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A lot of the couples I consult with face challenges which seem to be centered around the decision to keep things going in the direction they want, together—or the direction one of the partners wants.
Even not making a decision is a decision—one that usually keeps them in the exact same spot. The way I see it, couples therapy is an action against what’s currently happening, which is pretty awesome. I want to hug them for taking this step to stand up to the situation. I always hope that it’s not too late.
Couples are usually trying to decide whether to have, or not have:
>> A break-up
>> A baby
>> A proposal
>> Good communication
>> Good sex or mind-blowing sex
>> Some sustainability, either together or apart
It’s a lot to unpack in the therapy room with a couple.
When working with couples, it’s a dance between working for the relationship and balancing the needs of each individual.
I like to start with individual values and how the relationship might be served by those values. We map out when the value is present in the relationship, what might more of the value do for the relationship, and what might less look like. What’s missing, what’s too much, what’s ignored, dishonored, or misaligned.
Where “the problem” might be interfering with one’s values.
Where might compromise be reached: what’s too much and what’s not enough? Too much or not enough—we always seem to circle around that.
And then there’s “the problem” that showed up unexpectedly or was always there. The thing that seems to be so loud it has become the tipping point for whether or not the relationship can survive.
As Susan Piver details in her lovely book, The Four Noble Truths of Love, once we’re in a relationship we’re always searching for and wanting that time when we were first dating—when things were just, awesome. The thing that drew us in. The excitement. The passion.
With all the passion and excitement there also seems to be a co-occurring fear or uncertainty in the beginning. Insecurity that something could go wrong. Fear that the other might not like us as much as we like them. Fear that there could be something else out there that could be worse. Or better.
It’s that instability that often keeps the relationship going in the beginning, and then beyond.
Though, as soon as security in the relationship shows up, after it has been adequately tested, passion might fade away. Disagreements might show up. Fights occur. The sex dies down. Life outside the relationship happens. Life within the relationship happens: kids, new job, new friends, depression, anxiety, financial challenges, sadness, middle age, old age, illness, loss of a family member, and personal growth.
And then couples end up in my office to fix to what’s happening, to get them back to the awesomeness that once was or to finish things in a more peaceful way that serves the individuals in the relationship.
In the beginning of our consultations, couples often look to me to be “the arbiter” of “the problem.” Whoa! Wait, a second, you want me to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, and what they should do about it? They (or one of them) will often look at me annoyed when I say I’m not the one who gets to decide that.
What I can do is look for gaps in “the problem story” when it’s not as strong or powerful.
>> How did they get to “the problem”?
>> What was happening?
>> What allows them to protest “the problem?”
>> How might they stand up to “the problem” together?
I look for moments when the problem doesn’t have them in its grip.
>> How might they be able to invite in more of those moments?
>> What might they do in spite of “the problem” and who might they be in spite of (fill in the blank)?
>> What are they willing to do and who are they willing to be for the sake of the relationship?
>> In the face of “the problem,” are each personally willing to carry on in the relationship?
>> How might they each want to be to serve the relationship?
>> What are they willing to let go of?
>> What’s you, me, or we?
I have collaborated with couples who have broken up and stayed together as they continue to protest against the problem—couples who are still in the same place as when they started the work.
What might you want your relationship to look like? What are you willing to do and who are you willing to be to reach that goal? How does “being right” serve (or not serve) the relationship? What allowed you to fall in love with your partner? Can you find those moments again? Is that enough? How might circumstances outside and inside the relationship strengthen it? What values might you be willing to sacrifice or modify for the relationship?
The answers might begin to serve as a guide to how your relationship could work—or not work.