and attempts at closeness could have triggered Madeline’s fear of being consumed, and resulted in her pulling away. That withdrawal would likely increase Clara’s fear of abandonment, and so on, and so on.
So if you find yourself stuck in the same argument again and again, you might ask yourself “what’s the underlying fear or need here in me?” And, “what is my partner most afraid of?” In other words, “what’s really going on?”
If this piqued your interest, make sure to attend our upcoming workshop “Understanding Relationship Patterns” on Wednesday October 5 2016 from 5:30-6:30pm at Momentum Walk in Counselling. In this one hour workshop, we go over common relationship patterns and how they connect with the three main attachment styles (secure, anxious, and avoidant). You’ll find out why attachment is so important and how it may be running your relationship (or potential relationships) without your even knowing it. You’ll get to do a quiz about your own attachment style and a group exercise where you talk with other attendees who have the same style. It promises to be insightful and fun! As always, we’ll have time for some education, questions, and support.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist with a collaborative, feminist approach. She identifies as an ally and has a ton of experiences working with the LGBTQ* community, including being on the counselling team at Camp Fyrefly and leading the Queer Space workshops. She’s still learning about relationships, but fascinated by them, and is influenced most by: Sue Johnson’s books, everything she has learned from the amazing clients who’ve let her into their lives, and hundreds of hours of her own relationship therapy. Probably hundreds.