Couples often come into therapy anxious that their relationship has developed a disturbing negative dynamic. They are unsettled and ill-at-ease and have lost the sense of each other as an emotional safe haven. They have become less confident in their future together and cannot access the usual soothing reassurance from the other that all is well. They feel resentful that their partner has become so difficult. They blame and complain and are focussed on the frustrations.
An affair, most classically, attacks the belief in the safety of the ‘couple bubble’. However, trust and dependability (once the bedrock of the relationship) can be eroded in many ways. There can be ‘death by a thousand cuts’ when a relationship has been neglected and each partner no longer feels special and prioritised. Addictions, over-focus on work, on children, even on screens, means attention feels minimal and perfunctory. Sometimes the sexual relationship is affected and the old relaxed intimacy is missing. The couple mourn the loss of the delight, acceptance and intense focus that marked the beginning of the relationship.
Sometimes there can be difficulties managing life’s transitional moments that change an established relationship rhythm. Managing loss, or moving in together, the birth of the first child, differing career ambitions, illness, redundancy are times when significantly different personality traits come to the forefront. It can feel disconcerting when, under stress, a partner takes a different perspective or has unexpected heightened reactions: suddenly becoming withdrawn and unavailable, or with irritability and angry outbursts.
There is real confusion when faced with such behaviour: ‘Why are you reacting like this?’ The differences become threatening and upsetting. Feeling under attack, each becomes defensive. Listening stops and there is ’push back’ against opposing opinions. The implicit message becomes, ‘If I am to trust and relax I need you to agree with me and see it my way.’ Disconnection and tension ripple out. Louise Evans describes being like ‘a vigilant meerkat on sentinel duty’ searching for behaviours that confirm the mistrust.
Entrenched in conflict, the usual relaxed couple interactions become rigid and uncomfortable. They each feel the victim, deprived of understanding, and challenged by any concept of: ‘I have my way. You have your way. As for the right way, the only way, it does not exist’.
There is little inclination to understand or embrace complexity or contradictions when they create such anxiety. ‘We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product while we give ourselves the grace to evolve’ (Jakes). But the more we judge someone, the less space there is to love them.
Lincoln is quoted as saying, ‘I do not like that man – I need to get to know him better’ and counselling offers the opportunity for explanations, listening, being heard, understanding, and calming reassurance. It can help with reparation, allowing the couple reach out and regain the compassion and generosity that became somewhat lost. They agree, once again, to be the safe harbour in the storm.
‘Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, But you and I know what this world can do… If, as we’re walking, a hand should slip free, I’ll wait for you. And, should I fall behind, wait for me…’
Bruce Springsteen: ‘If I Should Fall Behind’
An interesting listen:
Happy Brain: How to Overcome Our Natural Predisposition to Suffering: Amit Sood (Ted Talks)