As a therapist I often see how powerfully external factors in life can influence the stability of a couple’s relationship. Sometimes these can stem from events happening to a friend or family member – illness, death or marital breakdown can all have significant knock-on effects. Redundancy and financial pressures of course can impact the couple directly. But at other times the pressures can come from much further afield – Brexit may be causing a particular tsunami in Parliament at the moment but the shock waves of dis-ease seem to be being felt by pretty well every individual in this country, and as a result, by couples as well.
A key question that emerges therefore for every couple is how they deal with such pressures and how they can build resilience to ride out the low patches of life. Here it is vital that each partner can recognise what strategies they resort to in times of trouble for themselves initially and, mirroring that, in their partner’s reaction as well. Behavioural patterns often come from learnt strategies in our family of origin, or ways in which we adapted to survive difficult or traumatic times when we were young. Did it feel safer for a person to withdraw to what seemed like a calmer place within themselves? Or did they prefer to fight and express distress by being angry? Or did they freeze and hope that whatever was causing their discomfort would simply go away?
All of us respond to external pressures in different ways and there is no ‘right’ way of doing this – but sometimes differences in how each partner responds to such pressures can set up a negative cycle of interaction within the couple. For instance if the cycle is one of both being withdrawers, or a combination of a fighter and one who freezes and denies the problems, then this can lead to alienation and distress in the couple relationship. By being unable to understand another’s reaction to stress effectively prevents the couple from supporting each other and providing comfort.
The fight, flight or freeze responses to external threats can easily result in negative communication and don’t in themselves lead to good connections in a relationship. In the immediate threat, these are often our innate and learnt responses – we cannot avoid these but it is crucial that we appreciate them both in ourselves and in our partner. To build a more solid and sustaining relationship through such troubles each then needs to express their underlying feelings of vulnerability. This means owning their own fears and anxieties and talking them through with their partner. The relationship can then become a supportive and caring place rather than one that simply adds to further distress.
When things become too overwhelming, couple therapy can help relationships to regain stability and become a source of comfort for each partner to survive the lows, as well as to enjoy the better times in life.