Resilience Letters: Couple Counselling as Prevention

Dear M,

My marriage has been in a DOWNWARD SPIRAL OF DISCONNECTION for about 2 years. I realised this when a close friend asked me why I looked so unhappy.  I’ve recently had a baby. Yes I’m exhausted but it is more than that.  I could cope better  if my marriage was working. 

EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED I am a stay-at-home mom.  I used to be out in the workplace and now my world has changed dramatically.  I am on maternity leave and John is working shifts and we are both trying to stay awake in the evening so we can have some couple time.  Family life demands are more than we imagined and it is testing our patience and love. A typical evening goes like this:  It’s Thursday and the kitchen is a mess, the baby is crying and dinner is half made.  We are standing in the kitchen and the blame game begins.  I start yelling and he retreats to his computer.  Now it’s late night and we were both exhausted.  The baby wakes up at 2:00 a.m.  I get up to check on the baby and John remains fast asleep.  I’m resentful and  I decide to ask John to get up the next time.  At 4:30a.m. John says that he has to work and he needs his sleep.  I am sarcastic and I ask, “Isn’t this work? What about me?” John is furious but says little  and once again we fall asleep feeling disconnected and misunderstood.  Our “fights”  go nowhere.  We each feel “right” and as if a wall is between us.  It’s hard for us to listen as we are both flooded with emotion- angry, frustrated, and tired.  We seem to have adopted a pattern of complaining, criticising and dismissing each other.

I’m thinking that John doesn’t appreciate what I do at home.  I know he works hard but he comes home and doesn’t realise how exhausting being at home can be.  John has said to me that I don’t understand that his work is exhausting and that he needs a break; he says  that he can’t function the next day without a full night’s sleep.  The pattern repeats…

When I want to settle the matter  and I don’t get a response from John, I feel frustrated and I start to raise my voice . I feel anxious and almost fearful so I pursue him to talk it out and he retreats to his computer or becomes silent. I want to settle it as soon as possible.  John has told me that he feels kind of useless  and  wonders what  happened to our relationship.  I know I never  used to be so angry.  And I’m  thinking that he used to be so loving and attentive and now he expects so much and he won’t even talk. I feel lost and I think he doesn’t care.

Privately I’m thinking catastrophic thoughts like:  “this marriage is broken”, or “separation is the only option”.

Dear Stuck-in-a-pattern,

Most relationships that run into difficulty have been falling into a downward spiral for about 4 to 6 years so you are ahead of the game by taking care of your relationship now.  It usually takes a crisis before couples seek help from a marriage/couple counsellor.  Restoring your relationship is very possible.

It feels difficult to find your way back when critical, resentful or hurtful thoughts create distance.  When it seems there is no way out of the impasse, there is a tendency to generalise that nothing is working and believe that there are no options.  Both partners can get stuck feeling angry and hopeless.

It appears that you are stuck in a “Pursue – Withdraw Dance”. There is a “good ” reason for each of these coping  behaviours. They have a protective function and very likely made sense for each of you in the past . However, they don’t work well for you now and they interfere with creating emotional safety and are eroding your feelings of love and affection. We need to feel “safe” to reveal what we want and what we feel, without being loudly criticized, judged or ignored.

Marriage/Couple Counselling can make it possible for both of you to feel emotionally safe so that you  feel greater trust and empathy and effectively work through your differences.

If your default is competitive argument and righteous indignation then I imagine you often feel very dissatisfied and disheartened.   The “winner” may feel temporarily satisfied but ultimately disconnected.  The “loser” feels unimportant and dismissed.  Repetition of unresolved conflicts can weaken and destroy the bond of intimacy and a feeling of connection. Years of feeling unheard, or unseen, can result in neither feeling valued and that is when the marriage becomes tenuous.

Counselling can help each of you to change your focus from right vs. wrong to a consultative and sensitive approach especially when feeling  misunderstood or hurt.

You may wish to work together with a professional to help you transform destructive patterns into intimate connection.  It is an opportunity for personal growth and a time to pay attention to your unique patterns of engaging and disengaging each other. Both of you can grow in confidence by learning how to reconnect in an emotionally safe way  and enjoy creating solutions to what once seemed like intractable problems.  Counselling can facilitate self-compassion  and empathy with your partner – important elements for building trust and shaping the life you both want together.

Change begins when you both commit to developing a bond of trust and connection.