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Different Kinds of Couples In Therapy

A Sampling

Every couple is unique, and I love working with all kinds of relationships. Obviously the richness and complexity of couples therapy exceeds what can be expressed on a web page. The following vignettes are but a few of the wide variety of situations I see, but they should give you an idea of some of the ways that I think and work.

  • Ralph and Lynn were young, hard-driving professionals who met at a party through mutual friends. Ralph was attracted to Lynn’s thoughtfulness and determination, while she admired his carefree nature and his sense of humor. They had dated for a-year-and-a-half, and been living together for three. Lynn called because they were fighting more and more about a few key issues on which they had stalemated. One of these was that Ralph would often come home late from partying with his buddies and Lynn would explode, starting a big fight that would end up with them sleeping in separate rooms.
  • Julie and Sara had been together for nine years and had a five-year old daughter. Sara called at the urging of her individual therapist. A recovering alcoholic, Sara had had a drinking binge and was spending lots of money on clothes, both of which were very upsetting to Julie. Both partners had grown increasingly distant from each other and dissatisfied with their relationship. Julie was abrupt and demanding with Sara. Sara–quiet by nature to begin with–had over time become less and less communicative except for occasional snipes back at Julie.
  • With a seven-month-old baby, Sally and Chris were stressed out. As thrilled as they were with the new addition to their family, sleepless nights and all the tasks and responsibilities of parenthood were hitting them like a ton of bricks. Further, all of Sally’s attention seemed to be focused on the baby and as much as Chris loved the baby too, he was angry that Sally didn’t have time for him anymore. Their fights were getting nasty, their sex life was falling off the map, and both of them were feeling frayed.

Ralph and Lynn represent the majority of couples who come in, marked by repetitive and escalating anger and hostility. They had strong personalities, enjoyed a hearty interchange, and had no problem expressing their opinions (note that not all couples in this group resemble Ralph and Lynn). Unfortunately, their aggressiveness and hostility had ramped up to the point that they were starting to really inflict emotional pain on each other.

A somewhat smaller group are more like Julie and Sara. These couples are characterized by avoiding conflict; neither partner wants to rock the boat. However in sidestepping conflict, their underlying desires and feelings go underground, only to come back out in ways that drive a wedge between them. These can include occasional out-of-proportion blowups, or even more indirect expression such as getting involved in affairs, workaholism, or simply becoming more and more lonely and distant from each other.

Some couples like Sally and Chris face special situations or life transitions such as the birth of their first child (which is a special focus of mine – see the New Parents page). These circumstances have their own characteristics which need to be understood and addressed in addition to the kinds of work that may be common to other couples.

In the interest of keeping things relatively brief, I will focus on Ralph and Lynn to give a more detailed account of some of the things we might do in therapy.

In Sessions

Because a couple involves two individuals plus their interactions, a standard fifty-minute session is often inadequate. I try to schedule an hour-and-a-half for at least the first meeting whenever possible. This allows time not only to get background information, but also to start deciphering patterns and to make a difference in the very first session.

As mentioned, Lynn would get extremely angry when Ralph would go out with his buddies and come home late. More often than not he’d be home much later than he originally said he would, and often he would forget to call and let her know about the change. She would fume and ruminate at home while waiting for him, her anger compounding as her agitation kept her awake. When he finally arrived at 2am the fireworks would start.

Lynn’s explanation for this situation was that Ralph was irresponsible, that he didn’t really care about her feelings, and to top it off, that he enjoyed his friends more than he enjoyed her. Ralph’s interpretation was that Lynne was uptight, controlling and perhaps envied him for having a good time with his friends.

However, our explanations are often part of what gets us stuck, because they carve our assumptions in stone. They prevent us from hearing the underlying values and feelings that are driving the conflict at an emotional level. Typically each partner comes to therapy wanting relief and hoping to convince the therapist that his or her explanation or understanding of events is the correct one. Often this understanding involves blaming our partners for the problem. While this is a natural and prevalent response, things are rarely that simple.

My Approach

During early sessions with couples I often explain four communication styles that have been shown to predict the failure of relationships with astounding accuracy. Ralph and Lynn also learned and practiced the relevant steps for them that would get them out of those toxic behaviors. In another meeting I had them complete a fair-fighting exercise so they could have some mutually agreed upon guidelines to help them each restrain themselves and have more respectful and calm discussions.

I taught Ralph and Lynn about the emotional brain: how evolution has designed our brains to protect us but how that gets us into trouble in relationships. How, among other things, in an argument the emotional part of our brains shuts down the thinking part of our brains. This is why we can get into such big arguments about stupid little things, and why in the heat of the moment we can treat our partners so much worse than we would ever treat our houseguests. And then how to get around that, including how to speak the language of emotions instead of our usual discourse.

As part of finding out about the emotional brain Ralph and Lynn also learned the important details in taking time-outs properly. A time-out is a kind of circuit-breaker to calm things down when either or both partners get worked up to the point that their brains lose the capacity for resolving conflicts productively. This over-arousal is common in conflictual couples and is a critical stumbling block. They also learned new ways of talking with each other that let them get beyond assumptions and reflexive negative emotional cycles.

Feeling safer with this groundwork in place, Lynn and Ralph were able to reflect on and repair some damaging experiences from their early lives. These early experiences created emotional triggers and pitfalls that played into the conflict I described before. Lynn had an alcoholic father who was prone to unpredictable rage attacks that were extremely frightening to her as a child and occasionally included physical violence. Ralph, on the other hand, had a very controlling mother. He angrily remembered being treated like a child by her even when he was an adult, and could recall his feelings of shame and dread with his mom when he was little and had done something wrong. So it made perfect sense that Lynne would get freaked out and feel abandoned by the unpredictability of Ralph’s attempts to maintain some autonomy for himself. And it was completely natural that he would feel angry, resentful and oppressed by Lynn’s misguided efforts to hold him accountable and predictable. And under stress these emotional responses to each other dovetailed into a downward spiral.

Virtually all couples have variations of these kinds of cycles which are very difficult for us to have perspective on from the inside. As a result, partners end up reacting to each other at an unconscious emotional level without knowing what’s really driving things. Our conscious, verbal brains try to catch up by creating misleading explanations that inadvertently keep us mired in the muck. Understanding and repairing these emotional injuries that Lynne and Ralph had suffered in their original families led to some dramatic breakthroughs and action on related issues that had been plaguing them for years.

Speak Your Mind

2 Responses to “ Different Kinds of Couples In Therapy ”

  1. Larry on November 5th, 2011 3:25 pm

    Dr. Solley, your three case examples are all of relatively young couples. We can expect a tsunami of older clients at your door as baby-boomer couples have their existential crises of retirement from life-defining work and careers, their loss of parents, other relatives, and friends to death and infirmity, their decline of biological functioning and social engagement, the growing independence and distance of their adult children, their changing appearance and vigor (though some of these changes come later rather than sooner for some, or are acknowledged later rather than sooner). As couples, the partners may find themselves drifting in different directions or coping in very different ways that may make them feel somewhat estranged, lonely, left behind, excluded, or threatened. Some of the losses are manageable, some are scary but benign, some are challenging to one’s sense of balance and direction, and some are downright threatening to one’s sense of cohesion and meaning of life.

  2. Dr. Solley on November 5th, 2011 9:58 pm

    Thanks Larry – great points. Loss is always difficult, and as you describe, the many sources of loss multiply as we reach later aging.

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