Whenever we bond with another, it can be the most blissful time in a person’s life. Oxytocin is released into the bloodstream, and it’s as though nothing else exists in the world. But as the love drug wears off and life becomes normalized, patterns being to emerge. As the relationship deepens, conflict occurs and, before you know it, you’re engaged in stalemate arguments that escalate over time and begin creating negativity and distance that can cause significant damage to your relationship if unaddressed. Negative relational patterns and habits emerge, and you don’t know how to overcome them. Over time, this constant negativity sets in motion an adversarial climate and gives rise to overall dissatisfaction with the relationship itself, placing full blame on the relationship alone.
So, you seek help, and it doesn’t seem to work; why? When couples initially enter therapy, each person is replete with negative internal dialogue and behaviors that threaten the strength and stability of the relationship. Too often, therapy’s primary focus of treatment centers around the negativity in the relationship followed by the therapist recommending what feels like monumentally difficult communication strategies that rarely work at the moment—and they wonder why therapy fails. Communication is an essential aspect of what needs to change but, as we all know, when you’re caught in the throes of intense emotions, communication goes out the window leaving couples feeling helpless. What we fail to realize is that communication should be the very last thing we attack in therapy.
Effective therapy needs to begin by looking at what goes on within each person that makes what is happening in these intense moments so difficult to manage. To find that answer, we must shift the blame game and look more at what I call “his,” “hers,” and “ours.” What issues do you and your partner bring into the relationship individually, and what does the relationship need? While the relationship can indeed have issues of its own, we can also bring our “stuff” into the relationship unknowingly, which can add to the problem from behind the scenes. Not acknowledging our “stuff” is why it is so difficult to maintain all of those wonderful therapy-driven directives. It is not the communication itself, but the hidden issues that make productive communication impossible.
Using science-based techniques, we can understand parts of ourselves we may not even be aware of that create dissension in the relationship. We bring our expectations about life and how it should be, determining what is right, wrong, important, and unimportant that come from our life experience. We hold within us hidden triggers that project themselves on seemingly unrelated circumstances. Consider the following example: I got a phone call from a friend. Upon answering the phone, it was obvious that I was out of breath. My friend had asked me if everything was okay and I proceeded to tell her that I was chasing my pet through the house with a water spray bottle because he continually gets under my feet in the kitchen. I was so frustrated that I hadn’t broken my pet of this habit, at which time she gently laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I move my dog out of the way all the time; it’s so cute.” Cute?!, I said to myself. I’m not sure I would describe that as the feeling that I had at that moment. If I didn’t have the tools and emotional insight that I do now, the conversation might have gone bad very quickly—something to the effect of, “Cute? How can you say ‘cute’? I think animals should be trained and not allowed in the kitchen!” Imagine how that conversation may have ended. Now, try to change the story with anything you and your partner argue about. Are you getting the picture? About now you’re thinking, Oh if it were only that simple. It is, and it isn’t. The situation is applicable because we can recognize the structure of this example to experiences we have had with our partners. However, this situation may not fully apply to you because you haven’t developed the skills or knowledge to navigate these situations appropriately. With a little help and information, we can learn to avoid the landmines. These moments can be incredibly difficult because our underlying emotions that spawn our feelings are unconscious, and very highly charged. Getting to the bottom of what they are really about can prevent them from playing themselves out in the present.
Had I allowed that conversation to play out poorly, I would have missed that it wasn’t about how animals should behave at all! The conversation was truly about, although unknowingly, validating my frustration about one of my core issues coming straight from my own history—not being heard and not having change occur as a result of my discomfort, which may even have gone as deep as to question my very value. Think about placing that much expectation on an animal! With that in mind, imagine going into a session and starting with communication. That would be like trying to build the roof on a house before you lay down the foundation and build the structure to hold it. We need to start from the bottom up, or it won’t be able to sustain itself. You first need to learn about your authentic self, how your history has wired your brain to dictate what is (and is not) important.
Finally, it is equally important to include a good healthy working knowledge about each gender. This information may automatically reduce conflict by reducing personalization as we understand one another’s natural tendencies.
Once you understand these concepts, you will learn how to communicate rationally, instead of what bugs you in a defensive and expecting way, which will ultimately lead to a satisfying and more fulfilling relationship.