Break Destructive Patterns in your Marriage and Become the Partner you want to be
Couples Counselling can save your marriage. It can lift you from the depths of despair and transform your relationship. It is not an easy process for anyone. But, if you’re not ready to walk away from your partner, going to see a Relationship Counsellor might be the best decision you’ll ever make.
Why go and see a Couples Counsellor?
All couples row. In fact, my alarm bell rings when couples tell me they’ve never had an argument. “How is that possible?” I’m thinking. Arguments and disagreements are inevitable. We’re just people and that is what happens.
Problems develop when you keep having the same arguments. When you have the same conflicts, it starts to chip away at your connection with each other. The distance between you grows. If you’re not careful and attentive, you risk growing apart without the chance to come back together.
In the heat of an argument, you say things that hurt. And, you get told things that hurt you right back. And once it has been said, you can’t take it back. Thoughts last forever.
Relationships endure when you stay together. They also need to mature and you need new ways of connecting with each other. The bond between you strengthens through conscious and intentional acts of kindness and care.
People crave intimacy. You want to be close the person you care about. You want to be with the one you love. And, yet, intimacy is not easy. As you get closer to someone, you are bound to experience mixed feelings. You’ll feel joy, tenderness and desire. And, you’ll feel scared, sadness and at times, deep shame.
These feelings bring out your learned ways of coping with emotions. In a close romantic relationship, there is little hiding from each other. And, naturally, conflicts can arise. For example, you might want more than your partner can give. Or you feel like everything you do is never good enough. Some people feel like they can’t cope on their own and try to keep their loved one close. You can get clingy or you check up on them to see if they’re staying faithful.
Whatever you feel and do, we all bring past patterns of relating to people into our current relationships. It is easy to get stuck in the same conflicts. And, when you get stuck, your relationship gets damaged. When you can’t seem to stop, seeing a marriage counsellor can help you deal with your own unhelpful coping strategies more effectively.
Why do you keep having the same arguments?
So, why do couples have the same old arguments repeatedly? Well, I think it is hard to change. You feel annoyed, irritated and frustrated by what your partner does or doesn’t do. You feel hurt, sad or hopeless. And, when you’re both feeling strong emotions, it can be hard to see clearly what needs to be done.
Conflict puts you on the defence. You are less likely to hear what your partner is saying. You are less likely to empathise with them deeply. Instead, you are more likely to do stuff that defends your position.
Many people get into unhelpful patterns of communicating. Do you recognise any of these?
- Shouting and slamming doors
- Ignoring and refusing to talk
- Criticising and blaming
- Checking up and seeking reassurance
- Nagging and Controlling
There are others, but these are some of the more common unhelpful ways of communicating. They have a negative impact on both of you.
Actually, these patterns of behaviour can be understood when you know what is going on in the background. By that, I mean what baggage you’ve unintentionally brought to the relationship.
We all develop Interpersonal Life-Traps. Another word for these life-traps is schemas. Schemas come from unhelpful experiences in your past. They often stem from childhood experiences with parents and other important people in your life. For example, teachers, community leaders and friendship groups.
A lot of the time, parents are just doing their best. They are trying to be the best parent they can be in the ways they know how. And, they fail. They fail, because they too were once children who had parents who influenced them. And, so it keeps going back generation after generation. How you are with your partner is a lot to do with how your parents were with you and how previous parents were with your ancestors.
Getting to know my interpersonal life-trap has helped me significantly. I’ve got to know what I defend against and what I find painful deep inside me. Knowing this reminds me that I need to work on it, so I don’t fall into unhelpful patterns that negatively impact my relationship.
In ACT for Couples, Avigail Lev and Matthew McKay list a number of interpersonal life-traps. See if you recognise any in you or your parther:
- They’ll leave me or reject me eventually. It is just a matter of time
- I can’t trust them. They’ve got an ulterior motive for being with me and I need to watch out
- I’m not important and they don’t care about me
- There is something wrong with me and once they see the real me, they won’t be able to love me
- I don’t fit in with them. I’m different to everyone I meet
- I can’t cope on my own. I need others to make decisions for me
- I’m not good enough and I’m inadequate
- I don’t see why I have to think about their feelings. I just want to do what I want to do
- I don’t mind, let’s do whatever you want to do. If I say what I want, I might get criticised or shouted at
- We need to be perfect all the time. Anything less, just isn’t acceptable
Did you recognise any?
If you have more than one, don’t worry. Many people do. The point is to identify which are a struggle for you. Once you know that, then you know what to look for.
Both of you are hurting and doing the best you can
The Gottman Institute is one of the world’s most respected sources of relationship advice. They’ve produced several books on the subject for both couples and counsellors. And one of the most useful lessons I’ve learned is making sure you act with enough kindness.
When you get caught up in your own life-trap, you are more likely to forget that your partner is struggling as well. You get stuck in your own head with your own painful feelings. You stop seeing your partner as the person you love and care deeply about.
To heal your relationship, it is useful to set a goal of being kind. For relationships to work and for your connection with each other to remain strong, it is helpful to be kind five times more frequently than you are mean. That may seem obvious, but it can be a helpful compass when you feel lost.
What is unique about the way you work with a couple?
When you explore how Marriage Counsellors work, they often do something very similar. One thing they tend to do is to start therapy with identifying what attracted you to each other. They try to remind you of what you once loved about each other.
At first glance, this seems helpful. And, for many couples it may well be. But, I tend to do something different. To save you time and to get the root of the problem more quickly, I prefer to get straight into the conflict. Very early on in the therapy, we focus on the same old arguments so you can start learning how to step-over them.
Five Phases of Couples’ Therapy
To give you an overview of how it works, I’ve outlined a brief step-by-step process below. It describes the five phases of couples’ therapy that teach you how to break destructive patterns and become the partner you want to be. It looks like this:
- Identify your interpersonal life-traps
- Identify the unhelpful coping strategies that damage your relationship
- List the pros and cons of repeating these strategies
- Identify the kind of partner you want to be
- Learn and practice new strategies that help you be who you want to be and step-over the urges to avoid your life-traps
When you try to avoid the pain of your life-traps, you often do stuff that damages your relationship. Our job in therapy sessions is to help you get better at noticing when your life-trap shows up. Once you’ve noticed it, you can catch the urges to distance yourself from the painful emotions. We practice opening up to what hurts, so you can get better at having these feelings instead of trying to avoid them.
You might ask, why would I want to feel what hurts? Well, the truth is you can’t get rid of your life-traps. They are based on your life experiences and you can’t forget them. They are here forever. But, what you can do is get better at dealing with them. When you have the same conflicts in your relationship, it is because you are trying to avoid what you don’t want to feel.
Get more aware and open, and learn to pay attention to who you want to be
Getting more aware and open to the thoughts and feelings that are painful has another purpose. It is to help you focus on what is more important. When you stop fighting against your life-trap, you can start to pay more attention to who you want to be. And, when you focus on being who you want to be every day, then you take care of your partner and your relationship.
Making the commitment to relationship counselling is a brave-step forwards. You both need to be ready and willing. And, you both need to want to stay in the relationship. If you can agree on this, then you have hope.
To arrange an Initial Consultation for Couples Counselling with Jim Lucas, please complete the form below. Ask me any questions and let me know if you’d like any further information.