Are you feeling connected with your partner? Are you experiencing intimacy? Is your relationship giving you emotional security and joy in life?
These are a few questions that I have been addressing in assisting the couples in my marriage counseling and relationship coaching practice. Often clients say in their first session that their communication is poor and want help improving it.
Most often “communication” is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath that we have childhood developmental issues to explore, patterns of thinking and behaving that are unconscious and conscious: we have differentiation and attachment issues to address.
We must reconnect the couple and create a safe and secure environment. Over the years together couples emotionally distance themselves. They start out intensely connected and responsive but over time they pay less attention to each other and the bonds of attachment lessen. Then through misunderstandings, hurts and arguments the couple gets in a pattern of broken connections. This threatens one’s security.
Couples are aware of their arguments and behaviors that cause friction and emotional distance in the relationship. Out of habit and lack of education they are caught in their natural defenses to: complain, criticize, blame, yell, whine, or escape, go underground, seethe in quiet anger or hurt, ignore, forget, sleep or be silent for days. They are doing what is natural, defending themselves in the threat of disconnection. The need for secure attachment is something brought from childhood, a basic survival need of the infant that evolves into the search for a secure emotional bond with a partner.
All these poor communication habits and emotional distancing come out of their childhood patterns and lack of emotional awareness and maturity. The role of marriage therapy is to help clients understand their childhood from the reference of what they learned about how to handle hurt and anger and other unpleasant emotions, as well as how well they defined their “self” and individuated from their parents.
It is also our prime responsibility to help them discern their attachment and connectedness in childhood, to look at how their childhood experience of love and closeness plays out into adult primary relationships. As marriage therapists we must teach the couple to find ways of reconnecting after their perceived threats and arguments causing emotional distance. The couple needs to reconnect.
These patterns of separateness and connection play out in a marriage and cause difficulties. This is why couples argue and “fall out of love.” The developmental gaps in both members of the couple have to be handled so they can mature and have the experience in our offices of being adult, fully separated, autonomous individuals while also being attached, connected loving members of a couple.
With differentiated and attached adults we can get good communication instead of triggered fear and 3 year old temper tantrums. It is then that couples can say what they want or need from each other, listen without defensiveness or attack and respond in honest and caring ways that are both good for the individual “self” and the couple.
One of my client couples traveled from Pakistan to do a Private Marriage Retreat with me. They were an excellent example of a loving couple who were arguing and stuck due to their differentiation and attachment issues. They were a professional/executive couple with graduate degrees (M.D. and MBA), speaking 5 languages, in an arranged marriage, with 2 children, building their first home, who had two very different ways of experiencing love in a family.
He was very differentiated: as a child the family did not eat meals together – just ate when they could after their busy days, everyone made their own decisions and did what they wanted, went away to different countries for education, lived all around the world as adults, did not do holidays together, got together once a year with the entire group, talked regularly by phone or skype, got advice, influence and encouragement from each other, but maintained separate lives with successful and somewhat competitive careers.
He lived a fairly traditional patriarchal family life, honored his wife, but did not connect with his son, never holding him during his first year of life. He did not address difficulties and fell silent either leaving or sleeping. A lot of differentiation and a little attachment.
She was very attached to her family. They had all their meals together growing up, attended each other’s events, made all their decisions together, and participated in family life as adults with 3 of the 4 adult children living at home with their spouses, children and grandparents. My clients were one of the families living with the larger 3 generation family and the wife connected with her mother in a primary relationship while disconnecting with her husband. She was direct and critical in her confrontation and complaining to her husband. She dragged him across the world for therapy. A lot of attachment and a little differentiation.
The differences between these 2 individuals were enormous and their so-called communication difficulties could only be addressed by working on his lack of attachment, extreme differentiation and “Turtle-like” communication style. The other side of the work was helping her to become more separate or individuated with less attachment to her family of origin and more attachment to her spouse. We also had to help her with her harsh “Spraying skunk-like communication style.
The way we get through the developmental process from 18 to 36 months of age goes right into the remainder of our childhood and into adult relationships. We all need to have boundaries and love for our two and three year old “inner children” and nourish them into a mature ability to love and be loved while being true to their authentic sense of self. As individuals we need our separateness and as members of a couple we need our secure attachment with our spouse. Being able to do this together is the art of marriage.