“In relationship with others, people are free to engage in goal-directed activity, or to lose ‘self’ in the intimacy of a close relationship.” — Murray Bowen
There is no shortage of strained marriages. Two people who were once close can grow distant over time and become entrenched in their own positions, which they come to see as being antithetical to those of their spouse. The things they once cherished or found charming have since faded or become an annoyance. Where there was once agreement, now there is discord. Where there was once calm, now the waters are riled. Comfort has turned to uncertainty, and the house once filled with laughter now pulses with quiet (or not so quiet) tensions.
Rarely do couples come in for counseling until the discomfort of that distance, in whatever form it presents, has exceeded their ability to cope with the difficulty and strain it creates. But how does this happen? How can two people who started out so close with each other become so distant?
People are drawn to the comfort, support, intimacy, affection and validation that marriage can offer. That desire for closeness pulls us together. However, when the harmony of that relationship is disrupted, problems begin in the places where each partner has been using the relationship to prop themselves up or ease their personal anxieties in some way. Where one partner suddenly feels invalidated, the other feels wronged by a disagreement. Where one spouse feels anger over the other’s opinion, the other person retreats from their partner’s criticism. The forms these disruptions can take are endless.
In the beginning of a relationship, most of us are more flexible and adaptable in the presence of the other than we otherwise might be. We put on a layer of maturity that doesn’t necessary reflect our true level of functioning. We are able to do this because the nature of the relationship early on has less tension. We listen to the other, we share our opinions openly, we ask questions and engage in conversation, we are curious about our partner and their views, and we are warm, kind and affectionate. Our immaturities somehow become minimized. And thank goodness that is the case, or else we might never get together.
However, that layer of maturity we put on is temporary. It is a reaction to the pull of closeness and harmony with the other. We are not implying that this action is all pretend or fake but rather that part of it does not reflect the reality of our functioning. It is a mechanism that fosters the closeness both individuals desire.
When that maturity slips off, and when our immaturities rear their heads, each individual in the relationship can begin to wonder what happened to the other. Each person begins to assume that the other has changed, and each assumes that the other is the one inhibiting the restoration of intimacy and harmony. This is the distance that pushes apart people who were once so close. Both become entrenched in their position that the other is the problem, and the relationship patterns that maintain the distance become fixed.
This is when people tend to seek counseling. So, what can we do as professional counselors? Working from the framework of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory has helped us acquire and maintain perspective about the relationship between two people. Its systemic underpinnings allow us to conceptualize the relationship without placing blame or seeing fault in one partner or the other. The theory focuses on the processes between people rather than the content of the arguments, which can create a din of noise in which both counselor and clients can easily become entangled and lost.
Focusing on the ‘other’ as the problem
All marriages have tensions and difficulties because any two-person relationship has instabilities built into it. People want to be together with others, but they also want to maintain their autonomy. When things are working well in a relationship, people feel connected but also free to be themselves. When people feel too close or too distant, it causes a disruption in the individual and, ultimately, in the relationship.
We want attention from our partners, but we can become allergic to too much of it, pushing the other away or distancing ourselves emotionally from them. And when we get the space we think we want, we can feel unappreciated and look for affection and validation to make us feel connected and secure. In this emotional seesaw, each person becomes sensitive to the other and what they do or say and can begin to focus on them as the problem: If only my partner would give me more attention. If only my partner would step up and do their part. If only they would listen to me. If only, if only, if only …
The reality is that both parties contribute to any relationship difficulty. That is the nature of reciprocity, but it is a fact that we all have trouble seeing when we are in the midst of relationship tensions and the emotions and anxiety they produce.
The more that tension and anxiety build, the more reactive people get, and the more they unwittingly contribute to the reciprocity, or mutually influenced pattern, that maintains the “problem.” When people get anxious and reactive, they tend to focus on what is wrong in or with the other rather than looking at what they are doing, how they are contributing to the maintenance of the “problem,” and what their options for changing their own thinking and behavior might be.
Especially in intimate relationships, people can get bogged down in the tensions of feeling misunderstood, neglected or mistreated in one way or another. It can be difficult for individuals in a relationship to see beyond the dust cloud of an argument, a history of small misunderstandings, the minute experiences of neglect that one feels toward the other but has never vocalized, and so on. These histories build because people want stability and harmony in the moment and are willing to sacrifice some autonomy for that without realizing they are contributing to a process that will later result in an eruption.
In our experience, many initial sessions with couples begin with an attempt by both parties to pull the counselor into a he said, she said tug of war. Both want the comfort of togetherness with their counselor, albeit at the expense of their relationship with each other. We believe it is the counselor’s responsibility to stay out of it. The minute that clinicians start seeing one partner or the other as an angel or demon, they have lost their objective footing.
The two overarching and interlocking steps counselors can take to guide people through the process of working on themselves in their relationships are:
1) Help each person increase their perspective of how they relate to their partner.
2) Help each person work on themselves in the present.
As with any idea, the simpler it seems, the more difficult it is.
Increasing perspective: Seeing the reciprocity
Helping people increase perspective begins with the counselor’s ability to maintain a larger perspective. Rather than seeing sides of the relationship, the goal is to focus on the processes and patterns to which both parties contribute, much like a coach looking over the field from above and watching what each player does. If the counselor is able to keep perspective, they can be useful to their clients by helping them gain a larger view of what is going on in their relationship.
Step 1: Decrease anxiety. Nothing can happen until the anxiety in each individual comes down to a level at which they can both work on their part. Often, just talking can help bring down the anxiety. Setting up your expectations (as the counselor) for the session can also help limit the escalation of tensions. One of the biggest factors in decreasing the anxiety when a couple is in the room is the counselor’s ability to remain objective and neutral.
Step 2: Take a step back. Have the couple take a step back from the intensity of the moment by widening the lens they are using to view the problem. Often, each person is hyper-focused on the other, so taking a step back means having each person shift their focus off the other and onto their own functioning. When one person begins talking about what the other is doing, you can help them shift the focus by asking questions about their thinking on their own behavior and thoughts.
For example, if one person begins telling you how the other never says anything, never has an opinion, and is just so limp and passive, you might respond with questions about what they do and think when their partner does those things or what they are doing and thinking before the other partner reacts passively. Conversely, when one partner tells you that the other partner is angry all the time, comes at them with high intensity and is critical, you might question what they do when that happens or how often they anticipate their partner’s intense reactions.
Step 3: Highlight the reciprocity. Continually point out the reciprocity in the “problem” — the fact that each person is contributing in some way to the maintenance of what is going on. Highlighting the reciprocity helps each person begin to recognize that they are an equal participant in what is going on in the relationship, and it furthers the process of each individual shifting their view of the other as the problem to focusing on their own functioning. Using the example above, you might point out to the couple how interesting it is that each time one partner gets intense, the other becomes passive, and how when one becomes more passive, the other gets more intense.
The beauty of this perspective is that it is never up to one person to change the other. There is always something for each person to work on individually, and in doing so, each person is also working on the relationship. There is always a way to move because the processes between two people are constant and ever flowing, even if the participants are locked into automatic and reactive behaviors. A change in one person sets off a change in the process between the two. It is nonsensical for one person to blame the other because they are each contributing, and have contributed, to what is going on between them in the present.
This shift in focus — from off of the other and onto the self — is necessary for each person to move forward effectively. If this shift isn’t made, people tend to either get stuck in conflict or give up more and more of the self to keep the relationship stable. A little conflict is better than a false stability.
Working on self in the present: Working on the reciprocity
Taking a step back and gaining perspective allows people to reenter the tensions of the present moment with more clarity because the focus has shifted from off of the other and onto the self. Once that shift in focus has been made, people can work on managing their emotions and anxieties in the here and now. But these two steps are inextricable because the knowledge gained by looking at and understanding one’s part in relationship patterns is the catalyst for better managing self in the present.
Step 1: Watch the reciprocity. Once each person has begun to see the reciprocity and recognize that they are an equal contributor to the relationship tensions, then they can begin to work on their part. The first step is helping each person become an expert on how they contribute to the reciprocity. What you are doing as a counselor is moving the clients’ thinking from a cause-and-effect framework to a systemic framework in which the rule is reciprocity.
After seeing it, people can begin to be aware of the reciprocity in the present. That awareness might show up in session as one person reflecting on how when their partner got angry, they “retreated again.” In response, their partner increased their intensity, and this person reacted to that increase by shutting down. The client’s focus is now on the process and their part in it.
Step 2: Work on the reciprocity. As each person becomes an expert on their part in the process between the two, they simultaneously begin to work on themselves in the present moment and in the reciprocity that is always ongoing. As the partner from the example above begins to see that their “retreating” and “shutting down” contribute to the other partner’s increasing intensity, they can begin to work on staying engaged in the relationship under pressure. This might begin with noticing their impulse to retreat and staying in the conversation a bit longer than they normally would despite the “feeling.”
In other words, they are tolerating the discomfort of the feeling, but that tolerance is driven by a thoughtful framework regarding the nature of reciprocity and their part in that process. It might mean recognizing that the partner’s intensity is not a critique on them but is rather about their partner’s own functioning. Thus, the first partner may begin to take things less personally. We could go on and on here, but the point is that this person begins to be less caught up in the emotional intensity of the moment. In doing so, the person is able to be less reactive and more thoughtful in what they do and how they do it. The more they work on themselves in the reciprocity, the more options they have in how they function, and the greater the chance for the relationship to improve.
We focused on one partner above, but we could do the same exercise with the other partner. That person would begin by seeing the reciprocity of increased intensity by them and withdrawal by the other partner. They might begin to watch their own functioning, recognizing that the more intense they get, the more their partner retreats. They might notice that when the other retreats, their own intensity automatically increases. They might begin to work on managing that impulse and their facial expressions, tone of voice and so on in the presence of the other. And in working on themselves, they might begin to see that they are working on the relationship.
The challenge as the counselor is to continually bring the focus of the session back to the process of what is going on, or has gone on, and to stay out of the content. Any couple will tend to slide back into content — who said or did what to whom — when tensions and anxieties rise. It is the counselor’s work to stay neutral and objective and to point back to the process of what is going on.
Just as the paradox of marriage is for each individual to manage the self, the paradox of counseling is that the counselor must manage the self rather than try to change whomever is sitting before them. We see the work of the counselor as being no different than the work we perceive as useful to clients. In other words, if the counselor is getting lost in the content of a couple’s argument, then the counselor is not managing their own self, and their anxieties have taken over. But if the counselor can stay focused on the process of how the couple argue, how this contributes to the larger patterns of their relationship, and how that is tied to a history of behavior of which they both are a part, then the counselor is being useful in some way and is managing the self, at least a little bit.
Guillermo Cancio-Bello is director of the November Institute, where he works to bring natural family systems thinking to the lives of individuals, families and organizations in the pursuit of growth through a deeper understanding of human relationships. He is currently undertaking a Ph.D. in counseling at Barry University and lives in Miami with his wife and two dogs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thenovemberinstitute.com.
Jim Rudes is an associate professor of counseling in the Adrian Dominican School of Education at Barry University. He has more than 20 years of clinical experience, and for the last several years has devoted most of his professional energy to the study of family systems through the lens of natural family systems theory. His current research interests are concerned with emotional process versus content, and the light at the end of the tunnel. Contact him at email@example.com.
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