Think Like a Therapist

Understand and mitigate your relationship struggles in the face of COVID-19.

Posted Apr 05, 2020

David Tadevosian/Shutterstock
Source: David Tadevosian/Shutterstock

Congratulations on being productive today. Reading this blog post means that you are managing to accomplish at least one thing, and that is something to be proud of. The tremendous stress permeating our lives because of COVID-19 can be draining at best, debilitating at worst.

Let's review some strategies for surviving the relationship stresses that are undoubtedly rearing their unwelcome heads right now. Here's a crash course in couples' therapy. And right now, I'm inviting you to think like a therapist. 

I'm going to walk you through several ways to deal with the argument you either just had or are about to have with your partner. I'd refer to them as your beloved, but right now that's probably not the first word that comes to your mind. I'm going to use a relatively popular argument I hear in my therapy practice, but feel free to substitute it for one of your personal favorite relationship struggles. 

Reece wants more sex than Morgan. We call this sexual desire discrepancy, and most romantic relationships struggle with it. It's also a problem that gets amplified by stress—often because the person with a higher libido (in this case, Morgan) finds sex to be helpful in attenuating the impact of stress. In contrast, Reece feels that sex requires energy—energy that is in short supply when stressed

Now, as a couples therapist, I'm hoping that you will think as I do here and not take sides. For most arguments, including this one, no one is "right" or "wrong." Instead, we have two reasonable individuals presenting two reasonable arguments for their relationship challenge. In your office, they each present their case and then look expectantly at you to say something intelligent. What pearls of wisdom might you offer? If you are speechless, here are some options to consider:

Oftentimes arguments are fear-based. But fear masquerades as any number of tricky feelings, anger being a cult favorite. So, see if you can help them identify the fear that is under the anger. Tell them that emotions can happen in layers, like an onion. If we assume anger protects the more vulnerable, exposing, and uncomfortable feeling of fear, what might they be afraid of? Be patient; this concept can take some time to grasp.

Chances are, you will eventually discover something like Morgan is afraid that their relationship and sex life will slowly disintegrate. And for Morgan, life without sex is an unbearable concept, because it literally means a loveless existence. Reece, on the other hand, feels that life is out of control right now. Letting go of control has never been one of Reece's finest skills, and right now, Reece is hardly keeping it together since nothing at all—except maybe the frequency with which they have sex—is under Reece's control.

Great. Now what you want to do is facilitate a loving conversation about these fears. If you do a good job with this, their desire discrepancy will become easier to manage. Sex won't have to be the heated battleground with which deeper fears are enacted. 

You can take this conversation one step further, maybe in your next session. Too much info at one time can be overwhelming, after all. Invite Morgan to talk about the fear of life without love. Oftentimes, people's most powerful fears have their basis in childhood. See if you can help Morgan weave an emotional thread back to where it began.

Assuming it began in childhood is a great bet because most of our deepest fears have been with us since then. After all, children misinterpret stuff all the time. They develop an understanding of the world, and who they are in it, based on faulty assumptions that they carry into adulthood as facts. It turns out that Morgan did feel unloved in childhood, and so the thought of repeating that trauma in adult life is simply too much to bear.

Then you can bring Reece into it. Can Reece love that part of Morgan that carries this fear? This tender exchange is worth its weight in gold. Assuming things are going pretty well in your therapy room, then explore this same dynamic with Reece. How did Reece feel out of control in childhood, and can Morgan offer love to this damaged part? 

Just in case your clients couldn't identify the childhood roots of the problem, here's a trick. Ask them how old they feel when this argument gets heated. Basically, when people get really triggered, they regress to the age where the difficulties began. So, if Morgan acts and feels like a 12-year-old as the argument intensifies, then use age 12 as a clue to figure out the mystery. 

Ok, great. This all can take a while to process well, but eventually, your couple may be good to go. But let's say you think more work is needed. Next, try getting them to switch sides, if even briefly. It will help if you ask them to sit in the other person's chair because, basically, they need to take on the persona of their partner. Then suggest they go at it—have the argument, but use the other person's talking points. This can be difficult at first, and sometimes it's hilariously funny. But keep at them so that they really do play that argument out from the other person's perspective. You'll be surprised at the insight and compassion this little trick can generate. 

Are they still stuck? If so, the next tool in your toolbox may be to see what this argument is representing on a grander scale. That is, sometimes, a bigger issue is being played out unconsciously by the argument at hand. Maybe this issue isn't about sex at all, but about basic relationship dynamics that have been too scary for your couple to face. Perhaps it feels unfixable or too hurtful to tackle directly.

However, if their desire discrepancy really is about a bigger issue, your couple will never be able to find an adequate compromise, because what's fueling it isn't being addressed. So put on your thinking cap. Maybe Morgan feels unloved and disrespected by Reece. Maybe it's bigger than sex, and this feeling pervades the relationship. Similarly, maybe Reece feels controlled by Morgan in a multitude of ways. Your job now is to help them discuss these hot issues with mutual respect and tenderness. Easier said than done, I know. But if everyone can keep their hearts open, it's not impossible.

If either Reece or Morgan wants to do a little more relationship work on their own, then refer to them my recent blog post, "The Coronavirus Hurts Romance, Too."

Finally, I'd encourage you to remind your couple that every relationship has sticky points that are essentially unresolvable and pretty much last the length of the relationship. That's normal, and their job isn't to "fix" the unfixable. Instead, it's to develop strategies for compromise and communication that allow an ongoing dialogue with some level of mutual respect and compassion. And that's normal. 

So, how do you feel now? Hopefully, your couple got what they needed from therapy, and you feel satisfied with a job well done. But what if they are still struggling after all your hard work? Then I'd suggest that you run their challenges by a trained therapist—one who does this for a living—and see if they've got some ideas. After all, even the most seasoned therapists get second opinions and supervision every once in a while. And in times of stress, asking for help is just good self-care.