Couples can often get into familiar and fixed patterns of relating which can be deeply unsatisfying to both parties. This style of relating is one which can eventually seriously threaten the health and longevity of a relationship. In this brief blog, I open a window onto a session which explores a particular dynamic which I frequently encounter in couples work.
Take the following anonymised example:
A domestic crisis had arisen. The wife responded in her typical style : hurried, worried and outwardly emotional.
The husband responded in his typical style: slow and detached.
The wife read his response as insensitive and abandoning.
The husband read her response as over-the-top and reactive.
The outcome was that he withdrew from the situation, while his wife became more distressed and demanding. This was an unsatisfactory outcome for both.
I asked if they would be willing to replay the event exactly as it happened. Then I suggested that they swap roles and again replay the event.
This is what we discovered together. The wife would typically become highly reactive as a way of getting her husband’s attention, of which she was uncertain. The outcome was exactly opposite to that which she wanted. Her husband would withdraw and she would again experience feeling abandoned by him.
The husband would typically become unreactive as a way of protecting himself from his wife’s emotional expression, which he feared. The outcome was exactly opposite to that which he wanted. His wife became more emotional resulting in him feeling overwhelmed and needing to withdraw.
I chose this intervention as a way for each of them to experience the trigger point which propelled them into their typical ways of relating to each other when under stress. In other words they both got to not only see, but to feel the ‘game’ which they typically re-played together.
Therapy and Real Life
Research shows us that what is experienced in the therapy space can become real in our outside lives, (Gersie, A., 1995). My experience of working in this active way with clients is that can bring powerful and surprising insights. These insights into our typical ways of behaving, facilitated by a skilled therapist, can lead couples to experimenting with healthier and therefore more mutually satisfying ways of being in relationship.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch with us by telephone or email. Online therapy is available.