Tag Archives: Couples

Real talk

By Peter Allen December 13, 2021

I love doing couples work. It is endlessly fascinating, usually challenging and often rewarding. It is a privilege and a sacred responsibility to sit in a room with two people who are both bearing their souls to each other with the shared goal of improving their relationship. When I ask couples what their goals are early on in therapy, more often than not, they tell me they wish to communicate better.

At first glance, this seems like an easy task. Many couples who come to counseling have been experiencing a lot of conflict in the relationship, and their communication might typically include yelling, insults or perhaps passive-aggressive statements and various forms of manipulation. It is very tempting to think that if we can teach them to use “I” statements and a calmer tone of voice and to verbalize feelings and perceptions rather than insults, then loving harmony will follow. It is in fact so tempting to believe this that we may ignore much of what we know about human behavior and biology in the pursuit of facilitating these relational improvements.

It is also alluring to believe that helping people improve their communication is largely a data-driven endeavor. In other words, I have information (data) as a counselor that they don’t have, and if I simply impart this information to them, they will “learn” it, and then their relationships will improve. In reality, improving communication is much more process-oriented, which means that being effective involves observing conditions in real time and constantly responding to those dynamics.

I spent far too much time as a professional counselor simply trying to give people the right words to say, and I suspect that many of my colleagues have had a similar experience. But what I have found time and time again is that many of our clients show up to a session perfectly capable of communicating well (and here’s the catch) when they are calm. In my own practice, I have discovered that emotional regulation skills are absolutely integral to good communication. I can have the prettiest, most assertive words in the world for my partner, but if my lid is flipped and I am dysregulated, it will not matter at all.

It merits mentioning that certain qualities and attributes we may wish to develop as human beings really count only when something important is at stake. For example, let’s consider the quality of patience. It is very easy to be patient when we don’t have to wait or when we feel no stress or pressure to get something done. But patience means having the ability to wait with equanimity regardless of what other factors are present. Patience is the quality of not getting upset when you have to wait for something.

Another example is the quality of loyalty. It is the easiest thing in the world to be loyal when you don’t have to sacrifice anything. True loyalty can be known only when something of value is sacrificed to maintain that loyalty. If you want to know who your loyal friends are, become a social pariah and see who still comes to your birthday party. Spoiler alert: That number will be less than 100% of your total friend group.

Techniques must work in real conditions

We understand patience as waiting calmly, regardless of the other factors. We know loyalty to mean that one stands by their friends or co-workers, even when that standing comes at a personal cost, such as missed opportunities or alienation from others. And so shall we know and recognize good communication skills when they are used in moments of difficulty.

This is important to restate and remember: Anyone can communicate well when they are calm, stable, well-fed, comfortable, etc. However, when those conditions are present, we rarely need to practice good communication skills. 

When I work with couples, it is not usually the case that both parties in the room feel completely calm or at ease during the session, because difficult and very personal subjects are routinely discussed. My clients live in the real world, and their relationships are with real, complicated, conflicted human beings. They have children, they have blended families, they have traumatic experiences and upsetting memories, and all of those elements can be front and center in a session. The most important time we need to communicate well is when we are unhappy or insecure or angry or tired because this is exactly when poor communication can create additional problems.

At first, couples will not remember to use “I” statements when they get triggered because using “I” statements requires the prefrontal cortex to be online and operational. If we teach people the right words but not the methods to access those words, then we are in effect placing positive communication habits in a museum, making them something to be observed and admired but not held and utilized. Weaving together the right words and the emotional regulation techniques that allow those words to be accessed is critical to helping couples actually implement positive communication tools in their daily lives — when it counts.

Practice, practice, practice

We also need to help our clients develop a consistent communication skills practice, regardless of variations in their moods and responsibilities. Think of it this way: If you want to get good at shooting free throws, you practice when you’re happy and when you’re sad and when you’re bored. You practice in the sunshine and in the rain. You shoot so many free throws that muscle memory develops and outside conditions no longer play much of a factor in how you set up and take the shot. You control what you can control, and you let go of what you cannot control. That is what makes a great free throw shooter. Becoming a skilled communicator is no different.

When we help our clients develop a practice of positive communication skills in any situation, they become good at positive communication in any situation. Weird, right? When couples are experiencing wonderful times together, we encourage them to share feelings and impressions. We prompt them to recognize and praise their partner’s efforts and to ask for what they need. Just as with any training, the best practice early on is done in low-pressure situations to build confidence. 

Over time, people develop greater skills and habits, and the increased communication provides ongoing context for each partner to observe and consider. And, often, context is the great equalizer in couples therapy. When we know what our partner is experiencing, we are much more likely to consider it and respond compassionately than when we have no idea. 

The more couples practice this in various mood states and settings, the more likely they will be to access these skills when they really need to, during times of great difficulty. We should also encourage them to share feelings, impressions and needs when they are bored, mildly annoyed or at their wits’ end because, well, that’s life sometimes too.

I share this at some point with almost every couple I work with: If you make your partner guess what you need, they will get it wrong. If you tell them what you need, they have the best chance of giving what you need to you. Help your clients develop the practice and habit of asking for what they need, when they need it. This aspect alone will reduce conflict noticeably because so much conflict is centered on partners attempting to ascertain the needs of the other and getting it wrong. 

Conversely, in the absence of any specific dialogue about the needs of the other, it is easy to forget for short or long periods of time that our partner would need anything at all from us. But when our partner shares and we hear what they need, we can respond to that.

Building positive communication habits

There are many ways we can help people integrate these concepts and habits into their lives. Emotional regulation can be as simple as prompting someone to take a few deep breaths while they contemplate what they want to say or asking them to let the weight of their body acquiesce to gravity and simply relax down toward the earth. 

I usually ask people to identify the emotion they are experiencing and see if they can rate its strength on a scale of 1 to 10. We can ask them if they feel any sensations in their body and any associated emotions or thoughts, bringing about mindfulness of their own state prior to communicating. 

I am inviting them to tune in to their own experience and tell me what they are noticing in terms of any conditions that are present. Because if they are noticing things about how they are thinking and feeling, then we know that the prefrontal cortex is working. And all of this is about slowing down and creating some opportunity for self-reflection prior to dialogue. It’s not something we need to overthink; most people will have a sense of when they are functioning well and can communicate well and when they might not be, if we direct their attention toward these factors.

I love using normal cues in the day to prompt practice. Many people eat three meals a day, so they consistently have three natural stopping points in the day to practice some of the skills discussed above. I will say to a client, “How about during lunch today, you praise your spouse for supporting you?” or “Try asking for what you need at dinner tonight, even if it is something small.” 

We could prompt the use of a specific skill at any natural point in a client’s day. And we can encourage clients to be transparent, even telling their partner that they are deliberately practicing skills and would appreciate their support with those efforts (very cleverly practicing two skills at once). Their partner sees them practicing and investing in better communication, and that can be contagious.

I encourage clients to communicate well when they can or to take some time apart and buy themselves some time when they can’t. I have never heard an emotionally regulated person call their partner a harsh name or deliberately insult them in session. I have heard plenty of dysregulated people do that.

At the macro level, we know American culture places a high value on fixing problems, but at the micro level, many of us are less adept at assessing when we lack the proper tools to fix any given problem. At the risk of using too many metaphors in one article, one should not attempt to climb a mountain on an empty stomach or without water. And couples should not attempt to problem-solve serious relationship issues when they are hungry, hurt, exhausted or otherwise low on personal resources. 

When it comes to having conflict with a partner, a persistent myth exists that it is wise and desirable to “hang in there.” Let me state this unequivocally — it isn’t. It is far wiser to disengage, before additional damage is done, than it is to stay in the conversation when it is clear that neither person is giving any ground or understanding the other. 

If my anger is an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, that is not the best time for me to speak with you. If I want to perform reasonably well, I should probably get my anger down at least to a 4 or a 5 before I re-engage in a discussion. My task is to recognize that in myself ahead of time. Because I cannot wait until I have no feelings whatsoever to communicate, I am always trying to find that sweet spot when I am regulated enough to communicate well. 

This is more important than any particular arrangement of words that we can teach our clients. Part of helping couples improve their communication skills is helping them pick their moments. Just as climbing a mountain should be attempted from a position of confidence and strength, so should problem-solving and conflict resolution flow from this position in couples work.

The important thing for us to keep in mind is that without emotional regulation and consistent practice, attempting to improve communication will be very difficult. Pretty words will not be enough.

Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.com

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Peter Allen is a licensed professional counselor and writer based in Redmond, Oregon. Contact him at peterallenlpc@gmail.com.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Bringing pornography use out of the shadows

By Bethany Bray November 30, 2021

Dana Kirkpatrick, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and certified sex therapist (CST) and supervisor in Pennsylvania, is only half joking when she says she “specializes in talking about really uncomfortable things — and business is booming.”

She often supports clients as they delve into what is and isn’t working in their sex lives and how that intertwines with mental health, relationships and other aspects of life. Those discussions frequently include open and honest conversations about pornography, Kirkpatrick says.

Pornography use, like many other topics related to sexuality, can tie into other concerns that individuals and couples bring to counseling. Clients’ attitudes and beliefs regarding pornography are typically internalized based on social, cultural and moral influences. It is up to practitioners to raise the topic and create a nonjudgmental space for clients to explore the role pornography might play in their own sexuality and relationships, says Kirkpatrick, an American Counseling Association member and owner of the counseling practice Calm Pittsburgh.

This is unexplored territory for most clients, she points out, especially for couples, many of whom have never spoken out loud to each other about their use of or views on pornography. It is a complicated topic that can involve feelings of shame, hurt or embarrassment, and individuals often don’t know how to begin to talk about it.

“The important thing is [for counselors] to prompt that dialogue,” notes Robert Zeglin, a licensed mental health counselor and CST in Florida who is the founding editor of the Journal of Counseling Sexology & Sexual Wellness. “[A client] may think their partner is watching porn for one reason, but they may be wrong, entirely wrong — and they need to talk that through. … It’s a very powerful thing when people are openly allowed to talk through these things: Why am I so opposed to porn? Or why am I drawn to it? It’s really powerful to facilitate and be a part of that [exploration].”

Unrealistic expectations and assumptions

Kirkpatrick says pornography can shape a person’s sexuality much like romantic comedies do. Both set people up with unrealistic expectations concerning sex, attraction and romance, she explains.

“If [the film] Pretty Woman was your first view of romance, then that’s what you see as romance,” Kirkpatrick says. “It’s the same for porn or 50 Shades of Grey. If that’s what you see first, it’s an expectation. Both scenarios create delusions of grandeur that set you up for failure.”

“Just as with romantic comedies, we know they’re actors, but [pornography] can still lead to unrealistic expectations,” she notes. 

Pornography use can have negative effects on clients’ sexual wellness when it is used as a substitute for or an addition to sex education during a client’s formative years or when it is consumed without the intentional mindset that pornography is fictitious, with actors who are performing in scenes and stories that are created, curated and edited by a full crew of professionals.

Zeglin, an associate professor and program director for clinical mental health counseling at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, refers to this tendency to view pornography as factual or real as “bad porn literacy.” Clients who have this mindset can struggle with body image issues and negative thought patterns as they compare their bodies to the above average (and often augmented) bodies they see portrayed in pornography, he explains.

“Body shame is a common theme when talking about pornography [with clients],” Zeglin says. “Just as not everyone looks like the cast of [the TV drama] Grey’s Anatomy, we need to emphasize that [pornography] is entertainment. There are so many bad expectations that can leak into sex and body expectation.”

Similarly, clients can harbor unrealistic expectations about what sex is or should be, Kirkpatrick adds. This can especially be true for people who started viewing pornography at a young age. Young adults may expect their partners to do certain things and respond in the same way that they’ve witnessed on screen, she notes.

Aydrelle Collins, an LPC who specializes in Black sexuality at her Dallas practice, Melanin Sex Therapy, says that pornography is where many of her clients first learned about sex or saw other people be sexual. In addition to body image issues, this can lead to a narrow or incomplete understanding of sexuality, she says.

In pornography, “the focus is on the orgasm, and if there’s not one [in real life], it can lead to disappointment,” Collins says. “That robs people of being in the moment of sex, the full experience, and can lead to the assumption that they have to have performance-type sex.”

Pornography use can also lead to misconceptions about what a partner may want in sexual situations. For example, a pizza delivery person in a pornography scene may knock on the door ready and willing to have sex with the resident, but is that realistic or accurate? Of course not, Kirkpatrick says. Counselors can help clients talk through and clear up any assumptions they’ve internalized that may be leading to frustrations or challenges in their relationships or sexual wellness.

Zeglin, an ACA member, also emphasizes that counselors can offer psychoeducation for clients who harbor unhealthy expectations or assumptions gleaned from pornography. One important message, he says, is the reality that sex is often just OK, with some really great and really disappointing experiences thrown into the mix.

Clients’ lives and relationships can also be negatively affected by pornography when it is used compulsively. If a counselor hears a client talk about their pornography usage with language that might indicate a dependence or addiction — including viewing it at inappropriate times, such as when they’re at work or school — further assessment or specialized treatment may be needed. (For more on the nuances of helping clients who use pornography compulsively, see the articles “Six steps for addressing behavioral addictions in clinical work” and “Addicted to sex?”)

Broaching and breaking unhealthy cycles 

Laura Morse, an LPC and CST in private practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says her clients bring up the topic of pornography almost daily, most frequently through questions related to the theme of “Am I normal?” Clients often wonder if what they are watching and the amount of time they spend watching is “OK” or “normal”; others question whether they should be watching it at all, Morse says.

“As clinicians, we work with clients who may be struggling with unpacking the messages they receive about sex — messages which can have negative impacts on their own sexuality and their relationships,” says Morse, an ACA member and Gottman-trained couples therapist. “It’s essential that we use evidence-based tools to evaluate what role pornography serves in our clients’ lives and assess what concerns they may have about their usage. Is it impacting time away from work? [Causing them to] spend too much money? [Resulting in] loss of interest in sexual desire with their partner? All of these assessment questions help inform treatment planning.”

Morse and Collins both recommend the PLISSIT model (developed by Jack Annon in the 1970s) for prompting discussions to assess clients’ thoughts on and relationship with pornography. The model’s acronym represents its four intervention levels: permission, limited information, specific suggestions and intensive therapy. Breaking discussion into these ascending levels helps practitioners decide whether they need to continue or intensify conversations with a client and match the individual(s) with an intervention that meets their level of need. 

The model’s first level can help broach sexuality-related subjects in an open way, as the practitioner invites and gives the client(s) permission to talk about and explore issues they might have previously considered taboo, including pornography, Morse says.

Feelings of shame regarding pornography use — either self-described in individual clients or shaming language used toward a partner in couples counseling — can also indicate that a counselor needs to facilitate discussion about the topic, Zeglin says. This can include the need to unpack the assumption that because one partner views pornography, it means they don’t find their partner attractive anymore, he notes. When left unprocessed, these emotions can lead to an unhealthy cycle.

“Because of that shame, they start to hide the porn use, [and] secret-keeping and hiding things is never good for relationships,” Zeglin says. “It creates a cycle, and it’s a pretty common manifestation within couples [where one or both partners] have an overall values system that porn is taboo.”

In addition to feelings of blame, shame and embarrassment, Collins says that pornography use can lead to a disconnect between couples. This is especially so for couples who have never talked about the subject together.

“It can create a disconnect in the relationship, in multiple layers. It’s not just the porn, but everything surrounding it and the shame that can come up,” says Collins, who is fully trained but not yet certified as a CST. “It can show up as resentment, lack of sex and connection, or arguments. It can be a spiral where one person is caught watching porn and they’re not having [frequent] sex already, and then that person is shamed [by their partner]. It causes them to retreat and furthers the lack of intimacy.”

Hurt feelings surrounding pornography use are often magnified when a couple isn’t having sex regularly or as frequently as one or both partners would like, Collins adds. Blame can become intensified if one partner feels the other is choosing pornography over sex within their relationship.

In these cases, a counselor can help clients talk through not only their feelings regarding pornography but also the many complicated layers that can accompany those feelings. This can include trust issues, Collins notes.

“You don’t trust [your partner] if you feel like you’ve been misled or lied to or shamed or ridiculed for something that you feel is normal and natural and everyone does it. Once that trust gets broken, there comes a disconnect,” Collins says. “We all bring our own messages that we’ve received about sex and sexuality into relationships, and that’s the biggest underlying thing. Sex brings up a lot of feelings of uncomfortableness if you haven’t had a chance to explore your own feelings about sexuality. … We all have attitudes and biases, including around porn. We all have different feelings about what’s healthy and not healthy, whether it’s OK to watch, and how much is OK to watch.”

Collins has worked with couples who have differing views on the consumption of pornography and admits that it can be a sensitive subject to broach. She emphasizes that practitioners should validate each partner’s views about pornography and focus on repairing the disconnect between partners by helping them process their underlying emotions.

To foster discussion in sessions, Collins often creates a “sexual health plan” with couples to outline what they’d like their sex life to look like together and the role that pornography will or will not play in it.

“In cases like these, I explore clients’ views on porn watching and what that means for their relationship,” Collins says. “These conversations can be difficult to facilitate, and working with this dynamic [when partners have differing views on pornography] can be a tender topic for couples. My advice to counselors working with couples is [to] focus on the underlying emotional hurt that is there. What are their goals for their relationship? The best thing a counselor can do to facilitate these discussions is to check their own views and bias around porn in order not to take sides.”

Unpacking the complicated layers that can surround clients’ pornography use may also include talking or asking about physical problems that are affecting clients’ sex lives and debunking misunderstandings or assumptions they may have regarding their or their partner’s sexual challenges.

Collins emphasizes there is no confirmed connection between the consumption of pornography and physical problems such as delayed ejaculation or erectile dysfunction. However, client assumptions regarding this topic can lead to an unhealthy cycle, she notes.

“Many people have the misconception that masturbating or watching too much pornography can desensitize people and cause them to not be able to perform or get an erection for sex,” Collins explains. “And those assumptions can exacerbate the problem if you have those [physical] problems already.”

The counselor’s role 

Kirkpatrick notes that when working with couples who are processing their feelings regarding pornography and its effects on their relationship, a helpful first step is to invite both partners to describe what they feel pornography is. Each person will have a different definition, and couples will benefit from understanding each other’s boundaries, she says. Is it acceptable to look at Playboy magazine? Browse the website Pornhub? Watch the TV show Game of Thrones? Visit interactive mediums where the user communicates with another person (such as virtual reality or video chat)?

“Help the partners define what their beliefs are [regarding] pornography use — good or bad — and what feelings they are having presently related to [their] pornography use. The key is finding the partners’ definition of their feelings and validating those feelings,” Kirkpatrick explains. “Then [counselors] can help them work on where their views come from and if they are being kind to themselves. Do they feel betrayed? Confused? Left out? Jealous? Once we can identify what that feeling is, then we can address it.”

Kirkpatrick also suggests that counselors include a range of questions about client sexuality, including pornography use and masturbation habits, during intake. This information will provide the practitioner with more context, and it lets the client know that the counselor is interested in and open to discussing these often-taboo subjects.

The counselors interviewed for this article agree that when unpacking the topic of pornography (both with individual clients and couples), a practitioner’s role is to serve as a neutral facilitator, prompting clients to explore the values, emotions and thoughts they hold regarding its use. With couples, this includes making equal time for each partner to explain their likes, dislikes and range of feelings.

Counselors should remain neutral — “without putting their thumb on either side of the scale” — while facilitating these conversations, Zeglin stresses. This mediator role includes the exploration of differences between couples and the differences that individuals hold within themselves on the topic.

“Have frank conversations about [the client’s] comfort levels and interest, [saying,] ‘Tell me a little bit about your values about sexual stimuli and porn. Is there anything that would get in the way of enjoying that?’ It’s the same as [addressing] anything that would put them outside of their comfort zone,” Zeglin says. “We need to give time and space to all voices, all the complex and dynamic parts of the people in the room.”

If pornography has led to conflict, feelings of betrayal or other hurtful emotions between partners, it may be appropriate to have them agree to temporarily pause their pornography consumption while they unpack their feelings and thoughts during this phase of therapy, Kirkpatrick says.

Because pornography consumption is an intense subject, clients may feel more comfortable talking about it if the counselor offers to look in another direction or turn their camera off in sessions held via telebehavioral health, she adds.

Inviting clients to frame their conversations about pornography through the lens of “this is what I’m into” empowers clients and allows them to present their thoughts in an open, positive way, Kirkpatrick says. In couples counseling, this approach can also spark questions, further dialogue between partners and, in some cases, reveal that the couple shares similar interests.

Kirkpatrick advises counselors to create an open and safe place for clients to talk about pornography use because it helps take away the power of shame that often accompanies the topic. She sometimes uses a “yes, no, maybe” chart that lists a variety of sexual interests, including different types of intercourse, use of vibrators, pornography and other preferences, to encourage open discussion between couples. Each partner fills out their own chart, selecting “yes,” “no” or “maybe” for each item. Afterward, couples have an avenue to talk about things honestly with each other (both inside and outside of counseling sessions). This tool can also help with overcoming shyness, Kirkpatrick says, and reveal sexual interests that both partners share, including ones they may not have known about or considered previously.

Kirkpatrick also sometimes suggests that clients use the app MojoUpgrade, which has a similar quiz to help couples explore and spark discussion about sexual interests and desires. The app shows only items for which both partners have responded “yes,” which can also help with overcoming shyness, Kirkpatrick says. 

In couples counseling, the clinician should ensure that conversations about pornography remain respectful and refrain from assigning blame or shame toward either partner, Collins says. Society often views pornography in black-and-white terms of either all good or all bad, but it’s more complex than that. A counselor can help clients understand that it’s natural to have multifaceted feelings on the topic.

“The truth is you can put up boundaries for what you want, but you need to get there without shaming your partner,” Collins says. “Have clients really flesh out what their narrative is around sex. If they feel like porn is not the best thing for their partner to watch, explore why that is without shaming their partner. [Prompt] conversation about what they are getting out of watching porn: Is it fantasy or being curious, etc.? Everyone is allowed to have their own feelings about what is healthy and boundaries on what they want out of sexuality.”

Collins notes that using a narrative focus can be helpful in this realm. Prompting clients to explore their sexual narrative frames the conversation in an empowering way and allows them to talk through and reject stereotypes and internalized messages that they no longer feel are helpful or accurate, Collins says.

An important aspect of this work includes asking clients questions about their sexual history. Collins does a sexual genogram with clients to find out where they first learned about sex, who they have discussed sexual issues with and other details. Asking questions about when and how they began to view pornography can also give the counselor and client(s) more context on factors that influence how they feel about and interact with pornography currently.

“I go line by line, unpacking everything they’ve ever taken in about sex, and assess how that impacts how they view sex now and how they view themselves as a sexual being,” Collins says. “[This allows them to] leave the things that no longer suit them and find the things that help them define their sexuality. … Our role as therapists is to help clients [find] their own narrative — not what they’ve been told or our narrative, but what works for them.”

Allowing clients to “be present and accept that they are sexual creatures” leads to empowerment and stronger confidence and decision-making, she adds.

Back to basics 

Zeglin advises practitioners who are helping clients process their feelings and thoughts on pornography to “take the sex out of it.” Instead, counselors should draw upon the same toolbox of methods they would use to help a client who is wrestling with a nonsexual dilemma.

“Anything that distracts from the relationship can impact it negatively; it’s not the porn per se,” Zeglin says. “It’s just like anything — it’s really the use of it and not the thing itself that can cause problems.”

In fact, research has shown that the level of dopamine released by the brain when a person watches pornography is the same as when a person does other things they enjoy or find pleasurable, he adds.

pio3/Shutterstock.com

Zeglin finds that Gestalt theory is a helpful lens to use as he prompts clients to explore and “give voice” to the parts of themselves that are in competition. For example, perhaps a client is conflicted because they want their partner to be happy, but they also feel that their partner must think they are ugly because their partner chooses to watch pornography. Or maybe a client is drawn to pornography because it entertains them or brings them pleasure, but they also feel guilt and shame for watching it. 

“If you take the sex out of it, it becomes a counseling 101 values conflict,” Zeglin says.

Perhaps a counselor is working with a couple experiencing a common scenario: One person is watching pornography and is compelled to hide it, and the other partner finds out and is hurt. By taking the sex out of it, Zeglin says, counselors can flip this conversation and ask, what if the person had set a goal to lose weight and the partner found them sneaking Oreo cookies? In both scenarios, the practitioner and clients would need to explore the couple’s lack of communication, the sense of broken trust, and other thoughts and feelings related to the behavior, he explains.

“Don’t make the problem the porn. Focus on the relationship. Sex is so moralized that we get distracted by that sometimes,” says Zeglin, a co-founder and past president of the Association of Counseling Sexology and Sexual Wellness, an organizational affiliate of ACA. “Counselors already have the tools to address it, but it just feels different because sex is involved.”

When it’s a good thing

Adult couples who have talked through their feelings and preferences and are accepting of pornography may find that viewing certain things together can enhance their sexual relationship. The counselors interviewed for this article noted that some clients (consenting adults) on their caseloads have benefited from incorporating pornography into their sex lives as a way to explore new things together. This can happen organically, such as when couples come up with the idea on their own, or when a counselor suggests it (when appropriate) as a bonding exercise for a couple outside of session.

“First, you have to make sure it’s accepted by the couple and culturally appropriate,” says Kirkpatrick, who co-presented a session, “Sex Positivity: Increasing Competencies in Addressing Sexuality Issues in Counseling” at the 2021 ACA Virtual Conference Experience. “There are body-positive sites, or sites with [instructional-style videos on] things to try. It’s using it as a tool, not a replacement. It should be something to enhance your sex life, not replace your sex life.”

Kirkpatrick has a list of sex-positive websites she offers to clients who express an interest in watching pornography together. It can be a means to grow together and learn what each partner does and does not like, she says. It can also be a way for couples who have a low sex drive or sexual desire to begin thinking about sex before becoming intimate together. Depending on a couple’s interests and comfort level, Kirkpatrick’s sex-positive recommendations can include pornography that involves writing (such as erotic fiction), photographs or images, or videos.

Collins agrees that pornography can be a helpful tool for some clients. Couples who have trouble with physical issues, such as erectile dysfunction, can use it to find and explore other avenues of sexuality that may work better for them, she notes.

“A lot of people figure out what turns them on by watching porn,” Collins says. “It can be a way to educate, watch together and … explore fantasy, broaden your sexuality or get out of a rut. It can give people options, room to explore, and open up dialogue and conversation around sex.”

It can also be a way for couples to bond and even laugh, Zeglin adds. “Couples need to explore both mentally and physically, and things change over the life span. Desires change, bodies change as we age. Just like anything, porn can serve as an opportunity to see what strikes your fancy,” he says. “Or you can giggle together about how unrealistic it is [and] how bad the dialogue is.”

Counselor competency

Professional counselors must always assume a nonjudgmental lens when working with clients, especially ones who are wrestling with thoughts and feelings about the complex and sometimes uncomfortable topic of pornography. The professionals interviewed for this article agree that counselors have a responsibility not only to leave their personal feelings out of the equation but also to seek training, continuing education or consultation when they don’t understand or know how to best treat a client’s questions or conflicts regarding pornography.

“We [counselors] are licensed as health providers, and we have to remember that what is and isn’t healthy is different than what is or isn’t personally important to us,” Zeglin says.

Collins agrees, noting that the last thing she wants to do is add another voice to a client’s understanding of a topic that is already heavily influenced by cultural, societal and other factors.

“I want them to find their own voice,” Collins says. “We [counselors] need to be checking our own biases and our own narratives around sex so that we are not imposing what we feel about sex and porn [on clients]. When our stuff comes into a session, it takes away from the work that we are doing with the client. Sometimes, with sex, [practitioners] tend to forget that.”

Practitioners also shouldn’t make assumptions about clients’ views on pornography. For example, clients who come from conservative religious or cultural backgrounds may not automatically be opposed to pornography use, whereas clients who come from more liberal backgrounds won’t necessarily embrace it, Kirkpatrick points out. In addition, clients will have a range of feelings about pornography that won’t necessarily fall into binary categories of “pro-pornography” or “anti-pornography,” she says.

Kirkpatrick urges counselors not to feel that they should refer a client whenever sexual wellness issues arise in counseling work. Instead, she encourages counselors to seek training, supervision or consultation with a local sex therapist. Counselors and CSTs can also co-treat clients, when appropriate, she notes. (Find a local CST and continuing education offerings at the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists website, aasect.org.)

Counselors who find they are interested in facilitating dialogues about pornography should consider seeking certification as a sex therapist, she adds.

“Don’t automatically refer. We need more people to be able to talk about this comfortably,” Kirkpatrick stresses. “Also, ask the client. I learn more from my clients than anyone else. … They are the experts in their sexuality because it’s so complicated. They are the experts on themselves.”

 

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Pornography use during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to stretch across the globe, causing millions of people to stay home, many individuals and organizations predicted or assumed that the isolation, loneliness and boredom would result in an increase in pornography consumption. 

In spring 2020, Pornhub announced that the online platform’s “premium” content would temporarily be free to users who were on lockdown because of COVID-19. As a result, the company reported a 38%-61% increase in web traffic from regions that had lockdowns and restrictive stay-at-home orders. This usage was above and beyond the more than 1 million daily unique web visits that Pornhub reported in 2019.

However, a study published recently in the Archives of Sexual Behavior polled more than 2,000 men and women in February, May, August and October 2020 and found that pornography consumption among American adults decreased overall in 2020.

In May, immediately following the United States’ first wave of pandemic-related restrictions, there was a small increase in the number of people who said they had viewed pornography in the past month, but less so than in the baseline data, which indicated that 38% of participants — 59% of men and 21% of women — reported using pornography at least once per month.

“Among those who reported use in May 2020, only 14% reported increases in use since the start of the pandemic, and their use returned to levels similar to all other users by August 2020,” wrote the study’s co-authors. “In general, pornography use trended downward over the pandemic, for both men and women. Problematic [compulsive or uncontrolled] pornography use trended downward for men and remained low and unchanged in women. Collectively, these results suggest that many fears about pornography use during pandemic-related lockdowns were largely not supported by available data.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Master conflict therapy as a critical component of couples and sex therapy

By Heather Davidson March 4, 2021

“We just don’t communicate well,” Merle reported in our first session while her husband, Luke, nodded quietly in agreement. Like many couples presenting for couples counseling, Merle and Luke believed “communication issues” were causing much of their relationship distress.

As a couples therapist, I knew that “communication issues” could mean myriad things. As is the case with many couples I see, I found that Merle and Luke were actually communicating well with each other. The conflict seemed to have more to do with the fact that they did not like what the other was saying.

The distress that Merle and Luke were experiencing in their relationship was affecting their sexual relationship too. When it comes to couples, whatever issues are going on outside of the bedroom also play out in the bedroom. Recent research shows that 40% to 50% of women (Marita McCabe et al., publishing in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2016) and 31% of men (Cleveland Clinic, 2016) experience a sexual disorder. The research suggests that even if couples initially report a nonsexual problem such as communication issues, they are likely experiencing sexual difficulties as well.

Despite how common sexual issues are, many counselors are uncomfortable discussing sexual matters with their clients. Counselors who fail to ask about a couple’s sex life, even in cases in which couples are presenting with the generic complaint of communication issues, are neglecting important information that would help them develop a deeper understanding of the couple. The therapist who disregards the sexual aspect of the couple’s relationship will struggle to help the couple achieve a healthier level of functioning.

As both a couples therapist and certified sex therapist, I believe that a couple’s sexual dynamics can tell us a great deal about their nonsexual dynamics and vice versa. Master conflict therapy has provided me the skill set and ability to go deeper with couples who present with a wide variety of relational and sexual problems.

Identifying the master conflict

Master conflict therapy is an integrative approach to treating couples that combines Freudian psychoanalytic conflict theory and Bowen theory with basic principles and practices of sex therapy. We each have a master conflict and unconsciously choose a long-term partner with the same master conflict. The master conflict stays with us for life, regardless of whether we stay with our long-term partner. The goal of master conflict therapy is for couples to learn how to healthily balance and manage their master conflict, because it will never go away.

A couple typically has the same fight over and over again. While the content of the fight may change, the process of the fight looks the same. For instance, Merle and Luke fought often about how to spend their money, how to spend their free time and even how often they should visit their in-laws. But the process of their fighting was that of two partners vying for the other’s acceptance while simultaneously rejecting each other. The process of the fight can sometimes be a good indicator of what the master conflict is.

Counselors should familiarize themselves with several important facts about master conflicts. First, master conflicts are internalized in childhood by verbal and behavioral messages from one’s family of origin. The master conflict can be influenced by religion, culture, ethnicity or experiences of traumatic events in childhood. Commonly, clients are aware of one side of their conflict, but rarely are they aware of both. Clients might have multiple conflicts, but the master conflict is the most influential or most powerful. In addition, the master conflict is evident is many areas of the client’s life (work dynamics, career choices, friendships, hobbies, etc.). It is also important to note that neither side of the conflict is better than the other. Rather, both sides of the conflict have pros and cons.

Although master conflicts do not influence who we choose for short-term relationships or casual sexual encounters, they do determine the choice of a long-term partner. Long-term partners will share the same master conflict. Master conflicts are normal and exist in every relationship. However, when the conflict becomes unbalanced, the couple will find themselves in distress. Once the master conflict becomes unbalanced, it can be very difficult for the couple to manage. Ultimately, to balance the master conflict, both partners must agree on a strategy and work collaboratively to manage the master conflict.

Many events can unbalance a master conflict, including major career changes, financial changes, a new baby or even living with your partner in quarantine during a global pandemic. For Merle and Luke, problems had been brewing for some time, but the crisis of quarantine unbalanced their master conflict of acceptance vs. rejection. Those with an acceptance versus rejection conflict have one side of themselves that needs to be accepted and another side that needs to be rejected. Merle and Luke both desired to please others and had a strong desire to be accepted by the other. Paradoxically, those with this master conflict also unconsciously set themselves up to be rejected by others.

In our book Master Conflict Therapy: A New Model for Practicing Couples and Sex Therapy, published in 2018, Stephen Betchen and I outline 19 of the most common master conflicts we see in our clinical practices. In addition to acceptance vs. rejection, another very common master conflict that I see is commitment vs. freedom. Clients with this master conflict have one side that wants stability and the security of commitment, but the other side longs to be free of restraints. People who have a history of affairs or a pattern of quickly getting in and out of relationships may be likely to have this master conflict. Clients who witnessed their parents’ affairs or demonstrated lack of commitment to each other may also develop this master conflict. Those with this master conflict may have patterns of changing careers or jobs often, moving frequently or getting involved in many different hobbies or interests without pursuing any of them long term.

Counselors who work extensively with addictions should become familiar with the getting your needs met vs. caretaking master conflict. For this master conflict, one side of the client wants to meet their own personal needs, while the other side desires to be selfless and martyrlike. Clients who have this master conflict often were raised in families in which addiction was present or a parent or sibling had a disability or illness that required most of the family’s attention and resources. These clients often have specific life goals that they would like to achieve, but their martyrdom at work, in friendships, and with their families and significant other consumes most of their time and energy needed to meet these goals.

Another common master conflict is specialness vs. ordinariness. Clients with this master conflict have one side that needs to feel special or different, while the other side feels ordinary or even less than ordinary. The client who builds themselves up while simultaneously putting themselves down could have this conflict. People with this master conflict seek constant validation and pursue materialistic possessions or unique life experiences that they believe make them different. Those with this master conflict are at higher risk of engaging in affairs because affairs are an easy way to experience the high of being “special.” Despite the constant chasing to set themselves apart from the crowd, people with this master conflict continue to feel as though they are “less than” or just ordinary, often because what they have built their specialness up from is not authentic.

Counselors who work with high achievers, including those at the top of their professional fields, celebrities and elite athletes, should look out for success vs. sabotage. Clients with this master conflict want to be successful or big and often have achieved something major, but the other side of themselves desires to be small or to fail. With great success comes the risk of great failure. Individuals with this conflict will sabotage their own success, and because their partner shares the same master conflict, their partner will also sabotage them if they become too big or too successful. 

Assessment and development of relationship symptoms

The first three to five sessions should serve as the assessment phase of treatment. While I let couples start where they need to in the first session, during the next few sessions I collect a genogram and history for each partner. As I gather this information, I also pay attention to both the language they use to describe their presenting problems and to their nonverbal communication.

Merle often used the word “rejected” and described her position in the relationship as “unfair.” She tended to be the more vocal and active partner in couples therapy. Luke, on the other hand, presented as distant and seemed shut down or dismissive toward Merle. Luke reported that “Merle just does not like what I value,” and I observed resentment in many of the passive-aggressive comments he would make toward Merle in session.

The couple explained that they were seeking couples therapy because of “bad fighting and poor communication” since being quarantined with each other. Some of the fights were related to sharing household tasks and parenting while still trying to work. But the major source of conflict concerned whether now was an appropriate time to try having a second child. Luke believed the couple should delay or not even have a second child because of the economic instability associated with the global pandemic. Merle accused Luke of being “selfish” and concerned merely with having time to pursue his artistic interest (an interest with which he was experiencing success).

The couple reported meeting as young 20-somethings at work. They both described the dating and engagement phase of their relationship as positive. At the time, Merle was supportive of Luke pursuing art, and in turn he supported Merle going after her dream career even though it was in a low-paying field. Although the young couple had always planned on having a family eventually, they were surprised to learn a few months before their wedding that Merle was pregnant. They both cited the unplanned pregnancy as the beginning of their relationship’s demise, but they each had different beliefs as to why that was.

Merle came from a warm but intrusive family. She described having close relationships with her sisters. She had excelled in school and sports as a child and teen. Merle described herself as a “people pleaser,” and she often worried about disappointing her family and friends. When one of her sisters dropped out of college to pursue a different career path, Merle saw her parents struggle deeply with that decision. Merle’s father was a first-generation immigrant who had never had the opportunity to go to college. It was very important to him that all of his daughters complete college, and Merle believed that he never fully recovered from her sister’s decision to leave school.

When Merle discovered she was pregnant before her wedding, she was so terrified to disappoint her parents that she concealed the news until after the event was over, even though it was obvious that she had gained weight. As Merle explained, “I would rather deal with my parents’ disappointment about me getting fat than their disappointment in me getting pregnant before being married.”

Luke came from a disorganized and controlling family. Both of his parents came from working-class backgrounds and were religiously conservative. Although Luke had an interest in pursuing the arts, both of his parents prohibited him from getting involved in such an “impractical” interest and pushed him into activities that were “better for getting into college,” even though he had little interest in them. Luke was also deaf in one ear, which had created learning difficulties for him as a young child. This was another trait he felt made him “less than” his other siblings. While his siblings followed in the path of their religious parents, Luke showed little interest in organized religion and eventually left his parents’ faith as a young adult. This decision caused much conflict within the family.

As the third child of seven, Luke had often witnessed his mother being overwhelmed by their large family, especially given that her husband worked long hours to support them. Luke described feeling robbed of what he perceived to be normal childhood pleasures and experiences due to his parents’ inability to provide adequate attention and financial support to their children.

Luke had spent much of his 20s getting his professional day job to a place where he was secure and could devote more time to pursuing his artistic interests, which his parents continued to disapprove of from a distance. Although Merle tried to reassure Luke that their baby would not change his ability to engage in his artistic pursuits, he knew from his own childhood that this simply was not true. Luke described a period of depression during the pregnancy. Merle reported being excited about the pregnancy but also stressed about how to “make Luke be OK with it.”

During the assessment, I always take a sexual history. In this case, both partners denied experiencing any sexual trauma, and both reported having long-term relationship partners before they met each other. Luke acknowledged being less sexually experienced than Merle due to his upbringing. Despite this, the couple felt positive about their sexual relationship before having a child; they were both happy with the frequency and believed they shared mutually in pleasure. In recent years, however, their sexual frequency had declined. Luke attributed this to stress, whereas Merle worried that it was more personal.

Discussing a couple’s sexual development and history helps the counselor to recognize sexual patterns. It also helps the couple become more comfortable talking about sex. Merle eventually disclosed tearfully that she worried Luke was no longer attracted to her because he experienced delayed ejaculation. Luke claimed to be unsure about why he was experiencing this problem and denied that he was no longer attracted to Merle. Both reported that the delayed ejaculation began around the same time they were fighting over whether to have a second child.

In treatment, Luke eventually admitted feeling conflicted about having a second child and worried that the additional demands would take away from his pursuit of a side career as an artist. Merle dismissed his concerns as selfish and lashed out at him for “taking away” her dreams of a larger family. Living under quarantine caused Luke rarely to have time to do anything with his art. In fact, he spent most of his time balancing working from home and trying to parent. The result of these sexual experiences left both partners feeling rejected by the other: Merle by Luke’s delayed ejaculation and lack of desire for another child, and Luke by Merle’s reaction to his sexual difficulty and overly optimistic stance on having another child.   

Treatment and relapse prevention

Master conflict therapy consists of four treatment goals:

1) To help the couple uncover their shared master conflict

2) To help the couple determine the origin of their master conflict

3) To help the couple decide which side of the conflict to choose, or to integrate both sides of the conflict to a tolerable, balanced state

4) To alleviate the couple’s symptoms, both sexual and nonsexual

Couples should leave treatment knowing how to manage their master conflict, which will prevent a relapse when their conflict becomes unbalanced in the future. Their fighting should become less intense and less frequent, and they should have the skills to collaboratively manage their master conflict.

It takes many sessions to fully understand a couple and to gather enough data to support whatever master conflict a therapist might suspect. During this time, the therapist should be conducting a thorough assessment, providing the couple with relevant psychoeducation regarding their presenting problem, and providing the couple with behavioral strategies that can help them get out of crisis.

With Merle and Luke, I discussed psychoeducation regarding delayed ejaculation and sexual desire. I also helped the couple improve their basic communication skills. Because Luke did not have any medical risk factors that would have caused delayed ejaculation (we ruled these out with an extensive medical history, a visit to a urologist and routine bloodwork), I suspected most of the problem was psychological. I also explored with the couple the behaviors and emotional baggage that each of them brought to the relationship from their families of origin that not only informed their conflict style, but also colored the way each of them viewed this conflict.

Merle and Luke soon began to see the ways in which they were similar, including both never feeling fully accepted by their families and both fearing rejection by the other. They eventually recognized the ways that their own acceptance vs. rejection master conflict played out in other areas of their life unrelated to their romantic relationship. Merle had a long history of people pleasing and a yearning to be accepted by female friends; this often set her up for disappointment and rejection. Luke was a hard worker and longed to be acknowledged at work, but when he did receive praise, he would act out, leading his superiors to feel frustrated with him. Discovering how similar they were to each other helped Merle and Luke to build mutual empathy.

Once this couple gained a better understanding of their master conflict and the impact it had on their lives, we turned to the issue of having a second child. Merle felt conflicted between wanting to please Luke by limiting the family to one child and wanting to expand the family, even if this meant additional challenges for them and more tension between them. Luke saw Merle as willing to risk their relationship, their financial stability and the overall stability they had created for their first child just to have another child. He explained that he worked hard in a day job that he did not particularly like and put his artistic pursuits to the side for the sake of family stability. This had also enabled Merle to take her “dream job” even though it was low paying — something the couple agreed on during their engagement.

After much processing, Luke expressed that the only way he would agree to having a second child would be if Merle took a higher paying job or they found a way to move to a much more affordable area of the country. Faced with the idea of losing her career, Merle was better able to resonate with Luke’s position. Ultimately, the couple decided to shelve the decision to have another child for one year. Merle would explore other career opportunities that could provide the family with additional financial security, while Luke agreed to look for affordable places that the family could live and examine whether a more permanent work-from-home situation might ever be available to him.

Upon termination, the couple reported fighting much less frequently and with less intensity. They reached an understanding of their master conflict and could now easily predict where each of them might struggle or feel triggered by the other. As they had resolved their conflicts, gained more understanding over their pattern of fighting and mutually agreed not to have another child at this time, Luke’s delayed ejaculation subsided. Merle’s fears of not being attractive to Luke waned, and the couple both reported feeling more emotionally and sexually connected.

Master conflict therapy prepares couples to manage their differences and conflicts for the long term. By providing a framework for better understanding themselves and each other, the couple can better manage future conflicts — regardless of the content — as they see how the process is the same.

 

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Heather Davidson is a licensed professional counselor and the founder/owner of a boutique private practice in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, called Better Being Main Line. She is both a certified sex therapist and a certified eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapist and specializes in treating individuals and couples with sexual issues and those with traumatic experiences. She is the co-author of the book Master Conflict Therapy: A New Model for Practicing Couples and Sex Therapy (Routledge, 2018) and is an instructor for the Council for Relationships’ postgraduate certificate program in sex therapy. Contact her at heatherdavidsonlpc@gmail.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Far away, so close: Negotiating relationships during COVID-19

By Laurie Meyers January 26, 2021

COVID-19 has taken away many of our in-person interactions. Office chitchat by the coffee maker. Happy hour with friends. Holiday celebrations. Friends, co-workers, extended family — since the pandemic began, many of us have seen them only virtually. In many ways, it’s like we’re all stuck on our own desert island — closed off from the outside world yet sometimes desperately wishing to vote our “fellow inhabitants” off.

The people we live with. We love them. We’ve treasured the extra time with them. But sometimes we just want them all to go away.

The never-ending togetherness; the uneven distribution of household responsibilities; the challenges of balancing work, child care and virtual schooling; and the career sacrifices that many people (women primarily) have had to make are all creating new stress and tension, while also exacerbating pre-existing conflicts in couples and families. In other words, couples and family counselors are very much in demand.

Seeking moments of solitude and respite

“Time and space are just different this year,” says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Christina Thaier. “We no longer divide our roles and tasks into different spaces, and that means all of who we are has to exist within less space. This is tough for kids and adults alike.”

Work, school, family, intimacy, socializing and relaxing are all wedged into the home.

Esther Benoit, an LPC with a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, points out that many parents are really struggling with roles they never expected to play — such as teacher and tutor when their children encounter difficulties with virtual schooling — while still trying to work from home. Other clients are working outside the home but spending substantial time on the phone providing “tech support” to their adolescent children who are at home alone, Benoit says.

Thaier notes that clients are floundering to find a way to balance everything in the absence of real-life connection to their communities and support networks. “It’s limiting. We miss a lot, and if we live with others, we are taking this on without any real break from our family or roommates,” says Thaier, a couples counselor who is the founder and director of Terrace House, a group practice located in St. Louis. “It’s a strange feeling to feel lonely and cut off from our usual life and, at the same time, never feel we get a break from others.”

“We [also] miss the versions of ourselves that exist in our usual spaces — our co-worker self, our happy-hour self, the version of us that shows up at the gym or the part of us that sings in the car after dropping the kids off at school — and the natural breaks and alone time that were previously built into our day,” she continues.

Thaier, an American Counseling Association member, helps clients envision alternative ways to be their different selves. “Maybe I can access the part of me that comes alive during time with friends by moving our time together to the park with masks,” she suggests. “Or I can plan a 10-minute Zoom call with my favorite co-worker at a time we would usually stop by one another’s desks.”

Thaier and her clients also seek simple ways to re-create those moments of solitude with activities such as taking a walk in the middle of the day, running errands, completing a solitary trip to the store to pick up groceries, or taking a bath or shower. “We’ve also talked about meditation apps and making the most of the early morning or late evening time when most of the house is sleeping,” she says.

Megan Dooley Hussman, a provisional licensed professional counselor and clinical supervisor at Terrace House, says many clients have found not just alone time but also a way to stay centered by engaging in daily rituals such as meditating, walking or even making and drinking tea mindfully.

Some clients also seek quasi-solitude by establishing family reading or movie-watching times, Thaier notes, adding that “quiet is almost alone.”

But with the multiple roles that parents are playing, stolen moments of solitude often aren’t enough, Thaier asserts. She helps parents map out the logistics of making sure that each partner gets their own break at some point during the week. That often involves one parent — or a family member within the household bubble — “hanging” with the kids while the other parent gets some time to themselves, she says. Thaier describes it as a “big win” for parents when everyone else leaves the house — even if only for an hour.

Sharing the struggle

The pandemic has been overwhelming for everyone — in unique but also universal (or at least common) ways. For parents and couples, the biggest contributor to distress and conflict is often unequal distribution of the “mental load,” says LPC June Williams, whose specialties include couples counseling. The mental load, she explains, is everything that needs to be done to keep the household moving. And much of it seems never-ending.

As Williams, a private practitioner in Cedar Park, Texas, points out, everyone is eating all the time when the kids are at home due to virtual schooling. Meals need to be planned and scheduled because family members aren’t necessarily eating at the same time. The dishes seem to self-replicate, requiring multiple dishwasher runs per day. It isn’t uncommon for one parent to manage this process — in addition to keeping the children engaged in online schooling and attempting to perform their “regular” job duties from home. In such cases, the parent spends the day constantly switching focus from their work laptop to their children’s screens. One of Williams’ clients is working and managing the family’s three children while their partner is in another room with the door shut.

When the distribution of household responsibility is not equal, it is often because much of the mental load is invisible, Williams says. She helps make it visible to her couples clients.

Williams will sit with the couple and task the partner carrying the uneven load to walk her through their day. Williams asks the other partner to listen without interrupting. Often, the partner who has been contributing less is shocked to learn the full mental load that their loved one has been carrying, Williams says.

It isn’t always possible to achieve a 50-50 split, Williams says, but she helps couples distribute the load more equitably. They discuss all of the tasks that make up the mental load and talk about how to handle them as a team. Williams asks the partner with the lesser load to think about what areas they would be willing to take over. She then asks the other partner to decide where they are willing to relinquish control. “What’s something you are willing to give away, knowing that it’s not going to be done your way?” she asks. If the partner offloads dish duty, they have to accept that the dishwasher may not be loaded “correctly,” Williams counsels.

Williams also has couples take responsibility for different areas of the house. Once that’s done, each partner’s domain is sacrosanct. “No micromanaging,” she says. “If the trash is your partner’s deal, you don’t say anything — it’s in their lap.”

ACA member Paul Peluso agrees that cooperation and flexibility are essential for navigating home life during the pandemic. He recommends that couples come up with a practical, workable schedule that allows each partner some time off. Unlike Williams, he recommends that couples switch off tasks such as bathing the children, taking out the trash and cooking. This cooperative effort creates a sense of fairness that allows a partner who has had a particularly bad or busy day to ask the other partner to take over a task that the tired partner feels too tapped out to do. The understanding is that the same grace will be extended to the other partner when needed, says Peluso, a professor of counselor education at Florida Atlantic University and a former president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA.

Peluso also recommends that couples cut themselves and each other some slack, especially during the pandemic. For instance, perhaps the routine has been to fold and put away clothes immediately after they come out of the dryer. “Give yourself a break and let it be in the basket for a few days, and use that time to watch a show together or to talk,” Peluso urges.

Sometimes, an unevenly distributed responsibility cannot be transferred from one partner to another, Williams says. The couple with one partner working and managing school for three kids is doing it out of necessity because the partner with the closed door is constantly in meetings.

In cases such as these, Williams typically encourages couples to explore possible outside resources that can be brought in: “Can we talk to family [about providing help]? Do we have a COVID-safe nanny? A COVID pod so that two days a week the kids are going to another parent’s house?”

Sharing the load becomes more difficult when one partner is working outside the home and the other works virtually or has put their career on hold. This scenario can easily lead to resentment, Benoit says. To the partner who stays home, it can seem as though the partner who works externally has experienced a return to business as (almost) normal, she explains. Meanwhile, the “inside” partner feels like their life has been completely upended because they are either trying to work from home while also providing child care or may even have felt it necessary to leave their job, Benoit says. Resentment builds because the partner at home feels trapped.

Benoit finds it helpful to externalize these conflicts for couples, emphasizing that it is the situation that is the problem, not the person who is working outside the home. Adopting this perspective, it becomes something that the couple can address as a team. The goal is to avoid recrimination and accusations, Benoit says, and to ask instead, “How do we get through this together?”

Although the essential circumstance cannot be changed, the level of resentment can be lowered dramatically, Benoit says, by something as simple as the partner working outside the home acknowledging that the other partner has the tougher end of the deal and asking, “What can I do to help?”

Benoit also emphasizes self-compassion. “I tell a lot of clients that what we’re aiming to do is get through,” she says. “We’re not aiming to thrive, but to survive.”

Couples also must learn that they are not responsible for each other’s moods, Williams says. A felt need to “fix” everything is often present in the partner who feels “overloaded,” she says.

“I work with that person who is trying to fix and [I] help them get more comfortable with everyone’s discomfort,” Williams says. This is doubly beneficial because the person who is underfunctioning may be hanging back as a result of receiving the message from their partner (directly or indirectly) that they never do anything right. Williams wants to help the partner carrying the lighter load to take on more of the burden not because they are being nagged but because it is important to the family.

Williams also asks the “overburdened” spouse about the feelings they are living with. Do they feel the need to fix, rescue, save and control? Do they feel anxious and resentful? If the client acknowledges these patterns, Williams asks whether they like feeling that way.

The usual response? “No, I am mad all the time and tired.”

Possessing a sense of responsibility does not mean that the client is responsible for everyone in the world, Williams counsels.

She gives clients a scenario: Your husband comes in and is in a terrible mood. He sighs heavily and drops his bag. As his wife with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, you may flutter about and try to step in and take over. The end result? You haven’t fixed anything. He’s still irritated, and now you are too, Williams says.

She tells clients that they can still be compassionate, check in with their partner and ask how their day was. But if the partner responds that their day was terrible, clients need to ask themselves whether they have the emotional energy to carry that burden with their partner, Williams advises. If not, “It’s OK to say, ‘Here’s a soda water,’ give them a hug and move on,” she says.

When clients feel that tension in the pit of their stomach that is pushing them to step in, Williams urges them to do something calming in another room, such as belly breathing, stretching or taking a quick shower. These strategies also have the advantage of physically separating the person from the partner and their bad mood.

“Offer them compassion and allow yourself to remain separate,” Williams advises.

The price women pay

Williams doesn’t generally like to make assessments along gender lines, but she says the consequences of the pandemic are clearly delineated. Women are typically the ones expected to put their careers on pause — to be the caregivers and nurturers, to be more in tune with the children and to meet the family’s needs — even if they are the family’s highest wage earner, Williams asserts. She references a pithy and pitch-perfect quote from sociologist Jessica Calarco: “Other countries have safety nets. America has women.”

Thaier agrees. “Women already tend to take on more of the emotional, social and household roles, and that has not changed despite those tasks further multiplying,” she says. “In my practice, we talk a lot about our humanness, and that no one human can do all the things. We work on asking for help, prioritizing and eliminating what we can, establishing boundaries, and making time for ourselves.”

Women have absorbed a tremendous number of losses but haven’t had time to properly acknowledge those losses, Thaier says. “It’s hard to grieve within the experience of trauma,” she continues. “If we use the definition of trauma as too much, too fast, all of 2020 has been that. The quick reorganization of our lives has required [clients] — especially women — to move into crisis management mode. In crisis management, we do, we don’t get to be. In that way, therapy itself invites a chance for being, even if, after the hour, we revert back to survival mode a good portion of the time. We begin to carve out moments, which build on each other, for something different.”

“In some ways, because everything is different, there are opportunities for everything to be different, and that means families can brainstorm and strategize together on how to take care of the home and one another,” Thaier says. “It’s not easy, and there are lots of challenges. But I see a lot of great conversations happening, and with that, a lot of change too.”

In therapy, clients get to recenter themselves and their experiences, Thaier says. “They can voice resentments, frustrations, fears and anxieties, and their fear that feeling this way makes them a bad mother, partner, employee or friend.”

Thaier encourages clients to question these assumptions and where they came from, and then begin to redefine what is important to them about the roles they play. “For example, if we are redefining being ‘good’ at a relationship from an old definition of trying to not let anyone down to a new definition of being present and authentic with the people we love, we can begin to think about what this might look like,” she explains. “We can notice when the old definition is guiding our behavior and patterns, and we can start to practice new ways of relating.”

Reimagining clients’ relationships and roles often involves rejecting parts of the past by breaking patterns driven by cultural assumptions. But the past can also inform the future. Thaier uses narrative therapy to help clients grieve their losses and find ways to preserve elements of what was lost. “I think a lot about telling the stories of the people and experiences we have loved and that have significantly influenced our lives,” she says. “For a woman who has made the sacrifice of a current work role that is a significant part of her identity, we explore that.

“How did the job bring you alive? What did it make possible? What were the best parts of your day? Where did you imagine this would take you next? How did this role fit into an imagined and cherished future?”

“We can actually strengthen that story even as we grieve the space it has left in the present,” Thaier says. “And we can begin to narrate how the client can access her relationship to her work — or [what] she found possible there — and bring that into the present. In other words, the people and experiences we love become a part of us, and we can continue to take them with us into our futures. Our relationship with them gets to continue, if we want it to.”

An existential pause

The pandemic-induced global slowdown has provided people an opportunity (even if unrequested) to examine their lives and reevaluate their priorities, Peluso says. A number of people are asking themselves if they want to get back on the treadmill of constant activity and productivity, “or do I want to start thinking about what I was saving for someday and do it now?” he says.

Regardless of whether they choose to return to the treadmill, stepping off of it even temporarily has granted many people clarity about their relationships, Peluso observes. Some have grown closer to their partners during the pandemic, whereas other couples who were gritting their teeth and staying together for the sake of the children beforehand are asking themselves whether it’s worth the price they are paying.

Some couples are reassessing how they were choosing to spend their time prepandemic, he says. “I think especially early in the pandemic, when there was a hard stop to a lot of activity, it created a window of opportunity to just build some new rituals for connection,” Peluso says. “Couples were able to do things together — tasks, projects around the house.”

This ability to slow down — rather than charge through a list of chores — allowed some couples to rediscover pieces of each other that may have been subsumed in the daily grind, Peluso says. “For a lot of them, it forced them to look at some places where they had been neglecting relationships,” he adds.

“While this year has been incredibly challenging, it has also been an invitation,” Thaier says. “An invitation to slow down, to be together more, to take stock of what we’re doing and how we spend our time. To be at home more. To rest. To see our limitless creativity and resilience and strength. To acknowledge that our lives really could look different at a moment’s notice. To learn to be together in new ways. To be outside more. To take less for granted.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s been ‘worth it,’” she continues. “That would disrespect all of the loss and tragedy and, frankly, just wouldn’t be true. But there’s good here too. And there’s invitation in every holding pattern to see something that is waiting to be acknowledged. There’s a mirror here, if we’re willing to look into it.    

“I’m thankful for the invitation, and I’m hopeful about what’s next.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books & DVDs (imis.counseling.org/store)

  • Theory and Practice of Couples and Family Counseling, third edition, by James Robert Bitter
  • Mediating Conflict in Intimate Relationships (DVD) presented by Gerald Monk and John Winslade

Continuing Professional Development (https://imis.counseling.org/store/catalog.aspx#)

  • “Creative Counseling for Couples: Using the Integrative Model” (webinar) with Mark Young
  • “Imago Relationship Therapy” (podcast) with Susan Hammonds-White

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (iamfconline.org)

IAMFC is a division of the American Counseling Association that embraces a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential and uniqueness
of families.

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Identifying and addressing competing attachments with couples

By Anabelle Bugatti August 6, 2020

Couples come to counseling for a variety of reasons, and therapists are tasked with understanding the nature of couples’ concerns and offering helpful tools. Sometimes, as therapists, we might hear one partner complain about the things the other partner is doing and, often, these things may seem very trivial. We might also hear clients complain of conflict that centers on a lack of emotional availability on the part of their partner, coupled with their partner escaping or turning elsewhere to de-stress, to get needs met or for emotional sharing.

For example, one person might say, “My partner is always on their phone” or “My husband always takes work calls even during family time” or “My wife shares our fights with her friends” or “My partner would rather play video games than be with me.” Then there are statements that are less trivial, such as, “I think my spouse is having an affair.”

Anything that erodes the security of the bond between partners and creates distress can be seen as a threat to the relationship. The resulting distress must not be viewed as trivial, regardless of how small and harmless the situation may appear on the surface.

A rival to the relationship

A competing attachment is a threat to secure bonding in which one person in a relationship turns away from the relationship and toward someone or something else to get their emotional or attachment needs met. This is often experienced by their partner as a rival to their relationship — someone or something with which they have to compete for their sweetheart’s time
and attention.

Some of these emotional investments or activities on the part of one of the partners may actually be counterfeit attachments. These attachments are an attempt to mimic the fulfillment of comfort, soothing and belonging needs that a secure relationship would typically provide. It is usually the other partner (not the partner engaging in the competing attachment) who initially complains of distress.

The person participating in the competing attachment may or may not be aware that they are turning elsewhere to get their emotional and attachment needs met. This may largely depend on their own attachment style and level of emotional intelligence. Those engaging in the competing attachment are sometimes aware of what they are doing but may try to deny the impact this has on their partner or relationship. 

Depending on the type of competing attachment (what or whom a person turns out to) and the frequency (how often they’re turning out), their partner can be left feeling frustrated, jealous, hurt and disconnected. The more often this occurs, the more distressed the relationship may become. The attachment bond may then start to shift from secure to insecure, or a romantic attachment bond that was already insecure can have that insecurity amplified. Additionally, relationship satisfaction decreases as a relationship becomes distressed by a competing attachment.

Research currently shows a connection between competing attachments and insecure attachment relationships. However, it is unknown whether one causes the other or if an already insecure bond or insecurely attached person might be more vulnerable to developing or experiencing a competing attachment.

While different types of competing attachments tend to pose different levels of threat to a relationship, there is a clear connection between a partner’s concern of competing attachment and their romantic attachment security and relationship satisfaction. In a study conducted for my dissertation research, it was revealed that the more a competing attachment increases, the more the attachment security within the relationship decreases. As attachment security decreases, the more relationship satisfaction also decreases.

Competing attachments constitute a counterfeit attachment in which one partner turns outside of the marriage or relationship and toward something or someone else for escape, soothing, comfort or attention as a substitute for unmet attachment needs. Competing attachments can include addictions, affairs, gaming systems, smart phones, family members or anything else that might lead a spouse or partner to feel it necessary to compete with this “other” for the attachment bond with their partner.

Competing attachments vs. hobbies

It is important to distinguish the difference between a competing attachment and a hobby. Obviously, not everything that someone turns to outside of a relationship will constitute a competing attachment. Clients may have healthy attachments with other people or things that do not violate the boundaries of the romantic attachment relationship between two people and that do not create a feeling of competition for emotional time, attention or affection.

In general, hobbies do not threaten relationships because there are some emotional boundaries involved. Typically, hobbies are engaged in for general enjoyment rather than as an escape or as an alternative to the benefits of their romantic partner. Hobbies do hold the potential of turning into a competing attachment, although this doesn’t usually happen in securely attached people or relationships.

In my clinical practice, I have often heard female partners voice feeling the threat of competing attachment because their partners come home from work most nights and neglect to spend even a little bit of quality time connecting. Instead, they go straight to their gaming systems and play for hours until it’s time to put the children to bed or turn in for the night. Part of what contributes to the sense of a competing attachment is if one partner regularly turns to this “other” before they turn to their own partner or more frequently than they turn to their own partner.

Types of competing attachments

Research has yet to explore every type of competing attachment individually or their respective impact on relationship security and satisfaction, in part because new forms of competing attachment pop up and develop over time. In addition, competing attachments and their impacts can vary culturally. However, a few specific types of competing attachment have been linked to decreases in relationship security and satisfaction.

Addiction

Research on addiction and attachment helps explain how disrupted early life attachment bonds and adaptive mechanisms can, if left untreated, become barriers to emotional flexibility and bonding in adult romantic relationships. When emotional regulation and soothing have not been taught in the context of attachment bonds with a loved one, it can leave the individual more vulnerable to turning to a substance as a means of soothing and escape. On a fundamental level, failed attachment to a primary attachment figure creates alternative attachment to survival mechanisms and defenses. This eventually transitions into attachments to substances or other compulsive behaviors in an attempt to find comfort, soothing, safety, protection and security.

Substances are shown to have analgesic (pain blocking) effects that aid in the numbing out of emotionally painful experiences and situations. Individuals with addiction lack the ability to internally self-regulate their emotions. They frequently turn to substances or compulsions to regulate their feelings of pain or distressing emotional experiences. Nonchemical processes such as pornography and gambling are demonstrated to have similar effects to chemical substances on the brain and can be used by a person to achieve the same effect.

The more frequently someone turns to addictive behaviors to meet their attachment needs, the less often they will seek connection with others. The addiction eventually starts to become a substitute for human connection. Over time, this builds into a false sense of connection, or a counterfeit attachment, because a true and secure attachment bond involves a reciprocal relationship.

In romantic relationships, the consequences for the partner who is not addicted is that they are left emotionally (and, often, physically) alone to deal with emotional distress and the stresses of daily living. Additionally, it is hard to build a secure and satisfying connection with a partner who is not emotionally present, engaged or accessible because of their addiction, especially if the addiction negatively alters the person’s mood. The result is a relationship that is higher in conflict, less emotionally engaged, more unstable or insecure, and less satisfying.

Social media, gaming, smart phones

With the advancement and availability of new technology, the types and frequency of competing attachments have also changed. Internet addiction is a general term used to encompass a wide variety of online behaviors that are problematic for individuals and relationships. For example, addiction to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram has been cited as being intrusive in relationships and is associated with relationship dissatisfaction. Technoference is a term applied to the interference of technology in relationships, including romantic relationships. Another trending term is phubbing, or phone snubbing. This describes when a person turns their attention to a smart phone instead of to their romantic partner or others in a social or personal setting.

As cell phones and gaming systems have morphed from simple electronic devices to devices that encourage participation and interaction online, live human interactions have decreased. Online adult gamers have described sacrificing major aspects of their lives to maintain their online gaming status. Romantic partners report that technologies such as gaming and smart phones frequently interrupt quality time and connection, reduce instances of going to bed together at night, and affect the amount of time spent together on leisure activities. In other words, these partners feel that their relationship has taken a back seat to online gaming activity.

Those who have been phubbed report feeling that their romantic partner favors a virtual world over time and connection with them, thus sending an implicit message about what their partner values most. This has become so problematic in romantic relationships that support groups have been created for “gaming widows” suffering from technoference. Additionally, interviews have revealed that technoference lowers relationship satisfaction and increases conflict between romantic partners.

Pornography

Pornography is unique in that it can encompass two different types of competing attachments: addiction and infidelity (since many romantic partners view pornography as a form of infidelity). Often, the partner who is addicted turns to pornography as a source of stress release or to soothe feelings of shame and disconnection in the romantic relationship.

Research into the experiences of those partners who are not addicted to pornography shows that they often feel in competition with the pornography or the actors in the pornographic material. The turning outside of the relationship to an addiction has also been shown to have a negative effect on the security of the relationship bond and the level of relationship satisfaction.

Affairs and infidelity

Being unfaithful in a romantic relationship (infidelity) is considered one of the most potent threats to romantic attachment security and relationship satisfaction. Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce and one of the leading threats of competing attachment.

Unlike other forms of competing attachment, this particular form may need to occur only once for the partner to consider it a competing attachment. What constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior with someone outside of the relationship can take on different meanings for different people. For some, a one-time nonsexual encounter in which their partner turns to another may be acceptable, whereas others may find small flirtations that do not result in sexual intercourse unacceptable. For others, finding inappropriate, provocative or sexual pictures or messages exchanged between their partner and someone else may constitute infidelity. The definition of infidelity depends on how the couple delineates the boundaries of their relationship and how they define cheating.

Infidelity, even if only perceived, has the power to undermine the trust, security and satisfaction of the love relationship. Behaviors on social media that violate relational boundaries are also associated with relational insecurity and lower levels of relationship satisfaction.

Factors such as attachment security and satisfaction have been demonstrated to be both consequences and causes of infidelity. Those with secure attachment are less likely to engage in infidelity-related behaviors. There is also a link between attachment avoidance and interest in other partners, as well as strong associations between attachment insecurity and infidelity in relationships. Unmet attachment needs and low levels of relationship satisfaction may contribute to people seeking connection and sex outside of their primary love relationship. 

Rival relationships

Outside or “rival” relationships may not constitute or result in infidelity, but they can still be experienced as competing attachments to the romantic bond. A rival relationship may be any nonromantic relationship that a partner has with another person outside of their love relationship, especially if the outside person is perceived as being attractive. This could be a friend of the opposite sex. Even family members can become competing attachments in some relationships.

In rival relationships, one partner may consistently turn out to a friend or family member to discuss private emotional topics, seek comfort or validation, or share friendly connections that are not shared with their partner or spouse within the love relationship. Another example may be a partner who exchanges text messages, emails or phone calls or engages in private get-togethers with another person outside of the love relationship, particularly if their romantic partner is not invited to take part. The romantic partner may feel like they are being left out of or are on the outside of a friendship or relationship that their partner has.

In therapy, clients might complain about their partner’s closest friend of the opposite gender or an intrusive in-law whom their spouse frequently turns to for advice and emotional support. Rival relationships that involve family members, usually described by clients as “intrusive” family members, are associated with a weaker couple identity and are demonstrated to predict the quality of the couple’s bond.

Interestingly, even in cultures in which men are expected to maintain a strong alliance with their mothers after getting married, wives in these marriages often complain about feeling like they are competing with their mothers-in-law for their place in the family unit. An example might be a husband who frequently puts his mother first by meeting her every need, even after he marries. This type of competing attachment often goes unnoticed. Society tends to dismiss enmeshed mother-son relationships as being potentially problematic, despite the consequences to the son’s marriage or romantic relationship. I am not referring here to a healthy attachment bond between a mother and a son but rather to an unhealthy form of attachment (insecure bonding) that results in the failure of either person to securely and appropriately transition parts of their attachment role when necessary.

Importance to clinical practice

In each of these types of competing attachment, there exists a common link with attachment security (or lack thereof) and relationship satisfaction. As professional therapists, we know that science is clear about the importance of human attachment bonds across the life span. Primary attachment figures were initially considered important for infants and children. However, these roles were later recognized as being important for all humans at all stages, including those with whom we formulate strong romantic attachment relationships as adults.

Each person will have a different attachment style that is classified as either secure or insecure. These attachment strategies are typically stable over time. However, attachment relationship bonds can be defined separately from individuals, also as either secure or insecure. Additionally, there is plasticity in adult attachment relationships. They can shift from secure to insecure and vice versa. In romantic relationships, distress can occur when the security of the attachment relationship is threatened. This is important for therapists to understand as they work with their clients to help them shift from insecure to secure bonding and to build safe and satisfying relationships.

Competing attachments threaten the security and satisfaction of romantic attachment relationships and can become pivotal moments that redefine a couple’s relationship as unsafe. This can additionally create an impasse to relational trust and stability, both of which can negatively affect relational satisfaction. Anything that threatens the stability and satisfaction of an attachment bond is important for clinicians to know about so that they can be prepared to intervene.

Not all things that someone turns to outside of the love relationship qualify as competing attachments. To constitute a competing attachment, it must cross certain boundaries or thresholds that result in distress. If a competing attachment does exist in a relationship and is causing distress, then the relationship satisfaction will start to go down. The less secure the bond becomes between the couple and the less satisfying the relationship is, the more risk exists of the relationship becoming broken. Attachment security is strongly associated with relationship satisfaction. Both attachment security and relationship satisfaction are also important factors in relationship longevity and personal health. Relational satisfaction should remain relatively high and stable over time for most couples in securely attached relationships.

Attachment science offers a guidepost for treatment strategies and interventions for couples who come to therapy reporting the presence of competing attachment.

Treatment recommendations

If a couple comes to your practice complaining of a competing attachment or hinting at the possibility of one, consider asking a few assessment questions. These questions are based off of the Competing Attachment Scale that I created with emotionally focused therapy trainer Rebecca Jorgensen and UCLA professor Rory Reid in 2015 for my dissertation study.

1) Have you experienced in the past or do you currently experience a sense of competition with the activities or relationships in which your partner engages?

2) Do you feel like your partner turns elsewhere outside of the relationship to have their needs met rather than turning to you?

3) Do you feel hurt, bothered or upset by this?

4) Do you feel like this has been a problem in your relationship, created a lot of conflict or affected your ability to get close with or have a healthy bond with your partner?

Also consider the following treatment recommendations for couples reporting distress due to a competing attachment:

  • Clearly identify and understand how the competing attachment is part of a couple’s relational system (their negative interaction pattern or cycle).
  • Identify the competing attachment as an alternative (and ineffective) way of coping with/not dealing with emotional distress or not getting needs met (maladaptive behavior).
  • Help couples turn toward each other as secure bases/safe havens to help co-regulate moments of emotional distress.
  • Help couples find alternative ways of coping with emotional dysregulation that don’t create relational distress or violate relationship boundaries.
  • Help couples identify their emotional/attachment needs and be able to ask for these needs to be met in their relationship.

 

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For more information on adult attachment research, or to find clinical training in your area, visit the websites of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and its founder, Sue Johnson.

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Anabelle Bugatti is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Las Vegas. She is a certified emotionally focused supervisor and therapist and is the president of the Southern Nevada Community for Emotionally Focused Therapy. She has a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Northcentral University. Her new book, Using Relentless Empathy in Therapeutic Relationships: Connecting With Challenging and Resistant Clients, is slated for release at the end of the year. Contact her at anabellebugattimft@gmail.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.