Linda: Ginger and Tom came for marriage counseling as a result of the physical and emotional stress brought about by the recurrence of Ginger’s cancer. Her health condition had required her to hire household help in order to manage things that she could no longer handle. During their session, Ginger criticized Tom for overworking and spending what she considered excessive time on his volunteer activities. Beneath her words was an unspoken plea for more of his attention. She didn’t acknowledge this desire, so it came out as judgments of Tom.
He responded by justify his actions but was unable to explain things to Ginger’s satisfaction. Ginger sat passively, unmoved by Tom’s efforts to provide her with the reassurance of his concern.
In not receiving the acknowledgment that he sought from Ginger, Tom kept restating his explanations in hopes of finally hitting the right words that would give her the reassurance she needed in order to grant him forgiveness. What Tom sought was a statement that absolved him of responsibility for Ginger’s unhappiness in order to be relieved of his guilt.
This example was all too common to Tom and Ginger. Neither of them was able to articulate their true concerns and were stuck in a repetitive cycle, leading to increased resentment on both of their parts.
Issues mount up when they go unaddressed.
When a couple is stuck in a repetitive interactive pattern, the way through lies in the willingness to address the concerns, desires, and fears that underlie the content of the dialogue. Often, both partners remain at a low level of connection in order to spare them each the discomfort of revealing their more vulnerable feelings. They (unconsciously) opt for the discomfort of being stuck in negative cycles rather than risk the discomfort that may be experienced through the authentic exchange. While it appears as though one of the two partners is the “resistant one,” it is usually the case that both partners resist (in different ways) vulnerable levels of communication.
After observing Tim and Ginger’s go-rounds for several minutes, I stopped them and had them check in to their current experience. This question can redirect each person’s awareness away from the other and towards themselves.
In response to my question, Ginger stated that she was feeling sad, hopeless, and “a little angry.” Tom expressed disappointment that he had been unsuccessful in his efforts to influence Ginger’s mood. When pressed, Tom also acknowledged that he was tired of “having to keep trying to get her to understand my side of things when it seems that she doesn’t want to.”
Both Tom and Ginger are conflict phobic. They will do anything to avoid a fight. Instead of arguing, which they both see as being dangerous, they engage in superficial exchanges of emotion which protect them from the possibility of a full-blown confrontation. This avoidant policy leaves them feeling frustrated. Because the quality of what they experience together isn’t authentic, they try to compensate by having extended conversations that only add to their resentment.
Many couples, like Tom and Ginger, spend vast amounts of time trying to relate with each other but fail in meaningful connection. Each of them covertly blames the other for the deficiency in the relationship. They are both responsible for having created the problematic pattern, having covertly colluded to keep the relationship ‘safe’ by trying to minimize the possibility of conflict.
Getting unstuck by keeping our attention on ourselves.
When couples redirect their attention to their own experience, they stop demonizing the other person and take a powerful step that can interrupt the impasse. This move can cause a shift in their partner’s perspective. In some cases, the impasse is so deep, that a third party is needed to help the couple to break the stalemate. If a couple cannot do this without the help of a third party, then they will need to engage the services of a counselor to help them do this until they can do it on their own.
As Ginger and Tom began describing their feelings, the tension between them began to cool down. They shifted from a mode of attack/justify/defend to one of opening/listening/ understanding. The shift in communication is actually a manifestation of a deeper shift in intention from a desire to protect an intention to learn and understand. This opening allows for them each to drop into their deeper, vulnerable truth. Once this shift has occurred, a different kind of relationship is available to them both.
The steps that meaningful connection requires are simple but not easy to take. Ongoing patterns of defensive behaviors, many of which began long before we ever met our partner, don’t dissolve immediately. But over time, with committed effort, significant changes can occur in even deeply troubled relationships. It’s never too late to take the first step.