Having seen too many divorces and breakups, I am always interested in writers who help couples make it together despite the many twists and turns of being in a relationship. John Gerson, Ph.D. understands how couples get stuck. This piece offers insight about what getting stuck looks like, and when it’s time to make some changes.
For more of Dr. Gerson’s work see: http://relationship-repair.com/
In a marriage counseling session the other day, Joan, a bright woman in her mid forties had her husband Ralph, in her cross hairs as she unloaded a good paragraph’s worth of complaint about him. Sometimes she looked at him but mostly she looked at me, as if I was the school principal and she was bringing me a bad boy for discipline.
Ralph, on the other hand, had a far away look in his eyes. His body was turned away from her slightly, was bent forward, and I was pretty sure he was sad. I asked Joan if I could interrupt, as I needed to check in with Ralph; I asked “Ralph, what are you feeling right now? What were you feeling while Joan was talking?”
“Nothing,” he said, and remained quiet. Joan looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “You see?” and in fact that’s exactly what she said a moment later, her voice louder than before. Ralph looked even farther away. I stopped her again, and checked in with Ralph again, this time asking him, “Where are you right now?”
“I’m in the corner of that picture,” indicating a print on the wall in back of my chair. Joan became angrier, raising her voice as she again demanded, “You see? You see? I can’t get anywhere. This is what happens at home. I love him but I don’t get anything back from him. I don’t know if he’s in this marriage or not!” With this Joan began to cry.
This is a scene from a marriage in pain. Joan and Ralph are hurt and hurting, and neither of them knows how to break an unhappy pattern of interaction. Joan demands and Ralph retreats. There will be no real happiness in this marriage until both Joan and Ralph learn to communicate in a more satisfying way.
Joan feels stonewalled and Ralph feels attacked.
You may see yourself stuck in this kind of “marital conversation” or in other forms that hurt you and your partner. It’s true that both Ralph and Joan feel wronged – and fight back: to be right and dominant in Joan’s case, and to be safe and in control in Ralph’s. Neither one of them recognizes that their strategy is failing and that it will continue to frustrate their needs to be close and to re-establish their partnership.
In order to help Joan and Ralph, I first put a stop to the action, by asking each of them to look more carefully at their partner’s face and body language. I began by asking Joan what she saw, and again she just claimed that Ralph wasn’t listening, that he didn’t care enough about her and the marriage to make an effort.
Next, I helped her along by inquiring if she noticed the sadness on Ralph’s face. She stopped her complaint and began to study her husband’s face, and said, “I guess so.” Ralph’s reaction was to look at her, just a little, and I thought I saw some of his sadness and remoteness soften a bit.
Then, I took the opportunity of this subtle change in him to ask Ralph if he knew that his wife was in pain. This confused Ralph, because all he had been getting from her was anger. When I explained that underneath her anger was sadness and fear of loss, Joan began to cry. This ended the impasse, and they began to move toward each other, with some cautious appealing looks and open body signals.
Couple’s often fight, but the key is to fight for your marriage, and not just to win.
Do you see yourself in this scene? Don’t get overly concerned; there are many stuck relationships. My advice is to be among the happier couples who actually do something about it. Now may be the time to get some help and change your perspective from me vs. you, to “us.”
When a couple fights with “us” in mind, they fight fair, because then it’s not about winning. Rather, it’s about each member of a couple feeling heard, and coming up with solutions that are satisfying .
Take home message: Learn how to fight fair. It’s a pragmatic act of love. And, it is doable.