Will my relationship survive this storm?

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I get it. Tension is running at an all-time high within your four walls. You’re stranded in your house, maybe with a couple little kids creating blanket forts (read: creating more laundry) and playing hide-and-seek in the pantry (read: eating all the food). But today, we’re not going to focus on the children.  We’re talking about the fact you’re stranded in your house with…your partner. Yikes!

When a couple walks into my office, they are typically not in the best shape, emotionally. Oh, it may appear everything is “fine.”  You know, that kind of “fine” where you can be gritting your teeth, fighting in the car; and then walk into my office with the biggest smile on your face, holding your partner’s hand, hoping I don’t see you digging into their skin with your fingernails. Welcome to couple’s counseling. (For the record, I’ve also been a half of one of those couples in a counseling room. I get it). 

How do we get to this “fine” place? Even more so, how do we survive this place in the midst of a pandemic?! 

Relationships don’t just fall apart on their own, even though it often feels like they do. We get bored and antsy and irritated and wonder if the grass is greener. The early days of fireworks and late-night talks and weekly date nights fade into the mundane of demanding jobs, strained finances, and a few-too-many Happy Hours. So, someone gets frustrated enough, calls my office, and says, “My spouse and I just don’t know how to communicate anymore. Everything is an argument! We need therapy.”   

Dr. Sue Johnson, a psychologist, therapist, and author, says communication, in fact, is not the problem. Conflicting hobbies are not the problem. Opposite personalities are not the problem. A lack of emotional connection is the problem.

In my personal reading the other day, a phrase stood out to me, “…outside adjustments cannot correct inside problems.” Ouch. That phrase hit me hard! I WANT to just make an adjustment and poof! The problem is gone. Wouldn’t that be nice? I want to tell my couples to use a certain formula to communicate their deepest wants and needs and magically, their partner will deliver. Unfortunately, rarely does logic fix emotional connection. 

Dr. Johnson coined a type of counseling we practice at Individual, Marriage and Family Enrichment called Emotion-Focused Therapy, and yep, you guessed it. The primary focus is on emotions.  When that couple who calls my office looking for a fix for their fights, what they are really saying is, “I’ve lost connection with my person.” 

When we find our person, the beginning of an emotional connection is what causes the fireworks to spark, the passion to grow, and the longing for intimacy to be birthed. Qualities like physical attraction, humor, and a shared love of mac ‘n cheese aid in fanning those flames. But when the outside adjustments start falling short, we start grasping for anything to ground us to our other half. 

In my office, we may get to the communication tips and tricks eventually, but the bulk of couple’s work is Dr. Johnson’s recommended area of work which is translated through the acronym A.R.E.

Is my partner accessible, emotionally? Is he or she responsive to me, emotionally? Are we engaged, emotionally

Emotions happen under the surface of behavior. What we do as couple’s therapists is look for the emotional cues that happen within the context of a couple’s story. So much of the under-the-surface stuff is hidden to us when we’re in the midst of the weeds, so when there is conflict, we end up reacting to each other’s reactions. Tension escalates and soon enough, we’re no longer fighting about the toothpaste tube, but the last 10 things that got on our nerves and how maybe “my person” really isn’t my person any longer.

It takes time and patience and empathy to slow down and really look for the broken pieces of connection, and let’s just be honest, none of us have a bunch of time lying around to use in this way. That’s why couple’s counseling is so helpful and often so needed.  Bringing someone else into your story allows you to engage with your partner in a more meaningful way and learn how to understand the complexities of emotions that are alive and active under the surface. 

Because of social distancing and the incredibly important task we have of protecting ourselves and others, it may not seem like the “right time” for you and your partner to engage in therapy. I get that. The at-hand challenges feel BIG and most of them are big! At the same time, connection between you and your partner is more crucial now than ever before.  Being on the same page, emotionally, brings a sense of safety and security that is hard to find in daily life, let alone in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.  

At our practice, we offer confidential, virtual couple’s counseling sessions via Zoom.  We are working hard to create a virtual environment in which you can feel as comfortable as possible and begin to reconnect emotionally with your partner. If you would like to explore the idea of couple’s counseling further, please fill out the form below, and someone will get back to you soon. And don’t worry…if now is not the time, we’ll still be here in a couple months!
Resource Link: https://www.drsuejohnson.com/ 

Written by Lauren Eisleben