Couples fight. Some couples seem to have mastered the art of fighting. You may be surprised that couples fight in session. They say terrible things to and about one another. They say almost anything to get a reaction from the other. Webster defines "communication" as "the imparting or exchanging of information or news". Most couples do a great job of imparting contempt or venomous insults at one another.
Partners are taught tools like:
1. Use "I" statements
2. Convey your point non-verbally as well
3. Use simple concise language
4. Use repetition
5. Avoid blame
Great tools right? Not really. With distressed couples this may turn into something like this:
Her: I feel that you are an idiot. I should file for a divorce because I am married to an idiot (enter eye roll)
Him: I am an idiot. I married you (pointing).
Effective relationship counseling realizes giving tools partners can use to destroy one another is not an option. A better option is allowing the partners to experience one another differently. If partners can get to the heart of the why they are fighting, the fight changes drastically. Fights become rituals of connection, one way to promote healing, a way to work through issues, and a catalyst for great adventures in making up. There is a music to the dance of the conflict cycle; teaching the rules for communication are NOT the melody that reconnects people.
Recently, my husband and I decided we would visit a new park in the area. We looked at the map and in my wisdom I suggested the trail that followed the river. I thought it would be scenic and romantic among the tranquility of the water. What I failed to realize was the trail was a "REI" trail. In all of our idealistic planning we didn't even notice the sign that clearly warned us that this was not a normal trail. Had we been paying attention we may have noticed the sign with the hikers and boots on a steep incline. We may have also noticed the abundance of mud squishing under our mesh sneakers. Nope! We were looking for romance and adventure, but aren't we all?
The beginning of the trail was deceptively serene, just like I imagined. We remarked on the beauty of the foliage around us. We enjoyed the fragrant blooms of the late spring flowers and felt the warmth of the sun on our faces. Ahhhhh, bliss!
Then the terrain became more difficult. The well paved road before us became a small, very narrow, grass-lined path. Hills became steeper, the ground muddier, and the trees more dense. Crap! What have I gotten us into THIS TIME??!! This got me thinking about relationships. We start with a rosy idea of what our future together looks like, then when it gets difficult, many of us what to turn back. In line with his normal calm, cool, demeanor, my loving husband remained silent. He just kept walking. We could have turned back but that is not really our style. We meet challenges head on, sometimes despite conventional wisdom. We ended up walking single-file the rest of the 2.5 miles in mostly silence. I periodically checked in with my husband because I wanted to share this experience with him. Yes, we were concerned about our physical safety, but neither of us were concerned about the safety of our connection. We chose to walk single file for physical safety, knowing our relationship was safe..
We made it out fine; muddy, tired, hungry...but just fine.. The experience reminded me of how many couples respond in times of stress. This is the time when I find out who they really are as a couple. In many couples one partner can forge ahead, sometimes with reckless abandon, knowing their partner is there to "catch" them if they get into trouble. These couples know they have a secure homebase. This leaves them free to explore the world and follow their dreams.
Some partners are so fearful in the relationship they are are paralyzed by the fear. This prevents them from letting go of the other's hand, fearing their partner will abandon them as soon as they turn their back. This partner lives in terror and needs constant reassurance that their partner is invested in the relationship. This wears on the other partner over time. The other partner becomes disinterested in the constant reassurance and may withdraw; physically, emotionally, or both. In the example of our walk in the woods one partner or both is clenching the hand of their beloved. The hand holding seems like a kind, innocent gesture. At closer look we realize that that clench is fear gripping them and not allowing them to enjoy and learn from the experience as an individual. This clench puts both partners at risk. If one goes down it is likely the other is not far behind. It also shows us that neither partner can safely lead and expect the other to follow.
In other couples one (or both) partners find the need for reassurance but find they allow their pride to prevent them from needing or expecting it. They do not forge ahead in the safety of knowing their partner is a safe, yet comforting distance behind. They tell themselves "I'm on my own" and continue on without their beloved. These partners seem cold and emotionless, but that is far from the truth. They have internalized the thought that they cannot count on anyone for support. They push their partner away when they so desperately want their love to find them behind their huge walls of protection.
Couples ask the question "will you be there when I need you?"
The first couple will answer with a resounding "YES"! Even when the answer is "no" the general assumption is that their love will be there if it is possible in any way.
The second couple answers with a firm "no". This may be in spite of what is true in their relationship.
The third couple may answer yes or no, and resolve to the idea "but I don't need them anyway".
Couples who come to counseling may not know that they are the second or third couple. They usually have a firm understanding they are not the first couple, although they want to be. Relationship counseling is not always about preventing break-up. As a relationship counselor I am simply a tour guide on this trail, helping couples navigate the terrain a little better.