Updated: Feb 17
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
Families everywhere are stressed and isolated. The current rates of domestic abuse have skyrocketed; the White House calls it a “pandemic within a pandemic”. One of the silver linings of this time is that online therapy has become increasingly the norm and a couples therapist can virtually come into our living room to help us.
They can support us to understand that it is the relational dynamic we can’t stand, not our partners themselves. We can uncover ways to express the hurt, find connection and unite against the painful dynamic. And the sooner we address what’s happening, the less we have to unlearn. But to get there, we first have to move through our initial hesitation to get help.
Here in Marin County, I worked with a couple who simply never thought they would be able to have a real connection with one another. They were relieved on the days when they woke up without animosity in their hearts. Both of them suffered from depression and anxiety. They felt they were fated to being in a distant relationship where they would raise their children together, but never really lean on each other emotionally. Their dynamic had taught them the latter wasn’t safe. They blamed themselves and their partner for lacking this capacity for closeness. And although they were committed, they were far from happy together.
In the process of couples therapy they learned how to start naming how they were feeling instead of pointing the finger at each other. As safety was built, they began to cautiously reveal their emotional lives to one another and the gap between them became less. With time they learned to slow down enough to get curious about what was happening inside when they were upset and find the language to articulate it. And they began to really listen to one another, trying to empathize the best they could by inserting themselves in their partner’s experience. It certainly didn’t always happen, but when it did it allowed for real intimacy, something they had never thought possible. In the last session, they walked in the door to my office holding hands and chatting away.
Couples therapy is intimidating. Even the idea of it can evoke fear that somehow we have failed. I, for some reason, as a client have carried the thought that if we need therapy then we are fundamentally unsound, that a “good” relationship doesn’t actually need help. How wrong this assumption is. And how common, I think. But as a therapist, I know what an act of faith, hope and mature consideration it is to choose couples therapy despite the discomfort.
Many people worry that speaking to a couples therapist might mean the end of the relationship and it could as it changes the homeostasis. “This process might force us to acknowledge something terrible I know I can already live with and then maybe one of us might leave. Let’s avoid that!” Often these forms of resistance exist to actually preserve the relationship. The problem is if we stay with our reasons for not getting help too long it can keep us stuck and resentful of our partner for our unhappiness, and without the support that can bring us the intimacy we are yearning for.
Another form of resistance I’ve struggled with is the thought, “Oh, we are better than that! Couples therapy is for people with real problems. We know how to talk to each other. We’re not that bad.” This may be true, our relationship may be able to continue on endlessly, skillfully working through the bumps and enjoying the smooth patches, but by simply preserving our current state we miss out on real opportunities to transform our “rough patches” into, I would say, alchemical spiritual experiences where our own deepest existential pain, not only about our relationship but also about life itself, can be heard and held. The feeling of bringing light into the darkness, revealing yourself in the presence of others is one we all should know. It is scary but can be intoxicating, immensely satisfying and healthy. And how can we do that without a guide and container?
Not all therapists have learned how to hold the space for both partners to feel fully seen and understood. So if you aren’t feeling understood in therapy then maybe voice that to your couples counselor and see how it’s received. Because it’s a profound experience to feel held with your partner and have your nervous systems relax together, understanding there’s an actual way through the challenges to a deeper knowing of one another.
Each of us in our own way is somehow fractured. Perhaps if we can find our way through the resistance, we are given the opportunity to experience a sense of wholeness again in relationship to our partner. From what I’ve learned as a client and as a therapist, sometimes we just need a third-party to get us out of our comfort zones to help us see who the other is and what’s really going on. As we build safety with a therapist we can start to uncover our honest feelings and what we are needing from our partners to experience more connection, intimacy. It’s something we can do to feel held together, and in my experience when we feel held as a couple, then somehow we can each hold the other a little bit tighter.