Communication – this is a common and debilitating problem in relationships. If a couple is able to communicate they have a relatively good chance of dealing with all the following issues. We struggle to communicate because we speak different ‘languages’; or we are unable to really listen; emotions get in the way; or we have lost interest; or we don't care enough anymore - to name a few.
Incompatibility – when the differences that initially were interesting have become too big to bridge and overcome.
Intimacy problems – another common problem in relationships. Physical intimacy problems pertain to the couple’s fit and needs, frequency, or when sex is used to play out other relational dynamics. Emotional intimacy only really happens in mature relationships because it requires the individuals to trust their partner enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable.
Incessant conflict and fighting – this is the presenting problem of many couples who come for therapy. Sometimes it is because of personality clashes, a tit-for-tat that has developed or unwillingness to compromise. Conflict and fighting is always the symptom of a deeper relational issue.
Allowing others into the inner circle of the relationship – all couples need to create a boundary around the relationship. This means that certain things that only pertain to the couple are not shared with others. A strong, but permeable, boundary assists the couple to create a sacred space that gives them a sense of self, and a safe space. When others are allowed into the space they dilute its quality and often unwittingly sabotage the couples' interaction.
Dealing with change and different stages in the relationship – transitioning from one stage or phase to another always puts strain on a relationship. Similarly dealing with significant personal, life and career changes is a process that has to be acknowledged, understood and carefully managed.
Relational patterns develop when a sequence of actions and reactions are repeated. The following are common patterns that become very difficult in relationships:
THE PARENT CHILD DYNAMIC (The Key to a Loving and Lasting Relationship, p 106)
This is where the one person acts like a parent and the other responds like a child. The ‘parent’ can be either critical or nurturing and the ‘child’ can be pleasing and compliant (called adapting) or angry and rebellious.
A parent-child dynamic is best understood in terms of Eric Burn’s Transactional Analysis (TA) model. It must be pointed out that his model is used here as a descriptive frame and not in its purest form as a communication model.
In brief, it alleges that, in our consciousness, there are three ego-states, the Parent, the Adult and the Child. The Parent is composed of all the messages and sanctions that are internalised from parents and other adults in positions of authority that the child dealt with while growing up. On the one hand, it is made up of all the shoulds and shouldn’ts to which a child is exposed. These messages develop the internalised Critical Parent of the adult personality. On the other hand, the love and caring a child receives grows a Nurturing Parent that later on makes up the tender, kind and gentle part of the personality.
The Adult mode of the conscious person is reflected in the rational and objective part of the personality, the part that is able to look at a problem from a distance without getting overly emotionally involved in it.
The third component is the Child. This ego-state is where our emotions reside and is spontaneous and natural, or adaptive and pleasing, or rebellious and angry.
A sign of a healthy relationship is that a couple is able to be Parents together, deal with life’s concerns jointly as Adults and even play and fight like Children with each other. For a relationship to be healthy, the majority of interactions between mates should be conducted while both are in the same ego-state. Now and then a skewed fit between two different ego-states may be appropriate and not dysfunctional.
When the relationship is conducted mostly where the partners are in different ego-states, it becomes dysfunctional. The most common dysfunctional fit is the parent-child one. In this pattern one person takes on the Parent ego state, while the other one is in its Child mode.
For example, a cycle occurs when, in response to the Parent partner being critical, the Child partner responds by being rebellious or pleasing. Pleasing behaviour in turn may elicit the nurturing side of the Parent. Initially, the Child likes the nurturing but soon becomes resentful, remembering the criticism, and responds by becoming rebellious. This brings out a critical reaction from the Parent, so that the pattern starts all over again.
While the Parent vacillates between being critical or nurturing, the Child shifts between being rebellious or pleasing. The way out of such a dynamic is for both parties to access their Adult mode.
In a similar way, as the Adult balances the opposing poles of Parent and Child ego-states in the personality, so it does in relationships. It is the Adult part of the personality that negotiates with the rebellious Child or that reasons with the overly critical Parent. Without an internal Adult to integrate the Parent and Child, a person would feel that they were trapped in the middle of a tug-of-war. Similarly, in a relationship, the Adult brings reason and compromise to opposing situations.
CASE-STUDY: GARETH AND SOPHIA
Gareth and Sophia have a classic parent-child 'fit', based on traditional role allocations. Gareth is a very successful businessman who has built up a property empire that he rules with the iron fist. Sophia is a mother and home executive, who takes pride in having raised three successful children and in maintaining a beautiful and efficient home. While the children were still at home, their parents' different roles complemented each other and the parent-child fit was more functional than dynamic.
As Gareth become more successful and the children started leaving home, that traditional fit started affecting Gareth and Sophia's interpersonal dynamic. This coincided with Sophia's having to deal with an empty nest and her struggle to create different meaning and new purpose in her life. The children did not need her anymore and there was more than enough money to out-source most of the mundane household tasks.
As a result, Gareth and Sophia found themselves internally at diametrically opposite poles. While Gareth basked in the glory of his achievements, Sophia felt increasingly unsure and insecure, wondering what to do with the rest of her life. Soon their internal states of mind were projected onto the relationship and became the hallmark of how they related to each other.
Gareth was not going to let Sophia’s malaise and lack of direction dampen his own resolve to enjoy the fruits of his accomplishments. He became irritated and frustrated with Sophia. His initial encouragement turned into dismissive criticism.
Of course, Sophia plunged into a pit of self-doubt, which only allowed Gareth’s Critical Parent behaviour to persist, while she increasingly took on the Adaptive Child position.
The way out of such dysfunctional entrapment is to access the Adult. In Adult mode, Gareth and Sophia will stand back from their relationship to get a real sense of what has been happening, something the Adult does, and they will endeavour to balance the opposing evaluating Parent and emotional Child positions with more rational alternatives. This often happens spontaneously but, once a pattern has become habitual and entrenched, it has to be achieved deliberately, step by step.
Because the people in Adult mode are able to distance themselves from a situation, they are able to look at it, devoid of emotions, and see the underlying issues in a broader context. This is particularly helpful when trying to understand a dysfunctional relationship pattern.
For Gareth and Sophia, the first step is to develop an understanding of the type of pattern playing itself out in their relationship and how it has locked in both of them. The next step is to accept that they are probably experiencing the way it is playing itself out quite differently. So, to move beyond the pattern that holds them captive, they first have to validate their respective experiences of what is happening. The Adult does this by hearing and respecting the other’s views and feelings. Often this is enough to bring about a shift. If not, the final step is to brainstorm ideas of how to employ mutual Adult behaviour in potentially tricky interactions.
By looking at their relationship from a broader perspective, Gareth and Sophia will get a sense of how they have become trapped in their particular parent-child fit. Then they will have to work at understanding why it worked for them at one stage, why it is not working any more and how they feel about their being trapped in this pattern. Finally, they will have to work at identifying the aspects of the relationship that would facilitate a change and then work consistently to bring about that change.
Although the above application of Eric Burn’s thinking goes beyond his original model, the notion of the Adult as a balancing factor makes a lot of sense. Where the Parent is socialised and programmed, and the Child emotionally reactive, the Adult is mindful of making choices that are both appropriate and fitting to the person and situation. The Adult understands that we all have a past that informs us how we judge and care for, that we are driven both by activating and inhibiting emotions and that these aspects of our internal being don’t always reside comfortably next to one another.
Similarly, in relationships, it is the Adult that mediates these diverse positions through understanding and compromise.
THE PUSH-PULL DYNAMIC (The Key to a Loving and Lasting Relationship, p. 58)
This is where the couple struggle to manage the range of closeness and distance between themselves. Moving to a comfortable distance or closeness after the initial co-dependent enmeshment of the romantic love stage is a difficult road to navigate. Some individuals also vacillate between how much closeness they need, which makes it very difficult for their partners.
When two people first meet, naturally there will be a considerable distance between them. As they get to know each other and become more intimate, slowly they start moving closer and closer to each other.
I believe that every couple eventually settles at a certain closeness-distance that is comfortable for them. After that their intimate relationship is played out around that imaginary closeness-distance point.
As the couple experiences the ups and downs of the relationship, a dance develops between the two. When one partner moves away a bit, for whatever reason, the other will sense the distance and, in a self-correcting gesture, will move closer, allowing them to stabilise around their comfortable closeness-distance point again. After a while, something may happen to push one of the partners away, creating distance, only to be corrected by the other partner, who will move closer. Back and forth they move, without actually being aware of their dance.
This does not imply that they don’t feel the distance when it happens, rather that they are unaware of their mutual, spontaneous, self-correcting behaviour. This dance is an integral part of the ebb and flow of a relationship because individuals in a relationship affect each other and because things move and vary all the time.
However, when a relationship takes strain or when there are difficult issues with which the couple has to grapple, the gap or distance between them widens. As it becomes more pronounced, it is felt more distinctly but, because the couple is fighting, neither is willing to reach across to bridge their divide.
If severe damage is done, a relationship may not be able to return to its original closeness-distance point and it may settle at a newer, more distant point.
Alternatively, the couple could start an emotional dance in which, when one person moves a step closer, the other moves a step back until they are ready to patch things up again. In the process, it may induce the rejected party to take an even bigger step back, eliciting a significant response from the other. So they would move backwards and forwards around their imaginary closeness-distance point.
CASE STUDY: MATT AND JONATHAN
Matt and Jonathan are caught up in a push-pull dynamic. Matt is an anxious person who is not very comfortable with closeness and distance. Though he finds too much closeness stifling, he becomes anxious when Jonathan moves too far away. In their relationship, as he feels Jonathan drifting away, he starts feeling insecure and anxious and has a strong need to move closer. He responds to his own need by investing a lot of energy into the relationship and doting on Jonathan.
The effect this has on Jonathan, who loves closeness, is to move closer.
After investing so much in the relationship, Matt starts feeling anxious again because he feels hemmed in and yearns for space. To relieve his anxiety, he shifts his focus to his own life.
Jonathan experiences this as Matt pushing him away and, in turn, drifts off busying himself with non-relationship activities.
As soon as Jonathan moves beyond a certain point, the distance once more makes Matt anxious and the cycle starts again. He invests energy into the relationship again, reeling Jonathan in, as it were.
Of course, all this pushing and pulling is not very satisfying for either party. Matt can never relax completely because he is constantly monitoring what is happening between him and Jonathan. Meanwhile, Jonathan feels at the mercy of his partner’s anxiety levels.
Because any pattern is a dynamic played out between two people, it would be over-simplistic to attribute this pattern solely to Matt’s anxiety. The fact that Jonathan’s role in the dynamic is not as obvious, does not mean that it does not contribute as much to maintaining their push-pull pattern. By reacting to Matt’s dynamic of moving closer and further away, Jonathan is, in effect, abdicating responsibility for the issue of closeness in their relationship. This may be because he is unsure of himself in relationships in general and so needs a partner who reassures him constantly, in this instance by pulling him in, which makes him feel wanted and needed.
If Jonathan were able to stand still and not move in tandem with Matt, the resulting closeness or distance that ensued with every move would be less. That would probably not trigger Matt’s anxiety.
Most couples perform a kind of dance with each other. If one is part of the dance, it is virtually impossible to see it clearly or objectively. For Jonathan and Matt’s pattern to change, they will have to do everything possible to get a better understanding of their dynamic. They can either start the process by talking about it differently or by going to therapy. Both will assist them to look at their behaviour from a safe distance.
Once they understand their dynamic, they will both have to take ownership of their part of the dance and work towards changing it. In reality, changing one’s behaviour is not that easy and most couples need professional help to guide them through the process.
THE TESTING-DEFENDING DYNAMIC (The Key to a Loving and Lasting Relationship, p 57)
The testing-defending pattern is a very common one in relationships. It is rooted in a combination of two basic issues with which most individuals enter a relationship, namely insecurity and a need to be seen as good enough for one's partner. When the one person feels insecure he/she looks for reassurance by testing their partner – without them being aware of being tested. Because this is often an unconscious setup the partner nearly always fails. This confirms both parties’ fears that they are not good enough.
CASE STUDY: LERATO AND ZOLA
Lerato and Zola have been together for many years. Both grew up in rural villages and were sent to a boarding school, where they met.
Although Zola was a very likeable good-looking boy, he never felt quite good enough because he grew up in the shadows of two exceptionally gifted, older brothers. Few people saw this insecure side of him, especially because, towards the end of high school, he already had the physique of a well built, grown man and attracted the attention of many girls. Lerato tried to overlook all the attention he received but it was difficult for her and made her feel insecure.
After high school, they completed their tertiary education in different cities and only saw each other during university holidays. Despite Zola's assuring her that there was no one else in his life, Lerato found it difficult to believe that he had remained faithful to her over all that time. It was a question that would continue to nag as she would never demand proof to confirm her doubts. Consequently, from early on in their relation, Lerato's doubt that translated into a need to question Zola, became a sub-text in their relationship and initiated a particular pattern.
The pattern that developed was that Lerato would ‘question’ Zola and test him in various ways. He would perceive that as criticism and it would make him feel inadequate. It would elicit a negative, defensive response from him. In turn, Lerato would read that as confirmation of her doubts. More questioning would follow and the pattern would be repeated.
Over time, Zola’s frustration about not being able to allay her doubts grew and he became angry about being criticised. Not feeling good enough made him furious and defensive.
Conversely, the more Lerato allowed her doubts free reign, the more she sought reassurance. In order to dispel her doubts, the only mechanism at her disposal would be to ‘test’ him once again and so the cycle continued.
Eventually this pattern became the nub around which the relationship existed. Inevitably Zola ended up blaming Lerato for never feeling good enough to make her happy or to allay her fears. She blamed him for feeling insecure and unhappy.
With more time, a new pattern focusing on mutual blame developed. This superseded the original testing-defending one.
Knowing that they wanted their relationship to work but unable to break their dynamic, Lerato and Zola went for counselling. During the process of therapy, they started understanding their pattern and to what extent their dynamic was ensnarling their relationship. They consciously set out to develop a new way of engaging. They have managed to leave most of their old pattern behind and are in the process of creating a less contaminated and more meaningful relationship.
A pattern can develop when one party is introverted and the other extroverted. Because the introvert lives more inside themselves and the extrovert in the interpersonal space between themselves and others, a pattern can develop where the extrovert takes on most of the responsibly for connecting and social engagements.
Most couples develop their own particular way of handling and managing conflict. Common patterns are a win-lose dynamic where one party gives in or rampant escalation where neither backs down.
A future plan is based on:
the history of the relationship - this sheds light on the couple dynamic, on how strong their foundation is, and in what stage/phase the relationship is
the couple’s current issue - the presenting problem is often the tipping point that makes the couple desperate enough to really start working on their relationship
an assessment of previous attempts to address the issue - every couple tries to change and improve their relationship – the problem is that they often try to do more of the same, only better, without any significant change
Once the issues are identified they are prioritised and a way to deal with them is formulated.
In some instance a couple may just need a safe space in which to start hearing each other and to start having the difficult conversations they are not able to have.
COUPLES THERAPY : UNPACKING THE PROCESS
The goal of the Couples Therapy process is
(1) to understand the fundamental issues they are dealing with and help them find a way to address them
(2) to identify and change redundant, hurtful and dysfunctional patterns, in order to
(3) map out a future and plan where they learn to be more accepting, tolerant and kind to each other to ultimately have the fulfilling relationship they wish to have.