In this blog entry, I describe one of the core assumptions that informs my work with couples. Simply, the principle is that each member of the couple is 100% responsible for the problems in the relationship. But first, this entry requires a caveat.
The applicability of this assumption is contingent upon a certain minimum level of relationship functioning. In situations of domestic violence, substance abuse, or other safety risks this assumption has no place. On those cases safety, ending the abuse, and ending the addiction cycles requires a different therapeutic approach. Erroneous application of this assumption would be foolish at best and might blame the victim at worst in those circumstances.
Origins of the Problem
Let’s imagine a couple named Sue and Allison. They have been together for 9 years, married for 2. They have no children and are intentionally childless. Sue and Allison come to couples therapy because of a fight that has been going on for about 7 years. Around that time, Allison joined a Women’s Professional Development group to support her entrepreneurial career. Sue is a teacher and didn’t join the group because she didn’t feel it was germane to her career. A few months into Allison’s affiliation with the group, there was a picnic and partners of members were welcome to attend. Sue joined Allison and while there they were joined by another member of the group, Felicia, who did not have a partner at the picnic and who was friendly and playful with Allison. Sue became jealous that Allison might be attracted to Felicia. Felicia has since moved away but Sue continues to be afraid that the Women’s Professional Development group is “littered with lesbians” and that Allison will find someone there more attractive. Allison stopped inviting Sue to the twice yearly picnics with the group because Sue has acted suspicious of the other group members since that first meeting. Allison keeps talking with Sue to soothe her fears but is very tired of this argument. She has found nothing in 7 years that can soothe Sue’s fears and their arguments about this are becoming more and more emotional and intense. There is no history of infidelity in the couple and an interview in the intake finds no reason to believe that Allison may be hiding an affair.
In the way that I work as a relationship therapist, I believe that both people are 100% responsible for this conflict.
Sue is 100% responsible for the problems in this relationship because she has interpreted Allison’s behavior as a threat to their relationship without any evidence to back up the fear. Despite Allison’s attempts at reassurance, Sue will not be mollified. If Sue could relax, listen to and let Allison’s words of comfort into her heart, the problem would go away. If Sue could rest assured that she has a lot to offer the relationship, that she is a “catch”, and that Allison would be foolish to cheat on her and jeopardize their relationship, the problem would go away.
Allison is also 100% responsible for the problems in the relationship. Clearly talking doesn’t help yet she continues to engage in Sue’s baiting when the topic comes up. Allison could stop engaging in conversations about Sue’s jealousy, quit the group, or draw a line and end relationship. None of the three options that I am offering here are the right one. Nor are they the only options. But they demonstrate that Allison has accepted a relationship with a jealous partner, she has allowed herself to stay engaged in a conflict that is ongoing and in which her behavior and treatment of her partner is increasingly intense.
If Sue and Allison were my clients I would work to help them each accept responsibility for their role in the conflict. I would do this by first empathizing with the pain that they are experiencing in the relationship. Sue feels that her partner is putting her career over their relationship and is ignoring her fears that Allison will be attracted to someone else. Allison feels powerless and does not want to have to choose between the career support and development the group gives her and her relationship.
Next I would offer each my perspective on their role and see if they can recognize the pattern they are stuck in? I might say, “Sue, can you see that when you accuse Allison that she is attracted to someone in her group that there is nothing she can say or do that would prove you wrong?” and to Allison I might say, “It looks like you have tried to say and do a lot of things to comfort Sue. Can you see that these efforts have been ineffective and that when you get louder or more hurtful that isn’t working either?” but I’m not just identifying the pattern in the abstract, I am identifying to each partner her role in the conflict. I identify how her behavior perpetuates the conflict. If they disagree with me at this point, I will try to understand why. Maybe I missed something here that they can help me understand better. Most often though, if they disagree with me at this point, it is because they want to try to put the responsibility back on their partner. I try then to gently but firmly continue to help them accept responsibility for their role because blaming your partner rarely brings them closer to you.
After a partner accepts responsibility for their role we can begin identifying alternative behaviors. Some alternatives for Sue might include:
- Self-soothing/Self-care (more detail about this step in this entry on What to Expect in Couples Therapy?). I might ask Sue what she does on the days that Allison has her group and help her find new ways to cope with her feelings and thoughts about Allison being there that could build her confidence and calm her attachment anxiety and jealousy.
- Trading out accusation for statements of vulnerability. For example if she feels like saying, “I know you go to your group to find someone to replace me” she might offer, “I love your intensity and focus and I worry sometimes that I might not be enough for you. I fear that you might prefer someone more like you at the business group.”
- Making requests for connection. Sue might tell Allison that she would like to set up special reattaching time on the days after Allison’s business group.
Some alternatives for Allison might be:
- Active listening. Instead of rebutting Sue’s accusations, she could sit down and write them out, really trying to understand them. She could paraphrase them back to Sue and empathize with Sue’s feelings. Then instead of offering reassurances, she could ask Sue what she would like Allison to do about them. This might shift Sue’s experience so that she feels Allison is on her team against the anxieties instead of trying to fight against Sue.
- Allison might move into vulnerability. For example she could respond to Sue’s accusations by sharing how hurt she is and how exhausted she is at trying to reassure Sue. Maybe if Sue sees Allison’s pain more than defense, she will realize the damage she is doing to their relationship.
- Respond with strength. Allison might stop engaging in the arguments or accusations at all. She might say in a calm but firm voice, “Sue, there doesn’t seem to be anything that I can do to stop you being jealous about attending the group. I love you and I don’t want to lose you. I also won’t give up a group that supports a career that I love to put to rest your unfounded fears that I will leave you for someone there. If you keep going like this though, I am afraid that your accusations will break our relationship”. Allison could follow this up by walking away if Sue tries to start another argument about it.
If any of these actions are taken by either partner, it won’t necessarily solve the problem. Sue might change her communications but Allison might keep fighting back because she is so used to the old argument. Allison might hear Allison’s response of strength as a statement that her worst fears are coming true. This is both the first moment that the new healthier pattern could emerge and also the most perilous point in the relationship and the therapy because the moment that you risk creating a new pattern, there are no guarantees that your partner will join you.
When one member of the couple takes responsibility for their role in the conflict and then changes it (maybe in one of the ways outlined above) then the “spot-light” turns on the other person.
From the possibilities above, let’s imagine that Allison takes the position of strength and tells Sue that she isn’t going to continue to engage in the conflicts. Sue might then perceive that her worst fear is coming true, that Allison is leaving her.
There is now little that I could say to Allison to improve her communication. She is being clear about her needs, she is coming to sessions, still expressing her commitment to Sue, and she is not participating in the old arguments. She is calm but firm. I might occasionally help her soften her statements into compassion within the resolve but ultimately, she is doing exactly what both members of the couple asked me to help them do. She is not participating in the old pattern, she has found a new way of responding and she has not ended the relationship.
This turns the “spot-light”, the attention, to Sue in the sessions. At first, Sue might escalate her way of participating in the old arguments. She might wail and yell even louder the first time Allison responds with strength at home. But in session I can walk Sue through her experience. Starting with empathy I would see if I can make a connection with her by expressing that I understand how alone, afraid, and in pain she feels. Once I make that connection, I would ask her what she hears in Allison’s statements.
I could then challenge her interpretations with gentle questions, “If she is saying that she is leaving you, why is she here in this session? Did you hear her say that she isn’t leaving you and she loves you? What did she identify as a possible cause for the two of you to break up?” These Socratic questions have the potential to turn Sue’s attention to the aspects of the exchange that she is having a hard time paying attention to. I can also now help her figure out how to soothe her emotions and to slow the negative interpretations that lead her suspecting Allison. Eventually, I can probably lead her into one of the alternate communications listed in the previous section self-soothing, vulnerability, or requests for connection. Once she does that, moments of emotional connection between the two of them become possible. Allison’s strength can soften into appreciation for Sue’s willingness to confront her inner demons. Sue’s accusations can soften into witnessing the pain that pushed Allison into putting the relationship on the line.
One critique of this argument might be that in some cases, like an actual affair, it would be not be right to blame the partner who was cheated on for the behavior of their partner. This is true. Yet, I would maintain that both members of the couple are responsible for figuring out how to recover from the infidelity if they want to.
In the scenario played out above, Allison made the first move but it could just have easily been Sue. The point is that once one partner accepts personal responsibility for the challenges in the relationship and begins to make a personal change it creates the conditions that can allow both to change. What I do as the therapist is to empathize, identify alternate responses, and help both partner’s accept and witness the changes their partners are making.
Much of the thinking in this entry is informed by the excellent work of David Schnarch. I recommend two of his books depending on the audience:
For clients: Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch.
For therapists: Constructing the Sexual Crucible by David Schnarch.
Call for a 15-minute consultation about therapy with me, 650-814-7823