From the Counseling Center: Couples in Conflict Print

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By Virgil Roberson, L.P., M. Div., NCPsyA, Executive Director, The Counseling Center

May 13, 2020: During our current health crisis, a lot has been written about how social distancing and forced proximity within families create new challenges and potential conflicts for couples. Parents have had to come up with new routines for work and child care that require changed patterns of behavior, greater flexibility, and enormous patience, all while living in a time of profound stress and uncertainty for themselves and their children. 

While making these adjustments, some couples have discovered differences in their approach to the crisis that have created unexpected areas of conflict.  All this on top of worrying about how to stay healthy, how to respond to financial strains and insecurities, and how to keep their children safe and productively engaged.  

Less has been written about the unaddressed and unresolved issues that couples bring with them into these situations. Such underlying issues can have a significant impact on how a couple responds. In fact, stress and proximity can be the very triggers that unearth and set off these unhealthy behaviors tied to underlying issues.  And yet the couple may not even be aware of them, or is perhaps not yet ready to acknowledge them to oneself or one’s partner.

Although all couples have some unresolved issues, the couples that have allowed these issues to lie dormant, or have been aware of them without beginning to talk about them, may feel their impact keenly.  The issues may find expression in increased levels of anxiety, depression, and a desperate need to know when, and if, this is ever going to end.  Such discontent can exacerbate an already stressful landscape at home.

In his book The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, John Gottman, American psychology researcher and expert on coupledom, talks about four behaviors that can be warning signs of a deteriorating relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  

Criticism arises when either partner resorts to “you are” or “you did” statements, rather than “I feel” statements, towards the other.  Such communication often proves unhelpful and can lead down a futile path to what Gottman calls the other three horseman, beginning with contempt.

Contempt can appear as non-verbal methods of expressing judgement, such as deep sighs, making a face, or rolling one’s eyes. These sarcastic postures can then evolve into the third horseman, defensiveness, an automatic defense of one’s behavior.  Fights often result in which each partner returns the criticism, even escalating it, without taking responsibility for any part of the interaction. In other words, each member of the couple sees the other as fully responsible for what is not working in the relationship.  

Couples are rarely able to hear and relate to each other once the communication becomes either/or, black/white, right/wrong.  The fourth horseman, stonewalling, can then come into play.  As the saying goes, it can be silent but deadly. Stonewalling involves a conscious shutting down, an emotional withdrawal, or a “flight” response. The vibe is, “I am closing my partner out.” What originates as a way to protect oneself becomes a loud way of saying, “I will not let you in no matter what,” and, most toxically, “I don’t care about you.”  

A simple example of the full pattern might be: “You are always leaving dishes in the sink” with the receiver making an exasperated face, whereby the critical partner then goes on the defensive with, “I have to do everything around here —work all day and then work more for you.” The receiver reverts to stonewalling by not looking at the other and going silent long enough to convey resentment. 

Whatever the couple’s unique cycle, it is often repeated for days, weeks, months, even years--until the destructive dance can no longer be tolerated by one or both of the partners. These toxic ways of communicating become the predominant way the couple interacts and thus, each person emerges with deep hurts, even scars, which take a long time to work through and heal from.  

Often, couples enter therapy either individually to deal with their discontent about the relationship or as a couple attempting to sort out their issues and break the self-defeating cycle. In order to get some foothold and begin to undo the damaging dynamic, one of the partners must be willing to “let go” of their part in the power struggle.  Without that willingness, without letting go of the rope that unites the couple in this tug of war, the struggle will continue. Letting go does not mean letting go of the relationship, but rather letting go of one’s own part in insisting on being right, expressing resentment, and reacting or retreating.

Unresolved issues between partners can also be expressed in many other forms of unhealthy behavior. Throughout the U.S., domestic abuse has risen by a startling 35% during the coronavirus pandemic, with similar increases reported worldwide (30 % in France, 18% in Spain, and 30% more calls to domestic abuse help lines in Singapore), making the term “intimate terrorism” especially relevant.  In addition, many people who experience ongoing struggles with addiction have found it more challenging to stick with their programs, especially now that they no longer have access to face-to-face support groups and other forms of in-person assistance, leading to relapses in all forms of addictive behavior, including those to do with gambling, alcohol, eating, sex, drugs, etc.  

Meeting with a professional therapist, even via virtual means, can be helpful for couples facing such challenges.  In fact, the current conditions of social isolation may provide an optimal opportunity for therapy, in that couples may now have the time, flexibility, and physical proximity so necessary for the therapeutic process.  

During my almost thirty years of working with couples, I’ve found that they usually seek therapy after the deep-seated issues have sparked emotions and behaviors that cannot be swept away.  It’s been noted that divorce lawyers are especially busy around Christmas and New Year’s, or after a significant anniversary in the couple’s life, when one or both partners take stock and ask if they want to continue together in the same manner for another year. 

It’s as if the yellow “maintenance required” light in your car has been flashing for some time, and suddenly it begins flashing red.  Taking the car to a mechanic is no longer an option.  And, in fact, further damage to the car may already have been done, requiring more extensive repairs.  Similarly, it’s better to tackle these deeper issues in a relationship before they become critical.

How might a professional therapist help a couple begin to address their concerns? 

A therapist might suggest a couple take time to simply be with each other, to talk honestly about the status of their relationship. Partners might ask themselves: What are my hopes for our time together now and after the coronavirus crisis is over? How might we reshape our relationship and interact differently? What do we need from each other? Can we agree to promise to validate each other? Will we commit to working together to stop the criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling? 

One exercise I’ve encouraged couples to try involves sitting together without distractions for thirty minutes, looking at each other in the quiet. (Some couples like to put their hand on each other’s heart.) Then one partner speaks for fifteen minutes about their thoughts and feelings, and describes what they hope to find in the relationship.  During this time, the other partner is only allowed to acknowledge and validate what is being said.  They are the vessel, listening and taking in what is being communicated.  Then the partners switch roles.

As much as a couple can benefit from spending time together during this so called pause in our nation’s civic life, each half of a couple also needs time apart. Cutting each other some slack, having each other’s back, and also giving each other the gift of honest care and appropriate boundaries are the best ways to honor oneself and the relationship.

As you consider whether seeing a therapist is right for you, you might ask these questions: Are the close confines imposed by the required social isolation bringing out more negative reactions in your relationship? Are you and your partner struggling to traverse this challenging time? Do you feel that you, as a couple, could use support and guidance, both right now and as you consider going forward during this uncharted period?  

Here at The Counseling Center in Bronxville we are continuing to offer therapy with individuals and couples, either through video platforms or telephonically. Please feel free to reach out if we can help. 

Pictured: Virgil Roberson

Photo courtesy The Counseling Center


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