In my work with couples, I regularly see one or both partners talking over the other as they enact a conflict in the session and anxiously hope to resolve it in therapy. Partners will interrupt one another and get increasingly louder, escalating, as they each try to be heard by the other. In this effort to connect during their conflict, neither is actually feeling heard, and this can leave both people feeling frustrated and hopeless. Each partner feels passionate about having their feelings heard and sharing what they’re experiencing, but these thoughts aren’t landing, so the attempts at communication aren’t productive – the frustration expressed over this can end up sounding like blame and criticism, but it’s really an attempt at conveying wants and needs. The couple most commonly becomes stuck in this repetitive cycle of conflict, regardless of what an argument is actually about – in this place of “stuck-ness”, the couple over time starts to feel disconnected and less engaged with each other.
We humans have basic, innate needs that are hard-wired into us, two of which are the need for safety and the need for connection. Ideally, we get these needs met while in a relationship with a special other. This is not dependency, but rather a healthy interdependence – it’s you holding on to your sense of “you” while being emotionally bonded to the person that you deeply care for and are looking to for connection and closeness; it’s a healthy balance of “me being me while loving you”.
In couples’ therapy, therapists recognize a common theme occurring in a relationship that lends to the disconnect between the people in it, and this theme centers around each partner’s unmet needs. Simply put, we humans, in our efforts to feel close to a person we love and have built a relationship with, have the need to feel and be heard, supported, understood, and loved by one another. In having these needs met, we feel emotionally safe – we feel nurtured, respected, accepted, and valued. In this place of connection, we are emotionally engaged and available to both our own needs and what our partner needs in return; here, we have the capacity to develop greater flexibility and openness.
You might be wondering, “How do I get to that place of connection? We know what to do, but we can’t seem to get there.” I get it. I view conflict in a marriage as being rooted in what each of us brings into the relationship, specifically our ways in which we have learned to connect and bond, as well as how we manage the relationship when in distress. Every child has the need for safety, comfort, and connection, and when those needs don’t get met, we learn that we can’t count on the people we love to be there for us when we’re vulnerable; oftentimes, that part of us, that vulnerable part, has developed coping strategies that help to manage and ward off any potential emotional threats. We develop these strategies as a way to manage and adapt to unmet needs – an argument or an ongoing conflict with our partner becomes a threat that has to be defended against. It’s these old coping strategies that we bring in to our adult relationships, such as criticism, blaming, and pulling away; when a partner gets overwhelmed and shuts down in response, the couple becomes entrenched in their negative cycle that hinders closeness and connection.
In couples’ therapy, I look to facilitate the process of identifying the underlying triggers and emotions that form the couple’s negative cycle with the hope that we can identify what each person is needing from the other but hasn’t been able to express. We’re working together to formulate positive coping strategies for getting needs met and for each person to become more accessible, responsive, and engaged with one another; the hope and intention is for the relationship to become a safe haven where connectivity, closeness, and emotional engagement become the foundation on top of which they can build a lasting bond. The goal is that each partner will feel safe enough to take the risk and reach out for their partner when they need to feel heard, to feel understood, and to feel loved.
My approach is based on the research and writings of Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.
Recommended reading: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson