Written By: Page Rutledge
Why do couples get stuck? And how do they move through the most pervasive issue that keeps them there? What is that issue? I will answer these questions, but please keep reading first.
Couples work is hard. It is difficult for both the couple coming into the room, and the helper or counselor in the room with them. The couple comes in at a point, usually later than would have been best for them, with very real pain and anger. Often the pain is palpable—so visceral in the room you could almost touch it. There are times the therapist knows that one or both of the partners needs to work through old injuries and hurts, but they are not ready to tolerate the rupture long enough to achieve the repair.
ON GO THE NEGATIVE LENSES
Couples frequently come into therapy certain that their partner needs to change, or with the common criticism that their partner is selfish. As humans it is a natural part of our evolution to seek an explanation for why we feel so negatively vs. why we feel good. We scan our environment looking for others mistakes and missteps to account for our own anger, sadness, and disappointments. In the process, the partner’s perceived or real transgressions pile up for us and become the “explanation” for all of our bitterness. On go the negative lenses through which we now see our significant other.
DIFFERENCES IN EMOTIONAL PROCESSING
Another common issue occurs when partners process their emotions differently from the other. One partner appears to want to examine their feelings endlessly while the other takes the it’s-over-just-move-on stance. The problem with this is if neither partner feels the issue has been satisfactorily resolved, it remains between them, festering and reappearing like an invisible virus in future interactions. This is why fights over small issues can feel disproportionate to the matter at hand.
There are many schools of thought on how to treat what ails a couple. I prefer the ones based on research with enough demonstrated evidence over time. For example, the Gottman approach to couples therapy focuses on conflict management. In this approach, negative patterns of miscommunication can be identified and gently corrected. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I hold some curative magic wand that will instill lost love into your relationship if you are now leading truly parallel lives in complete disconnect. This level or lack of engagement, where a sort of deadened disinterest is present, usually signals one of two things: 1.) divorce is imminent, or 2.) you have silently agreed to stay in an unhappy situation often due to financial considerations.
However, if you still have the sense that you have temporarily lost your way, or that outside life events or personal history have introduced stress or anxiety into your relationship, there is most definitely hope. Conflict management skills can be taught, your internal maps or knowledge of each other can be increased, and rituals of connection can be reawakened or newly created.
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE
So what is the single most demonstrated issue that keeps couples stuck? I promised an answer. It is shame. Shame from past experiences, shame from families (bodies or inherited traits we have no control over), shame from addictions (and the behaviors associated with them), and shame from affairs (both emotional and physical). Shame is often what keeps you stuck. Working through it takes courage. A lot of courage.
Page Rutledge is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Wilmington, NC. She specializes in anxiety management and relationship counseling. Visit her website and local blog at www.pagerutledge.com.