LEANNE WATT, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
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COUPLES COUNSELING / MARRIAGE COUNSELING: Do you and your partner keep having the same fight over and over?  Do you feel as though your partner is unable to hear your serious concerns about important matters?  Do you each try to make the case that the other is the “bad guy”, while disowning the significance of the role you play in your arguments?  Do you have difficulty finding your voice in an argument or have trouble expressing your position when your partner gets in your face with his/her upset?   Do you feel shut out by your partner when you try to express yourself, no matter how “perfectly” you say it?  Do you sometimes feel as though your partner has intentionally hurt you, even though s/he will not own up to her/his contribution to your hurt?  Do you feel abandoned and despairing when your partner shuts down on you, unable to tolerate the lack of connection, when s/he is in need of space?

In my practice, I treat “high maintenance” couples with a history of unresolved injuries and disappointments.   Some of the couples I treat become easily entangled, bickering like siblings over seemingly “small” matters.  Some couples get embroiled in more heated arguments over large and small matters; often, these fights escalate and the exchanges become insulting and  “over-the-top”, further compounding the couple’s alienation.    In some cases, one partner may engage in a more emotional or anxious style of expression, while the other partner completely shuts down, unable to tolerate the intensity of the exchange.  Regardless of your style of argument, at the end of the day, these couples find that they are unable to reach a satisfying resolution to their disagreements.  Important issues get shelved, and couples become resentful and distant or remain hostile and openly hateful.  In some instances, partners bury themselves in their work or extra-curricular activities, feeling hopeless about resolving the issues at home; while they may draw some satisfaction or relief from outside activities, their avoidance only adds to the alienation and dissatisfaction within the couple’s relationship. 

Many of the couples I treat are successful in their professional lives, but, as smart as they may be in their work, they have serious blind spots that prevent them from seeing the patterns that they keep repeating with each other.  Often, the partners in these couples blame each other for the depths of each hurt, unable to take ownership for their own sensitivities that lie beneath the injured surface.  Couples caught in this trap often engage in a game of “hot potato”, arguing over who is “the bad guy” as they try to make sense of their upset.  Each party feels identified with the role of “victim”, finding it difficult to appreciate his/her impact on the other.   In reality, both partners are equally wounded and equally deserving of attention for their injuries.  And in each case, both partners have areas of psychological blindness, where their past histories have left them with wounds and vulnerabilities that enhance their sensitivities and their experience of feeling wounded and angry.  Without a marital referee, these couples find it impossible to express the depths of their upset, without triggering more injuries and upset within their partner.

In the treatment process, the childhood roots of these blind spots are examined, and the members of the couple learn to develop a new kind of empathy for themselves and for each other— partners go from literally hating one another to having a meaningful recognition of the pain and the vulnerability that lies beneath their partner’s alienating and defensive behavior.  Partners learn to recognize how their blind spots create pain for their spouse, and how to make corrections, when appropriate, in their behavior.  Couples that thought they were on the road to divorce find themselves loving each other again for the first time in years, as they discover the softer and more compelling story that has been driving their destructive behaviors and hurtful patterns of communicating. 

In the therapy setting, couples learn how to communicate feelings and needs without using attacking and alienating words, and they learn how to disentangle from each other, after “buttons" have been pushed.  Rather than spiraling down into the same destructive patterns, couples learn how to pull themselves out of the mire more quickly, and learn how to repair themselves and each other, neutralizing the negative and hurt feelings in an efficient and lasting manner.

In some instances, the “couples” treatment will begin with only one partner.  Sometimes, it will take a while for the other partner to be willing enough and trusting enough to begin the process.  When the partner that enters the treatment begins to make progress, it gets the attention of the unwilling partner.  Gradually, the unwilling partner begins to feel “seen” by the treated partner, who is increasingly more able to apologize for his/her mistakes and back down from “crazy” arguments.  The treated partner also begins to express feelings more constructively without attacking or shutting down, and the unwilling partner starts to develop some hope about the treatment being of assistance. Ultimately, the unwilling partner will begin to come around, and more often than not, will join the treatment. 

© 2009 Leanne Watt, Ph.D.