Couples often come into counselling feeling frustrated and stuck. They feel trapped and confused at certain painful and negative patterns in the relationship. They know it seems counter-intuitive not to just change the reactions which are causing such distress, but it is not that simple.

Therapy can offer a couple the space to reflect on the emotional tangle and gain insight into the dynamics of their particular ‘couple dance’ of hurt and resentment.

Often a set of ‘limiting’ beliefs is uncovered. These are beliefs which influence the way we think about ourselves and our partner, the way we understand the world around us, and affect our reactions to events and situations. A limiting belief is not always obvious. Like the fish who says, ‘Water? What is water?’ we do not realise we are swimming in it – but the evidence is in the stuck interaction. Their ability to accommodate, change and develop has become inhibited and stifled.

Each of us has sets of values and beliefs that we absorbed in our early years, and that are shaped by experience, but sometimes we assume they are human ‘Truths’. We tend to discount information that challenges our ‘Truth’, and focus on information that confirms our belief. We feel reassured by a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, if confronted by our partner’s contradictory and opposing belief, we feel disturbed and unsettled. We may feel betrayed. We may feel disconnected.

For example, in one family anger flares and is expressed loudly and vociferously, but then swiftly repaired. In another family, anger is suppressed and internalised, raised voices met with strong disapproval. A couple can get drawn into arguments about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, both feeling absolutely right, and a fractious and brittle relationship develops. The couple assume polarised positions and negotiating the difference seems impossible.

They engage in what Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor describes as the ‘Walking the Devil’s Circle’. The limiting belief is the ‘Circle’. The couple walks, and keeps walking, convinced they are on the road to somewhere (convincing the other of what is right/wrong). But then, when they look down, they see the same footsteps going round and round in a circle. Because the interactions and counter-reactions have been repeated and repeated, there is no forward-moving path. Now there is a well-worn, and deepening, groove of a cycle which is difficult to escape and which makes the habitual patterns even more difficult to break.

However, the counsellor can support and encourage the couple in the challenge of thinking creatively about their differences. Counselling can help couples explore what it is that they experience as threat. What do they imagine they will lose by compromising? Why do they become so defensive with the person they love the most? When faced with difference of opinion, why does the relationship suddenly feel so vulnerable and insecure? When there is love and connection at other times, what happens in those moments of disagreement?

Empathy allows a flow of well-meaning understanding. The couple can experience ‘togetherness’ again. There is a mutual engagement in managing the difference. It is a relief to learn alternatives to the sticky web of distress, anger and destructive criticism. A softening of attitude establishes generosity and compassion and a process of turning towards instead of turning away. An alternative mind-set can take root and the stranglehold is broken.

Kathy Rees