About three times a year I see couples therapy playfully mocked in a movie. My favorite might be the scene in “This is 40” where the couple is about to get in a fight and the husband says, “I don’t want to get into a nasty fight here. Can we please talk the way the therapist told us to?”. This leads to the couple using catch phrases and quasi active listening skills but really just laying into each other. “It hurts me inside, and triggers me, when you are so easy to trick into lying…”. While that’s a hilarious scene it also shows that often couples therapy is not really getting at the core issues and helping people. It should be more than people just being listened to and then prompted to respond. In the “literature” (a fancy word for the academic articles that are written around a certain topic) three main themes emerge when thinking about what’s important to get to in couples therapy.
1. What are the out of date patterns/strategies for relating that each person created from their childhood when their environment was unable to respond to them the way they needed?
These are patterns that are automatically evoked when familiar upsetting, rejecting, disappointing, frustrating moments happen. In other words, these patterns are implicit (unconscious) modes we move into when we sense we're about to get hurt (again). It’s how we deal with the conflict. Often our strategies made sense and kept us going in our original environment but in our marriage relationship they are doing more harm than help.
2. What are the underlying emotional needs that are going unmet?
We always need people to help us with our emotional world. Ironically, though this can be a doubled edged sword for the closer you get to someone the more they can hurt you (we care very little when the grocery store clerk lets us down but it upsets us when our wife or husband does). Our out of date relational strategies are triggered by emotions of fear, sadness, disgust, shame, loneliness, etc. And each of these emotions has a need associated with it (it's the belief that we our needs won't be cared about that evokes the out of date relational strategies). Often recognizing or being aware of feeling these emotions and wanting these needs met can even be unconscious to the person having them because they are rooted in early childhood/adolescent experiences that have been dissociated (put out of mind) in order to avoid further frustration/pain.
3. What are the unconscious organizing principals?
Organizing principals is a fancy phrase for the assumptions we have about what a moment means. In other words, "when X happens, I take it to mean __________". An example would be, “When my wife looks at me like that I know that it means she thinks I’m inadequate.” We are all carrying around assumptions about the other person’s motives and meanings and often these are not very accurate assumptions. Discovering, over time, these unconscious organizing principles can help re-calibrate a partner’s reaction to a moment and buy time for more accurate meaning to be found. Which usually means there is less chance of a bitter drawn out fight!
These three themes are not sequential and do not occur in a step by step process in couples therapy. They are non-linear and have to be found and utilized over and over again in a rupture and repair process that takes time. That said, these three things are core to bringing healing to a repetitive unhealthy relationship.