By the time I see couples in my office, they have tried everything they can on their own to work through the difficulties they’re encountering. But now they’ve run into a wall that is either caused by accumulated sorrows or by a significant crisis, or both.
They’re depleted, their internal resources and energy are dangerously low. Often feeling bruised and defeated, they come to counseling with a desperate plea for direction. Their eyes beg the question: should they try to re-create a better relationship, take some time away from each other to reformulate, or give up?
In that first critical session, we must make the tentative decision together as to whether or not there is hope for regeneration. The answers to these six questions bring us to that conclusion:
- Do both partners want the same thing?
- Is there enough energy left in the relationship to give them the fuel they need to repair and recommit?
- How have they resolved traumas in the past or are they buried in repetitive patterns that have never worked?
- Are they running away before they’ve given resolution a chance?
- Are there underlying, hidden issues that are sabotaging their chances to reconnect?
- Do they still want to try?
In the next few crucial hours of therapy, we often are searching for those answers in midst of hostility, hurt, injustice, or the need to justify winning.
Sometimes, one partner has the role of the injured party and the other is remorseful and humiliated. At other times, they are two people who have been building up relationship conflicts that have never been resolved and have now become emotional cancers out of control, now finding a voice because of a current crisis. They have an exaggerated and helpless style of battling and they are not able to hear the other in the din of their own pain. Other couples are in a war of silence; the first to speak with any attachment to connect loses power.
As we process what has brought them into therapy and identify the origins of their distress and the negative patterns they’ve rehearsed, I am looking for eight rays of hope that will tell me, and them, a chance exists.
Despite the most terrible of betrayals, the most anguishing of hurtful behaviors, or the most discouraging of disappointments, these subtle but crucial revelations can predict whether or not they can find their way back to the love they once knew. When I see them, no matter how infrequent or indistinct, I know that we can work towards resolution.
When one partner is speaking, however his or her tone of voice, the other partner is looking and listening to them. Even if there is disagreement, it is evident that what the other has to say is still important. The partners may have a history of interruption, over-talking, dismissing, or minimizing, but will stop those behaviors when I ask them to and redirect their attention to what the other is saying. If I ask either of them to repeat what the other partner has communicated, they genuinely try. When I ask them what they think the other is feeling or meaning, they want to learn to tell me. When either partner begins to cry or can’t talk, the other stops the interaction until that distressed partner can resume. I see that both are capable of stopping their own drivers-to-be-the-righteous-one and to remember that there are two of them in the room.
Couples who have lost each other’s trust and support, whether just recently, or over a long period of time, still may show concern when either expresses authentic heartbreak. If they are not able to use soothing words or gestures, especially if being blamed in the moment, they show consideration for their partner’s distress by their body language or facial expression. It is as if they know where the breaking point is and do not want to go there. Compassion rules over dominance when the other partner drops into a genuine place of heartache.
3. Shared Humor
There are times when I’ve been with a distressed couple where it appears that the hostility between them has taken over the relationship. They are arguing about the way they are arguing. They are unable to find anything in the other worthwhile to listen to. They are interrupting, invalidating, and yelling at one another. I feel like a referee in a professional emotional boxing match.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one of them refers to an experience they’ve shared in the past, or something that is happening between them, and they both start to laugh. The tension is immediately gone, even for just a moment, and both are looking at one another as if they are really just good friends playing at hating each other. Even if the fight resumes, it is evident that what they are talking about is not all of who they are and I know I can get them down under their self-destructive interactions.
Every couple knows how far is too far. Sadly, that underlying knowledge does not always keep them from walking too close to that cliff and many relationships end because of that sacrilege. The de-escalation ray of hope happens when I see a couple recognizing when they are too close to saying or doing something that the other cannot get past. Seemingly out of nowhere and certainly out of character, one or both stops the interaction or takes it to a more caring place. They have a shared knowing that certain words or ways of being may hurt too much to ever heal, or some actions from the past cut too deeply. It is clear to me that they have an invisible pact that keeps them from going over the edge.
It is natural for most people to use the past or other people to add clout to whatever they point out as valid in the moment. That is especially true when one partner feels he or she is losing the argument, and feels that fortifying it with examples from the past or endorsements from other significant people will bolster its effectiveness.
Couples who are good communicators stay with one issue at a time and talk about what they need from each other in the present. They don’t try to persuade the other of a position that will be satisfying for them at the expense of the other. If one of them begins to falter, the other brings them back to the problem at hand and that tactic is not only accepted, but appreciated.
6. Basic Trust
No matter how angry, hurt, or vengeful a couple acts towards each other in that first session, I can see that their distress with the situation at hand in no way suggests that their partners are basically flawed or unacceptable people. Challenges of acts of behaviors are very different from character assassinations. The issue at hand may have sorely undermined the relationship in their current crisis or long-term distance, but they would never state that the other person was unworthy of their love or basic respect.
Pointing fingers as to who is to blame is a power play. There is a bad guy who is properly dealt with, and the good-guy victor wins the battle and loses the war. So many fights between couples sink in this assignment of accountability and whatever “appropriate” consequences result. There is that magic moment in therapy when both partners realize that they’ll play a winning game when each owns their individual contribution to what has gone wrong. It sometimes takes some skill building, but it is unmistakably remarkable to witness when the interaction turns in that direction.
There is no hope where there is no life. I’ll take a passionate, angry, upset couple any time over two people who sit in the room wishing they could be anywhere else and disappearing in to two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The door to the outside office might as well be made of concrete and bars as a room I treasure as a haven begins to feel more like a prison.
A once-loving couple who allows their relationship to diminish into a lifeless, complicated set of rituals has the biggest burden by far. High angry energy can morph into high loving energy. Deadness is hard to revive.
Sometimes, it is hard to visualize an angry or wounded couple showing any of these eight rays of hope in the midst of their anguishing conflicts. But if you don’t overlook them, they are often just under the surface waiting and wanting to emerge. I know that a couple wants to get beyond their distress when they get excited about those “aha” moments when I identify them, and immediately commit to replacing their old behaviors with the new ones.
They quickly realize that those repeated negative patterns have been the culprits that have gotten them in trouble and they both want them gone. That couple is likely to find their love again, and know what they now need to do to regain their commitment when they identify and challenge those negative patterns. Though it may take many new moments to leave the darkness behind, the light is on.
You don’t need therapy to identify and strengthen these responses in your relationship. You can find these rays of hope within your relationship if you are willing to put yourself aside and make your relationship more important than your need to prove who’s right. But, if you feel lost and unable to identify them on your own, find a competent observer to help you find your way.