When couples come into therapy, they're typically in a lot of pain and confusion and trying their best to make sense of what's gone wrong with their relationship, and what needs to change to make it better. Here are some things they say:
"We need help with parenting. We're on totally different pages about how to parent our children!"
"Being physically intimate is very important to me. My love language is touch, but my partner never wants to have sex!"
"My wife's drinking is out of control!" "And my husband is verbally abusive to me!"
What I hear underneath their concerns is more vulnerable and connected to their emotional needs:
"I feel all alone as a parent. I need my partner to have my back. I feel caught in the middle of the people I love the most- my children and my spouse. It feels like a losing situation."
"I no longer feel wanted or attractive. I don't even know if my partner loves me anymore."
"I'm worried about my wife, and I'm hurt that she chooses alcohol over me." "I need to feel safe with my husband, not attacked. And I wish I could drink less, but I don't know how or if I really want to."
When couples are willing to speak from their heart and listen from their heart, their partner is MUCH more likely to hear them, and they are more likely to get their emotional needs met.
Yet, this vulnerable style of communication is not typically modeled by couples' family of origin, and may have even been directly or indirectly discouraged by having one's concerns or emotional needs ignored, invalidated, minimized, or worse used against them.
According to attachment theory, if, as a child, when you called out for support, comfort, or reassurance, at least one of your parents were consistently responsive in a quick and caring manner, as an adult, you will be more likely to seek emotional closeness and support from your adult partner, and are more likely to genuinely and skillfully provide emotional support for your partner as well.
If, on the other hand, as a child, at least one of your parents did not respond quickly or appropriately or you had to "pay" later for asking for support, you are less likely to reach out to your adult partner for support, comfort, or reassurance. Although you may not remember one of your parents not being there for you emotionally, if you feel you don't have any or just a few needs in a romantic relationship, it's possible you have unconsciously repressed or disowned your natural "attachment needs"(emotional needs that create feelings of safety, security, & love) to protect yourself. This may also cause you to dismiss your partner's (& other people's) attachment needs or overly focus on other's needs, but put yours on the back burner.
Instead of couples seeking therapy to create more secure, safe, and loving relationships (what relationship expert and creator of PACT - Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, Stan Tatkin calls "secure functioning" relationships), couples will more often identify the top 5 issues below that genuinely seem like the real issues to them. I view this type of work as "Level 1" couples work and I have personally been here (example below).
Level 1: Common Couple Issues
The top 5 things that couples fight about are (Parrotts, 2013):
As a couples therapist, I know that as painful and divisive as these issues can be for couples (in addition to other areas such as: mental & physical health, substance abuse or addictions, time, religion, betrayals, etc.), my training in PACT influences me to honor where the couple is at by supporting them to discuss their area of concern and more importantly to guide them to slow down their interactions in order to go deeper in order to get to the heart of the matter.
By slowing down, couples can see what's happening in their interactions by "reading" their partner better, noticing the feelings that are coming up for them, and speaking and listening from their hearts , which is"Level 3" work (see below).
My picture of a Level 1 couple is two people standing with their arms crossed saying, "I'll change when s/he changes." Or, "I don't need to change. The problem is him/her!" While couples at Level I try to stay on message and continue to fight in therapy sessions about these common couple issues, my experience is similar to the carnival game of wack-a-mole. The couple might come to a resolution or compromise by the end of a session on one of these issues, and then will arrive the following session with a new area of contention or the same issue will repeatedly rear its ugly head and the couple may start to feel hopeless again.
Frankly, my husband and I were operating at a "Level 1" at our 3rd year of marriage when I was going through a "workaholic" phase. Instead of putting our relationship first and/or my husband's emotional needs above my need to feel accomplished at work, I chose my work and did not realize I was doing anything hurtful until my husband requested that we see a couple therapist. I was stunned, frightened, and also felt stuck at the same time. I was repeating behavior that I saw as a child, which led to my father becoming highly successful, and I didn't realize that it was possible to be "enough" in my career if I prioritized my marriage above it. In the end, I chose my marriage when I realized that I truly could lose it if I hadn't made that switch to PACT's "secure functioning" principles, "We come first." and "I am as good at my partner as I am at my job."
I've found that it's almost never the "content" (sex, mess, kids, money, & work) that breaks up the couple, but their "process" or the way they interact or treat one another on a deep level that either feels supportive or threatening.
To clarify, just being polite to your partner, but not sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings, tends to feel threatening. Not expressing any needs to your partner also feels threatening, similar to an employee worrying that s/he is redundant. Likewise, not responding to your partner's distress in a way that feels soothing to him/her or not swiftly repairing any hurts you have caused is definitely threatening. And of course yelling or frequently criticizing your partner will obviously feel threatening as well.
Supportive behaviors, (ex. expressing appreciation, showing you're in tune with your partner's emotions, & when arguing, demonstrating "we're on the same team" even if you have different opinions, etc.) on the other hand, build trust, loving connection, and a level of emotional safety and security that makes relationship work worth it and allows couples to more easily negotiate the top 5 problems.
Level 2: Communication Skills
Other couples understand that their issues go beyond the top 5 and therefore are willing to work on the #1 goal that many couple therapy clients identify, "COMMUNICATION". These insightful couples recognize the importance of improving their "process" or interactions, the how something is said, which allows them to have less stressful and more effective conversations with their partner and increase their potential to stop replaying their same old arguments.
For example, my husband and I used to argue about housework, and we would just recycle our points and get nowhere, but we desperately wanted our partner to "listen", which really meant "agree with me!" After attending a couples therapy retreat, we realized that this was one of our negative communication "cycles" that was not productive and just left us feeling hurt and disconnected. So, we decided to abandon our old communication style that focused on content and instead agreed on an alternative resolution in order for "mess" to no longer come between us. We had progressed from level 1 to level 2 work because we engaged in more respectful communication by truly listening to each other's alternative solutions and cooperatively developing a resolution that was a win-win.
A snapshot of a Level 2 couple is two people facing each other practicing effective communication skills because they have a genuine desire to improve their interactions with their partner. Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, created a powerful model called Imago Couples Therapy, which included the practice of "Couples Dialogue" that provided a simple structure to help partners practice mirroring (reflect back what you heard your partner say), validation ("That makes sense because..." - show a clear understanding of your partner), and empathy ("I imagine you might have felt _____" - fill in the blank using your gut and/or a feeling word list if needed) . Given that these skills reflect some of our most important emotional needs throughout our lifetime, many couples therapists and couples thought this structure and (similar ones) was the answer to helping couples work through common issues and overall in developing satisfying marriages.
While learning and practicing these skills is helpful for ALL relationships (especially for folks who did not learn emotional intelligence from their families of origin), it has also been discovered that when in the heat of an argument, couples are not able to consistently apply these skills. This can be very discouraging for couples, but thanks to Stan Tatkin's neuroscience research, couples are reassured to know that it is normal for adult romantic partners to trigger one another since our brains are more geared for war than for love (in order to survive).
And his secure functioning principles, that Level 3 partners practice, enable partners to engage the parts of their brain that are more prone to love, in addition to being skillful in getting their partner out of distress quickly and effectively if they (or something else) appears threatening to one's partner. Thus, partners improving their communication skills can strengthen their connection by helping their partner feel heard and seen. Yet, they still are unlikely to get to the heart of the matter of what their partner needs to feel safe, secure, and loved until they are willing to work at Level 3.
Level 3: Secure Functioning Relationships
One image of a Level 3 couple is two people working together in synchrony on a boat riding this journey we call life. They feel safe, secure, and loved and know on a gut level that their partner has their back. They take turns paddling so their partner can rest, and they choose to be in one boat together because they believe that they're stronger and more capable of facing life's challenges when together and also more joyful when they have someone by their side to share the beautiful experiences in life, like watching a sunrise. In spite of the effort and commitment required to be a "secure functioning" couple, they believe that the quality of their life and their relationship is significantly better when they're in the same boat together.
While some couples are stuck battling the top 5 issues, others have gone deeper, but still may feel lost at sea because they report feeling disillusioned with life since they feel like they have done the right things to be happy (checked the boxes for: x found one's soulmate, x got married, x achieved success in education and/or career, x bought a house, x had children, etc... and yet express that something BIG is missing from their relationship, but they can't put their finger on it. Some of these couples feel like two boats side by side, physically tethered, but emotionally disconnected and the loneliness has become too much. Or, other couples say they can't stop fighting about everything and one or both are considering either leaving their "boat" or pushing their partner overboard because they're overwhelmed and don't have a map for how to turn their "boat" around.
There is hope! What thrills me about the PACT model is how Tatkin's Wired for love book provides the "manual" that so many couples are looking for! Tatkin provides "the tools" or secure functioning principles to guide couples in developing safe, secure, and loving relationships. And Tatkin also explains (in a down to earth manner) the factors (from attachment theory, neuroscience, and arousal regulation) that cause adult romantic relationships to be so challenging, as well as rewarding.
Reading Wired for Love with your partner can give you a radical new way of looking at your relationship, a more compassionate understanding of yourself and your partner, and ideas for change. And, if only we could just read a book and change! I imagine you realize that change is not that easy and most couples, including my husband and myself, benefited greatly from couples therapy because we needed a guide~
Finally, here is a brief list of secure functioning principles~
If you would like to create a safe, secure, and loving relationship with your partner, call Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III to schedule your appointment today: 720.432.5262
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