It’s one of the great ironies in doing therapy with couples: When they come in for help with what they’ve identified as their main issue, any competent therapist quickly recognizes a far more fundamental problem underlying their professed difficulties. And generally, couples, with all their blind spots and defenses, aren’t able to perceive the deeper dilemma causing their distress.
If couples have managed to conceal their much thornier concerns from themselves, it’s typically because they’re even more threatening and more anxiety-producing than what they’ve “settled” into arguing about. Still, once the therapist has correctly identified their core issues—and, however begrudgingly, they agree that this is what keeps provoking their ongoing clashes—they can begin to work on what they’ve unconsciously contrived to bury. And that greatly increases the odds that the therapist can assist them in working through these no longer hidden obstacles.
Here are two examples of how and why couples recycle arguments (even when they may have thought they’d resolved them) because they just don’t understand what, on a more profound level, their conflict exemplifies. And this quandary they haven’t resolved, let alone figured out.
For ease of reading I’ll be using the pronouns “he” and “she,” but the party actually initiating or reacting to the grievance could be either sex. Additionally, whether or not the couple is married hardly matters. For the portrayals below depict conflicts likely to take place in almost any more-or-less “committed” relationship, heterosexual or otherwise.
Let’s say a wife complains that her problem is that she and her husband just don’t communicate. Her partner responds, confused, that he doesn’t know what she means, or expects of him; that they communicate as much as other couples do.
What’s the fallacy here? Well, for one thing, in the context of an intimate relationship, it’s impossible not to communicate. Facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, physical presence (or absence), and even what one wears to the dinner table, communicate attitude and feeling. So if the wife voices such discontent, what she’s saying is generally that there’s little verbal communication—and what there is, is mostly shallow, and negative.
So while the wife may be convinced that their solution would be to communicate more, which her spouse seems regularly to resist, the actual solution to the problem is for her (or both of them) to discover how to make their communication more rewarding. That may mean they’re addressing each other less judgmentally and with more empathy, support, and understanding. For if one’s “intimate other” is sharing something personal and the spouse is unresponsive, critical, attacking, or offering unwanted advice, such a reaction is likely to feel more punishing than pleasing.
If genuine self-disclosure is to take place in a relationship (probably most of what the wife has been missing), the relationship must be made sufficiently safe and secure for such sharing. In short, the communication has to be gratifying; reinforcing. Otherwise, it’s bound to remain perfunctory and superficial. As author Harville Hendrix stresses in his classic relational work, especially in Getting the Love You Want (20th-anniversary ed., 2007), the three most important elements of a relationship are (cf. the well-known real estate dictum) safety, safety, and safety.
Consequently, the therapist’s role isn’t merely to promote more communication but to explore with the couple why over time it’s become so constricted. For more communication isn’t what’s needed here, but a different, less reactive, kind of communication. However unconsciously, either partner’s griping about their lack of communication is actually expressing sorrow, anger, or fear that the emotional connection between them has been lost and that they’ve been feeling achingly alone in the relationship.
So therapists need to help couples recognize, and eventually relinquish or moderate, the psychological defenses sabotaging their relationship—despite these defenses having protected their vulnerability in it. If the couple is to strengthen their bond, they’ll need to learn how to respond to each other’s thoughts and feelings more compassionately, more caringly. For only then can they overcome what’s made them so “gun-shy”—unable or unwilling to more fully “divulge” themselves to the other and let themselves be truly known.