I have always enjoyed therapy with couples. It is stimulating, interactive work and can create dramatic change quickly. By strengthening a couples' communication pattern, you not only help them to improve their relationship, but help them to learn more about themselves and what drives their behavior. And as with individual therapy, if the clients are motivated to change, they will. But after years of doing the work, I still marvel at the difficulty of creating lasting change when dealing with a co-dependent relationship based on negative attachment issues.
Because I work a lot with Abuse and Trauma Survivors, many couples who come to see me have that in one or both of their backgrounds. Childhood abuse can create long-term trauma and attachment issues, even personality disorders. And people are oftentimes attracted to others whose ability to attach and interactional style are complementary.
For example, it is quite common for adults from alcoholic families to become attracted to other adult children of alcoholics, even if neither of them is an alcoholic. They are attracted not just because they have similar backgrounds, but also because their communication style and ability to be intimate is probably similar. They both are used to living with people who had secrets and who were likely to be passive aggressive in their communication styles. They may be used to care taking, and to boundaries that were breached, especially when a parent was abusing substances. They may also have been traumatized by physical and/or sexual abuse. When two people are drawn to each other, they don’t have to know all the details of their respective backgrounds to feel a kinship. By the time they come into therapy they know each other’s vulnerabilities and how to push each other’s buttons, but they may not be equally prepared to change the interactional pattern they have established between them.
A while back, I worked with a couple* who had both experienced abuse in their childhoods. They had been together for 9 years, married 4 of them. He was the one who called and wanted couples therapy, claiming that their relationship was unhealthy. He said he was angry a lot because she was cold and he didn't feel taken care of or loved by her. He thought that her abusive background had damaged her sexuality and her ability to love. And that made him scared to bring children into the mix - something she was pushing for.
When I met with them the first time, she seemed emotionless and impervious to his complaints, but willing to go along with his wishes to be in therapy. But as the weeks went by, it became evident that she was the one doing all the work to change, while he used a debater’s skill and keen intellect to keep her on the defensive. She wasn’t nurturing and attentive enough. She wasn’t social enough. She wasn’t professionally ambitious, but she also worked too much. What I recognized was that she was actually a pleaser, but also passive aggressive. That combination of traits is not uncommon. The pleaser is usually stuffing their own feelings, so their resentment builds and manifests in other ways. While he could be insightful, he didn't seem to notice all the attempts she made. More importantly, he didn’t seem to believe that he needed to change as well. When I tried to bring that up, he seemed wounded and implied that we were ganging up on him.
I asked each of them to come in for an individual session. I sometimes do this with couples when I feel that one or both are withholding in the room. He encouraged her to come in first. Now, alone with me, she proceeded to point out everything that I had been noticing. Additionally, she was aware that she was jumping through hoops, but it didn’t seem to matter. She talked about his insecurities and dark moods and how he took everything out on her. Clearly frustrated, she said, “I’m still very physically attracted to him, and we do have an active sex life, but how can I be warm and tender when I am constantly being put down?”
I asked if she could imagine standing up for herself in the relationship. Could she help him understand that she wasn’t responsible for making him feel better about himself? The look of recognition on her face seemed to confirm that she could. When the session was over, she grabbed my hand and thanked me.
I later mused about how common it was for one partner to come in seeking change, identifying the other as the problem, only to discover how much more complicated the situation was and how both parties were responsible for the friction between them.
A few days later I received an anxious call from her. She said an opportunity had presented itself, and in the gentlest manner possible, she pointed out how he sometimes took his frustrations out on her rather than on the people or situations they should be directed at. “He went ballistic and walked out. You know, he doesn’t want to hear that anything is wrong with him.” I suggested that she give him some time to think about what she said. He wasn’t used to being confronted, it may have been difficult to take in.
There was a long silence and then she stated emphatically, "No I am going to apologize and try harder. He needs to feel more loved by me.” “But isn't that what you have been doing all along? How is it going to be any different this time?” Her reply, “Well, we’ve managed to remain together this long, so I guess I know how to make it work.”
Clients make their own choices – rightly so. And only they know what they are ready to do. These clients were both intelligent and insightful. But change is hard. And sometimes things do get worse before they get better. So it may seem easier to fall back into what is familiar, whether or not it is truly satisfying.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT
* Certain identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality.