In my 25 years as a therapist, I’ve worked with countless couples facing a broad spectrum of challenges. Yet, despite the diversity between them in age, occupation, or origin, I’m amazed at the similarities in the patterns and pitfalls that couples fall into. When two people walk into my office and start discussing their relationship, the first thing I tell them is to focus on empowering yourself. The only person you can change is you. If both parties accept this, real change is possible in the relationship. With this theme of self-empowerment in mind, I offer you six suggestions on how you can be your own couple’s therapist.
Unilaterally disarm - As human beings, we are full of imperfections. We have all been damaged and hurt in unique ways that impact how we relate in our interpersonal relationships. It is easy to identify undesirable traits in our partners. Ironically, the longer we are together and the closer we get to someone, the more we tend pick them apart for negative characteristics. When a couple enters therapy, they are often brimming with complaints about their partners. The difficulties and dynamics have become so complex that it is hard to sort through the many offenses of which they’ve accused each other. Chances are, in most cases, both parties are right, and both are wrong. Thus, my first piece of advice to couples is simple, drop it. Stop the blame game and start taking responsibility for your own actions. In order to resolve real issues, it’s helpful to abandon the case you’ve long been building, address your part of the problem, and start fresh with a clean slate. When you are vulnerable you are more likely to achieve what you want.
Observe before reacting – Naturally, letting go of past grudges and grievances won’t prevent you from getting into trouble in the future. When a conflict does arise, it’s an important exercisenot to always react automatically in the moment. At a recent presentation I attended on mindfulness, someone described that like a train, negative thoughts will come rushing by, but we can choose whether or not we get on. Take some time to step away and focus on something besides the conflict for a while. Since it takes two to tango, stopping yourself from being reactive in the moment prevents the argument from escalating into seriously destructive territory.
When you calm yourself down, you should sit back and observe what is going on. Times of conflict can be experienced as life-threatening, but in calming yourself down, you are in an adult, more rational state and can check in and see what’s real. You may realize you are projecting negative thoughts, or assuming your partner is critical of you, or intentionally hurting you. A married couple I’ve worked with relayed a conversation in which one such misunderstanding occurred. The husband described how, when getting ready for an evening out, his wife went into his closet and asked if he’d like his gray pants. This he took as an insult and insinuation that he was improperly dressed. She, however, was merely wondering if he wanted warmer pants to wear out. Before the simple matter could be resolved, he was accusing her of being critical and controlling, and she was defending herself and declaring him to be over-reactive and infantile. In these moments of tension, we must take a break and reflect. Don’t feed your feelings of hurt. Instead, step aside and ask yourself what you’re really reacting to and why.
Identify patterns – A man recently came into my office, up in arms that his girlfriend was being critical and demanding of him. When I asked what she had said, he said, “Every time I want to go out with the guys from work, she goes nuts. All we do is have a few beers and play pool. She practically wants to set a curfew. I tell her it’s not like we are looking for girls! She has no reason not to trust me!” When we feel overwhelmed by our emotions, it’s essential to ask what triggered you? Often, when couples start fighting, there is a feeling of hurt or abandonment at the root of it. Scenarios that stir up old feelings, especially those having to do with attachment, can make us feel insecure, unseen, unsafe, or purposefully wronged. If we felt rejected as children, we are far more likely to perceive those close to us as being rejecting as adults. If we felt intruded on in our youth, we may be more at-risk for feeling guarded or resistant to opening up. In your present relationship, your partner is not necessarily intentionally causing you pain, but rather, inadvertently triggering a primal reaction. By noticing patterns to what causes you to feel stirred up (anxious or enraged), you get to know yourself better, and you can deal with these emotions in a healthier manner.
Look to your past - After noting patterns in your reactions, you can start to piece together what is familiar from your past. You can question whether you’re projecting or replaying some dynamic that is familiar to you from your childhood in your current relationship. It may not seem obvious, but in looking closer your can make connections between the dynamic in your relationship and you or your partner’s early life. The culture of the family you grew up in will affect you as an adult. What was valued or looked down upon in your family?
A woman I saw in therapy for years noticed that she felt trapped every time her relationships got more serious. As soon as she took a symbolically serious step toward getting close to a man, introducing him to her family or moving in with him, she started noticing flaws in him that pushed her farther and farther out the door. When I encouraged her to describe the feelings she had toward her partner, she began with comments like, “You are always in my space. Can’t you just leave me be for five minutes?” As she explored her feelings further, she started shouting “How can I even trust you? I can’t trust anyone in this world. All men are the same. You’re just going to leave like they all do.” Suddenly, overcome with emotion, she realized that she was talking about her father, who had moved away when she was young. She was even using expressions that she’d heard her mother use throughout her childhood.
It’s important to consider that what are you reacting to now may set off emotions from your past. When we are reacting based on old experiences, we often see the present world through a distorted lens. For example, a man I spoke to said he could see his “disapproving mother” in his wife through “just a look.” Differentiating from destructive past influences is essentially the only way to fully be yourself in your relationship.
Have compassion – As you make connections to your own past, you will start to feel more compassion for your struggles. You can extend this same sentiment to your partner, seeing ways that they may be reacting based on painful experiences from their own past. When conflicts arise, you should try to see the scenario from their eyes and understand how they see the situation. You may not feel you are being rejecting by choosing to go out with friends or that you are being mean by making a jealous comment, but your partner may perceive things differently. Try to align your state with theirs and adopt an empathetic perspective toward what they perceived. Once you listen to their side of the story, “play back” what they’ve communicated to you to show that you understand how they’re feeling and to see if you have it right. You can then come to understand, not only why you were triggered but why your partner was triggered. You can then have more compassion toward both yourself and your partner.
Communicate what you feel – Once you are both calm, you can explain how you feel without placing blame or acting victimized. When you communicate, it is important to respect the fact that you each have unique minds that work differently. In doing so, you get to know your partner on a deeper level that, ultimately, will bring you closer. If both you and your partner are open to each other and compassionate toward your individual struggles, you can help each other overcome obstacles and become the people you both want to be in your relationship
Of course, nobody is perfect, and we are bound to mess up at times. Every couple consists of two separate, imperfect people, so when we do mess up, all we can do is repair. Instead of letting things fester or build, we can make sense of what went wrong and interrupt destructive actions. When we take these steps of interrupting harmful behaviors in our relationship and identifying patterns from our past, we start a journey of self-discovery that can be both deeply painful and richly rewarding. The key to achieving lasting love thus becomes an act of differentiation, a therapeutic process of identifying the ways we were hurt in our past that lead us to hurt ourselves and those close to us in the present. It is an ongoing journey of self-reflection that helps us to reveal who we truly are and to know and love someone for who they are as well.
Read more about differentiation in Dr. Lisa Firestone’s latest book, The Self Under Siege