The experience of “feeling understood” is essential for success in relationships. The couples therapist facilitates improved communication strategies, recognizing that there can be strong feelings beneath the surface content of the exchanges between partners, often related to earlier experiences in their lives.
Summary – Couples
- Couples therapy is a powerful method for promoting the experience of each member “feeling understood“
- Patterns of interaction that lead to communication breakdown:
- rejecting the other’s attributions
- turning attributions around and throwing them back
- passive submission to attributions that leads to feeling angry and misunderstood
- How to keep the communication channels open and reciprocal:
- genuine interest in the other person’s feelings and experience
- keeping your own counsel
- valuing the legitimacy of one another’s feelings
- Key concepts that the therapist keeps in mind:
- Each member of a couple has representations of the other that must be respected, even if these may seem misguided
- Patterns from each individual’s past can be repeated toxically in the present
- Feelings forged from early experiences in their families of origin influence interactions with the partner, but remain out of conscious awareness
- Unrecognized influences in the history of the couple’s life together
- Content versus process in the interactions between couples
Feeling Understood – Couples therapy can be a powerful method for partners to learn how to truly listen, hear and take in one another’s perspectives and subjectivities. The reciprocal experience of “feeling understood” is an essential ingredient for success in relationships, but achieving it is not easy. It is one of my missions to join couples in the work of strengthening their shared communication and connection.
Communication Can Be A Minefield – Communication breakdowns are at the heart of many couples’ problems. To reject a comment, or to turn it around and throw it back at your partner, runs the risk that your mate may experience you as disinterested in trying to understand his/her feelings. To just submit passively to your partner’s point of view may also have the appearance of disengagement in the process. And in addition, submission can leave you feeling humiliated, depressed and/or resentful. The exchanges are apt to stall and/or escalate into couples combat.
Negotiating the Minefield – Suppose instead that you express that you are so sorry that your partner feels hurt/angry/misunderstood, that it is not your intention, and that you want to understand as deeply as possible how he/she has come to feel this way. With this response, you convey that you care about you mate’s “feeling understood”, and that you are interested in exploring how you have contributed to these feelings.
Communicating in this way is difficult, because it is a challenge not to react defensively, especially when a member of the couple is feeling called out and criticized. Avoiding the reflexive response of defensiveness requires having a sense of the legitimacy of your own views. You are interested in and open to how your partner is seeing you and what you may be doing to contribute to those representations. But at the same time you do not feel obligated to see it just as your mate sees it. I call this “keeping your own counsel.” It can be challenging, particularly when the feelings are intense.
One key contributor to effective couples therapy is the cultivation of each person’s sense of the legitimacy of their own feelings and representations. Your feelings are legitimate for no other reason than that you have them. Each partner’s granting the legitimacy of the other’s feelings and being interested in understanding them is the springboard for effective communication. This acceptance nurtures the shared exploration of one another’s feelings.
For a couple to make progress in resolving their differences and tensions, the “feeling understood” communication style has to work in both directions between the two partners; each member of the couple approaches his/her partner with honesty and an open mind, with the goal that each feels understood and respected.
And of course this fourth way has to be shared reciprocally for the couple to make progress in resolving their differences and tensions.
What the Couples Therapist Holds in Mind – There are several key principles that a couples therapist must keep in mind in facilitating the effectiveness of couples work.
Attributions – Each member of a couple will always have attributions, ideas, representations and feelings about his/her mate. These representations must always be embraced and honored by the therapist, even if they may seem inaccurate or misguided. Why? Because respect for a person’s subjectivity is a bedrock of any therapy, and certainly for couples work. Couples therapy is intended to facilitate and empathically nurture the shared process of exploring and reflecting on the nature of their individual subjectivities, and on the tensions that arise from partners’ conflicting representations of themselves and each other.
Out-of-Awareness Representations from the Past – Assumptions, forces and patterns, most often forged from their earlier experiences in their families of origin, are repeated toxically in the here-and-now in the couple’s interactions with one another. These mental representations are often out-of-awareness (“unconscious”), posing an additional challenge to the couple and to the therapist in addressing them. A significant element of couples therapy is bringing the influences of these pre-existing representations into the light of shared awareness. This involves a recognition of the distant origins of the misrepresentations and how these contribute to misunderstandings and tensions in the couple’s relationship.
Unrecognized Influences in the History of Couple’s Life Together – Not uncommonly, some event in the history of a couple’s relationship (a miscarriage, loss of a parent, birth of a child, losing a job) has occurred, and after that the relationship was never the same. Often the significance of such events and their damaging effects lies outside of conscious awareness for the couple and can set in motion a slide into domestic dissatisfaction and conflict.
Content versus Process – Distinguishing content from process can be invaluable in promoting self-reflection between members of a couple. Suppose a couple gets into a heated exchange about a seemingly trivial matter, such as an errand or a deadline. Anger builds around what should be a routine concrete issue. At this point the therapist recognizes the importance of the issue (the specific content), while taking note of what is swirling beneath the surface (the process). What is each of you feeling or thinking? How are you making meaning of this event? Shifting to the feelings beneath the surface can often dramatically facilitate exploration and reflection about the deeper difficulties in the relationship.