Relationships are hard. The stories we are told about marriage discuss dating and romance and end with couples living happily ever after. Rarely does the narrative focus on all the work that goes into a partnership after the excitement and passion dissipate. Throw some stress into the mix – or even kids! – and it becomes very difficult indeed for two people to stay together.
That’s where I come in. I’m a couples therapist, and I mostly work with married couples who have passed the honeymoon phase of their relationship and find themselves in a rut. Most of them feel that, no matter what they do, they end up engaging in the same arguments over and over again, and each member of the partnership usually feels like his or her needs are not understood or met by the other.
Why does this happen to so many couples who were once madly in love, and how can they improve the relationship?
I practice Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a type of psychotherapy designed specifically for couples. EFT therapists believe that relationships are like a dance. Early on, the dance is new and exciting, and while there are often missteps and stumbles, the couple is eager to keep moving and work through them. After a time, couples become attuned to each other, and the dance becomes more fluid and comfortable. After even more time, the partners do not even think about the steps they are taking and the movements they are making; the dance becomes so second nature, couples may not even be aware of what they are doing. Often some of the dance steps can be painful to one or both partners and leave them with sore feet, but because the movements are so ingrained, the couple cannot even conceive of another way of dancing. The goal of EFT, therefore, is to help couples become aware of the relationship dynamics and eventually change their patterns of interacting so that each individual feels understood and respected.
A real-life example
Take a couple I recently worked with. For the purposes of this article, I will call them Ralph and Alice. Both work full time, and when they first married, they divided the housework fairly equally. Alice clearly preferred for the house to be cleaner than did Ralph, and after he finished his chores, she would do those same chores again to her own satisfaction. At first, neither was bothered by this pattern, but over time, Ralph cleaned less and less. After all, why bother, if Alice was going to do it again, anyway? And Alice began to resent Ralph, because all of the housework fell on her to do. After several years, the dynamic evolved to the point where Alice, frustrated that she had to work all day and come home to all the chores, began nagging Ralph, and Ralph, who felt that he would lose no matter what he did, withdrew and avoided Alice whenever possible.
Counseling to the rescue
That’s when they came to see me. The first task was to help them express their feelings. Ralph shared with Alice how ineffective he felt because nothing he did could please his wife. Alice related to Ralph how lonely she felt because Ralph no longer paid any attention to her. Each partner was surprised to hear how upset the other felt, and both began to understand where the other was coming from and be a little more tolerant of their behaviors.
Soon they took small steps to change their dynamic: Ralph agreed to help out a little more around the house, and Alice promised to praise his actions and tolerate a slightly less perfect job. Over time, this new dance became more natural and they didn’t have to work as hard to be considerate of each other. Moreover, they had learned to share their feelings more frequently, so that they could work through new challenges that might arise in the future.