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 in mind, I offer you six suggestions on how you can be your own couple’s therapist:
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.
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.
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 from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org
Read more about differentiation in Dr. Lisa Firestone's latest book, The Self Under Siege