Relationship problems are a common reason people pursue therapy. And not surprisingly, many clients have been more than a little frustrated they are the ones talking to me, when clearly their partner or family member is the one with the problem! They have nagged and scolded and pleaded with their loved one, to no avail. Nothing changes.
Why won’t people get help when there is clearly a problem? Beside the obvious issues of time and money, many people feel shame when they admit they need help. Therapy = weakness. I should be smart enough and strong enough to figure this out. There is no question that therapy requires the courage to be vulnerable. It is not always easy or fun! Maybe your loved one has a pattern of avoidance. If I ignore this it will resolve on its own. Sometimes the issue is pride. If I get help, it is like admitting I am wrong, and you are right. You and the therapist will gang up on me. That last point comes up frequently when clients consider couples counseling. There is a genuine fear the therapist will be duped by their family member. He is so manipulative and good at putting on a show! He will convince the therapist that he is a saint, and I am the one with the problem.
Why should you persevere when you believe the other person is the source of the problem? Well, for one thing, therapy can be a valuable source of support. Therapists are well aware they are only hearing one side of the story, but they can validate your pain and frustration. However, the truth is you can grab a friend and head to Starbuck for a much less expensive hour of emotional support! Still, your friends cannot be neutral. They may be inclined to tell you everything you want to hear, not always what you need to hear.
When I listen to clients tell their stories, I am always listening for skill deficits. I am not looking for good guys and bad guys. Rather, I want to know, what is this person doing that is making the problem worse? What could she (he) do to be more effective in this situation? Maybe they lack communication skills? Or they struggle to find the sweet spot between aggression and passivity? Do I hear a lot of distorted thinking? Is there another way to see this situation? Looking at the problem from a fresh angle often opens up possible solutions we did not consider before.
Sometimes I can see that the client in front of me is reacting to something in their own history that they are likely not aware of. This has to do with implicit memories, unconscious memories that trigger certain behaviors or feelings. Our minds record everything we experience, whether we are aware of it or not. Parts of our memories are explicit or conscious and easily recalled, but some memories – especially traumatic memories – stay buried in our subconscious. This may be because the memories are too painful, or perhaps the original event was chaotic and fraught with overwhelming emotion.
Psychiatrist Curt Thompson in Anatomy of the Soul says 80 percent of conflict between couples stems from events that happened before they even knew each other. Think about a time your partner’s tone of voice or body language really set you off, and your (over)reaction even surprised you. This is why it is so important to know our story, otherwise our implicit memories will control us and our future. Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW, put is more succinctly at a talk she gave here in Baton Rouge. She said, “If you don’t know your story, it owns you. But if you know your story, you can write the ending.”
Therapy helps bring the subconscious to the conscious. If you are triggered by subconscious beliefs and find yourself reacting to things in your history, not only will uncovering work in therapy be invaluable, learning how to calm and self-soothe will be essential. This is because anytime our emotions are running high, our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that helps us have insight, hindsight, foresight, and make our best decisions, is off-line. It is literally hard for us to think clearly when we are overwhelmed with emotions, until we learn how to recognize what is happening and calm ourselves. Therapists can teach you how to do this. And when your brain is focused and steady, it will put you in a position to make proactive, healthy decisions about your relationship.
The good news is that when we change, it will change the dynamic of the relationship. Clinical psychologist, Harriet Learner PhD compares relationships to a dance. When one partner changes the footwork of the dance, the other partner will have to adjust to the new pattern.
I can still hear some of you thinking, Yeah, but I am still the one putting in all the work. How is that fair? Here is the bottom line. It is not fair, but we cannot change other people, we can only change ourselves. That is not the answer most of us want, but let’s face it, if nagging, yelling, shaming, or being passive- aggressive worked, we wouldn’t need help! Often the strategies we use to “fix” the other person do more harm than good. We exhaust ourselves focusing on the other person, spending the precious energy needed to do our own work. What was it Jesus said about removing the log from our own eye before we presume to help another with the speck in his eye (Matthew 7:3-5)? Our best strategy is to focus on changing ourselves, and therapy is a good place to start.