How Couples Counseling Can Improve Relationships
Addressing unrealistic expectations about being a couple may help.
Posted Sep 30, 2020
Couples counseling is not only for couples who are having difficulty but also for those who want to prevent small problems from becoming bigger ones. There are many adjustments involved in long-term commitments that are very difficult to anticipate because they relate to our subconscious feelings and assumptions. Add to that reality the observation by many therapists that expectations of marriage are unrealistically high in our current time (Perel, 2017). Two basic groups of questions come to mind. First, “What do I expect from this partnership?” and then “What am I assuming about being a couple, without even thinking about it?”
What do we expect from a committed relationship?
In couples counseling, each person has the opportunity to think through their expectations regarding the practical day-to-day and month-to-month issues. These might be considered to be obvious issues, such as: Who does which chores? Who provides what income? Where to live, and how much to save for the future or spend on those non-essential items? (By the way, what is considered “non-essential” anyway?) The list starts out fairly straightforward and then becomes increasingly more complex when pets, children, or other family members become part of the household.
Many of you are probably thinking, “It can’t be that difficult for two reasonable adults to agree on these things.” Actually, it is not at all unusual to discover that your partner has some very different expectations of what is normal, acceptable, or desirable in a partnership. Many individuals enter into a commitment with both conscious and subconscious expectations that are based upon their own parents’ marriage. Alternatively, the expectations may be based upon prior relationships. The expectations may be positive or negative or some combination of the two. In any case, that model most likely will not work well for the two of you. It will be necessary to create your own model of how you want your partnership to be, based upon your conscious expectations.
What is the subconscious assumption?
This is the really tough part of the process of recognizing your expectations. Each of us takes into our relationships some aspect of our relationships with our parents, or primary caregivers from childhood. In particular, the need for a secure attachment and the related fear of abandonment becomes more intense when a committed partnership is established. The fear of being abandoned is perhaps the most basic human fear and is present to some degree from childhood through adulthood.
Even under the best of parenting circumstances, when the parent-child attachment was secure and stable, there were probably certain circumstances that triggered this basic fear of abandonment. (If abuse or neglect was a part of the childhood experience, the problems related to the fear of abandonment are far more significant and difficult to work through.)
The subconscious assumption that many people have when they make a commitment is that their partner will protect them from experiencing their own abandonment fears.
It is unrealistic to expect that any partner can consistently protect us from our own abandonment fears. Yet, many if not most individuals do “expect” exactly that. Such an expectation is one of the most problematic assumptions of newly committed couples.
How does couples counseling help with this assumption?
In couples’ counseling, one of the goals is to gain awareness of the emotional triggers that cause our innate fear of abandonment to spike. These emotional triggers have been labeled “raw spots” by Dr. Susan Johnson (Johnson, 2008). Many individuals are not even aware of their own emotional raw spots until they are involved in a stable, committed relationship. An ideal time to develop an awareness of one’s triggers is as soon as possible in a committed relationship, in order to prevent multiple incidents of hurt feelings, disappointments, and resentments.
It is realistic for us to learn to remain mindful of our own raw spots. Learn to communicate with a partner about the circumstances that trigger them. Practice self-soothing strategies to calm yourself when the fear spikes. Couples counseling is one way to learn and practice these skills.
A loving partner will express compassion when abandonment fears are triggered. No partner can be reasonably expected to avoid ever triggering such fears. The sooner both members of a couple accept that reality, the better their chances for a lasting and joyful partnership.
Johnson, Susan. (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown, and Company.
Perel, Esther. (2017). The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. Harper Publishing.