Tag Archives: Couples

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.

 

****

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.

****

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.

****

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.

Keeping victims safe: Crisis response planning with perpetrators of IPV

By Thomas DiBlasi and Kelly Smith July 20, 2020

One way that counselors can help victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) is to create behavioral crisis response plans with clients who are perpetrating the abuse. We (the authors of this article) have both worked in various roles with IPV programs, from direct service and administrative roles to research and advocacy. We believe that working with perpetrators of IPV is an essential component of reducing domestic violence.

As such, we are familiar with the research for treating perpetrators of IPV and find the results are often weak. Most clients report an increased desire to change on self-report measures but frequently lack follow-through (for more, see the 2008 article “Motivational interviewing as a pregroup intervention for partner-violent men” by Peter Musser and colleagues in the journal Violence and Victims). We can do more as counselors by providing these clients with behavioral support as they work to change. We must give the clients real, behavioral techniques that they can use in the moment. In this article, we share behavioral techniques that counselors can pass on to their clients to bring about real behavior change.

Crisis response planning (also known as safety planning) refers to creating an actionable plan when faced with a maladaptive response to a situation. Crisis response planning is often used with clients experiencing suicidal urges (as Barbara Stanley and Gregory Brown shared in their 2012 article, “Safety planning intervention: A brief intervention to mitigate suicide risk,” published in Cognitive and Behavioral Practice). In the context of IPV, safety planning has historically been associated with helping victims prepare for and engage in behaviors that will keep them most safe when faced with threats from a partner (for example, see Christine Murray and colleagues’ 2015 article, “Domestic violence service providers’ perceptions of safety planning: A focus group study,” in the Journal of Family Violence). We are advocating for the use of a crisis response plan, similar to that of Stanley and Brown’s, with clients who perpetrate IPV.

Crisis response planning is effective for mitigating acting on harmful urges; in this case, it is to manage urges to engage in abusive acts. To be clear, the objective of the crisis response plan is crisis management. It is not a tool that will reduce the occurrence of the urges to engage in abusive acts, but instead one that targets managing urges.

When the client perpetrating the abuse has an urge to engage in aggression, they will use the skills from the crisis response plan (which they co-create with their counselor) to refrain from acting on the abuse. Utilizing the crisis response plan allows clients to decrease their emotional arousal and to train themselves to engage in an alternative behavior when they have an urge to aggress.

This is no small feat given that these clients may have an ingrained history of acting on their urge. For every second that they are engaging in a coping skill from their crisis response plan, they are not aggressing. If a client goes from immediately acting on the urge to delaying the urge for 10 minutes, then therapy would shift from a focus on riding the urge to problem-solving and cognitive restructuring.

A crisis response plan for perpetrators of IPV

The adapted crisis response plan by Stanley and Brown asks questions to help clients identify warning signs, coping strategies, people they can call, emergency contacts, how to make the environment safe, and the most important reason to not engage in abusive acts. It is recommended that clients repeatedly review the crisis response plan and carry it with them at all times. The following is a review of each section of the crisis response plan.

Identify warning signs. When asking clients who perpetrate abusive acts to identify warning signs that lead to abusive behavior, it is best to focus on cross-contextual experiences. For example, helping clients identify that they are more likely to engage in abusive behaviors when the dishes are not done is good, but what is more helpful is identifying their anger (which is likely an underlying emotion). Anger has been consistently identified as a proximal factor in IPV but is not consistently addressed in treatment for IPV. Identifying the anger as a warning sign will transcend more contexts and ultimately make the crisis response plan more helpful. Warning signs could include physiological arousal, emotions, and thoughts such as demandingness or personalization.

Activate internal coping strategies. Internal coping strategies keep the clients from engaging in abusive behavior against their partners. These strategies may not reduce their anger or the experience of their urges, but the goal of the strategies is to not act on the urge. As long as they are not choosing abusive behavior toward their partner, they are being skillful. Using distraction (e.g., watching TV, going for a walk, listening to music), practicing progressive muscle relaxation, or listening to a funny show, skit or video (humor is a useful intervention in reducing anger) can all be helpful.

A skill that many clients like is changing one’s temperature. It involves holding one’s breath underwater for 30 seconds to activate the mammalian dive reflex, at which point the temperature causes the client’s heart rate to decrease, also lowering their anger levels. If they are not able to hold their breath underwater for 30 seconds (e.g., by using a sink), they can splash cold water on their face or use ice cubes. Clients may be more likely to use this coping strategy if they practice it in session. If they are wearing a Fitbit or something similar, they can instantly see the effects. This skill is commonly used as a crisis management skill in dialectical behavior therapy.

The most important thing is finding and listing the skills that work for your client.

Activate external coping strategies. It is important to help clients build self-efficacy by using their internal coping skills first. However, if they are not able to manage the urge or think they may still engage in aggression, then it is best for them to call someone. Calling a friend or a family member can serve as a distraction. The client does not necessarily need to tell the person about their urge to engage in abusive behavior. If your client can identify a friend who loves to talk about themselves, now is the time for them to call that friend. Talking to someone on the phone decreases the likelihood that the client will act on their urge. If that is not effective, they can call someone they trust (e.g., a close friend or family member, a spiritual guide) to speak to about the situation. If they are still fighting the urge to aggress, they can contact a crisis resource (see the resources provided at the end of this article).

Plan ahead. In addition to intervening, the crisis response plan also works as a preventive measure by focusing on what the client can do to make the environment safe. This could mean removing threatening objects (e.g., knives) or speaking through a locked door. For instance, if the client or their partner know they are about to have a difficult conversation concerning finances, they could agree to have the conversation standing on opposite sides of a physically locked door in the home so they are separated from each other, or they could agree to have another person present. Many clients who perpetrate IPV will not engage in abuse behaviors toward their partner in front of another person.

Lastly, the crisis response plan asks the client to name the most important reason for them to change. It is best to frame the reason in a positive direction (“I want a strong, healthy relationship with my wife and kids”) rather than the absence of something (“I don’t want to get divorced”). This reason reminds the client what they are working toward, so it is best to bring up this reason frequently in treatment.

Practice. The crisis response plan works best when it is rehearsed outside of the triggering context. Similar to basketball players rehearsing their form in practice so that they can shoot the ball in the game (and under pressure), a client needs to rehearse these behaviors prior to using them in the moment.

Behavior change is hard, particularly for clients who engage in abusive behaviors toward their partners. Trying to come up with alternative behaviors while angry is unlikely, particularly given that anger is associated with tunnel vision. Practicing these skills ahead of time allows the client to expand their behavioral repertoire in the heat of the moment.

Additionally, behavior change is challenging given that clients’ abusive behaviors have been positively reinforced in the short term. Clients who engage in IPV often get what they want after committing the abusive act (e.g., punishing their partner). Counselors working with clients who perpetrate abuse know that abusive behaviors are learned behaviors. The crisis response plan assists in clients learning new, more positive behaviors between sessions.

Working with perpetrators is an essential part of reducing instances of IPV and increasing victim safety. Crisis response plans provide an effective tool for counselors to use in their work with these clients.

 

Additional resources

 

****

Thomas DiBlasi is an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College where he teaches undergraduate students and researches domestic violence, anger, aggression and revenge. He has given presentations locally, nationally and internationally and has published predominantly on anger and aggression. He is a member of the leadership committee for the special interest group of Forensic and Externalizing Behaviors. Contact him at tdiblasi@sjcny.edu.

Kelly Smith is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor who began her work with sexual assault and domestic violence (SA/DV) agencies in 2006. She is also a certified partner abuse intervention professional. Beginning in 2015, she facilitated partner abuse intervention program groups and, most recently, served as director of abuse intervention services for a comprehensive SA/DV organization in Illinois. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Springfield College with a research agenda that includes addressing issues related to perpetrators of IPV. Contact her at ksmith27@springfieldcollege.edu.

****

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.

The marital paradox

By Guillermo Cancio-Bello and Jim Rudes July 14, 2020

“In relationship with others, people are free to engage in goal-directed activity, or to lose ‘self’ in the intimacy of a close relationship.” — Murray Bowen

There is no shortage of strained marriages. Two people who were once close can grow distant over time and become entrenched in their own positions, which they come to see as being antithetical to those of their spouse. The things they once cherished or found charming have since faded or become an annoyance. Where there was once agreement, now there is discord. Where there was once calm, now the waters are riled. Comfort has turned to uncertainty, and the house once filled with laughter now pulses with quiet (or not so quiet) tensions.

Rarely do couples come in for counseling until the discomfort of that distance, in whatever form it presents, has exceeded their ability to cope with the difficulty and strain it creates. But how does this happen? How can two people who started out so close with each other become so distant?

People are drawn to the comfort, support, intimacy, affection and validation that marriage can offer. That desire for closeness pulls us together. However, when the harmony of that relationship is disrupted, problems begin in the places where each partner has been using the relationship to prop themselves up or ease their personal anxieties in some way. Where one partner suddenly feels invalidated, the other feels wronged by a disagreement. Where one spouse feels anger over the other’s opinion, the other person retreats from their partner’s criticism. The forms these disruptions can take are endless.

What happened?

In the beginning of a relationship, most of us are more flexible and adaptable in the presence of the other than we otherwise might be. We put on a layer of maturity that doesn’t necessary reflect our true level of functioning. We are able to do this because the nature of the relationship early on has less tension. We listen to the other, we share our opinions openly, we ask questions and engage in conversation, we are curious about our partner and their views, and we are warm, kind and affectionate. Our immaturities somehow become minimized. And thank goodness that is the case, or else we might never get together.

However, that layer of maturity we put on is temporary. It is a reaction to the pull of closeness and harmony with the other. We are not implying that this action is all pretend or fake but rather that part of it does not reflect the reality of our functioning. It is a mechanism that fosters the closeness both individuals desire.

When that maturity slips off, and when our immaturities rear their heads, each individual in the relationship can begin to wonder what happened to the other. Each person begins to assume that the other has changed, and each assumes that the other is the one inhibiting the restoration of intimacy and harmony. This is the distance that pushes apart people who were once so close. Both become entrenched in their position that the other is the problem, and the relationship patterns that maintain the distance become fixed.

This is when people tend to seek counseling. So, what can we do as professional counselors? Working from the framework of Murray Bowen’s family systems theory has helped us acquire and maintain perspective about the relationship between two people. Its systemic underpinnings allow us to conceptualize the relationship without placing blame or seeing fault in one partner or the other. The theory focuses on the processes between people rather than the content of the arguments, which can create a din of noise in which both counselor and clients can easily become entangled and lost.

Focusing on the  ‘other’ as the problem

All marriages have tensions and difficulties because any two-person relationship has instabilities built into it. People want to be together with others, but they also want to maintain their autonomy. When things are working well in a relationship, people feel connected but also free to be themselves. When people feel too close or too distant, it causes a disruption in the individual and, ultimately, in the relationship.

We want attention from our partners, but we can become allergic to too much of it, pushing the other away or distancing ourselves emotionally from them. And when we get the space we think we want, we can feel unappreciated and look for affection and validation to make us feel connected and secure. In this emotional seesaw, each person becomes sensitive to the other and what they do or say and can begin to focus on them as the problem: If only my partner would give me more attention. If only my partner would step up and do their part. If only they would listen to me. If only, if only, if only …

The reality is that both parties contribute to any relationship difficulty. That is the nature of reciprocity, but it is a fact that we all have trouble seeing when we are in the midst of relationship tensions and the emotions and anxiety they produce.

The more that tension and anxiety build, the more reactive people get, and the more they unwittingly contribute to the reciprocity, or mutually influenced pattern, that maintains the “problem.” When people get anxious and reactive, they tend to focus on what is wrong in or with the other rather than looking at what they are doing, how they are contributing to the maintenance of the “problem,” and what their options for changing their own thinking and behavior might be.

Especially in intimate relationships, people can get bogged down in the tensions of feeling misunderstood, neglected or mistreated in one way or another. It can be difficult for individuals in a relationship to see beyond the dust cloud of an argument, a history of small misunderstandings, the minute experiences of neglect that one feels toward the other but has never vocalized, and so on. These histories build because people want stability and harmony in the moment and are willing to sacrifice some autonomy for that without realizing they are contributing to a process that will later result in an eruption.

In our experience, many initial sessions with couples begin with an attempt by both parties to pull the counselor into a he said, she said tug of war. Both want the comfort of togetherness with their counselor, albeit at the expense of their relationship with each other. We believe it is the counselor’s responsibility to stay out of it. The minute that clinicians start seeing one partner or the other as an angel or demon, they have lost their objective footing.

The two overarching and interlocking steps counselors can take to guide people through the process of working on themselves in their relationships are:

1) Help each person increase their perspective of how they relate to their partner.

2) Help each person work on themselves in the present.

As with any idea, the simpler it seems, the more difficult it is.

Increasing perspective: Seeing the reciprocity

Helping people increase perspective begins with the counselor’s ability to maintain a larger perspective. Rather than seeing sides of the relationship, the goal is to focus on the processes and patterns to which both parties contribute, much like a coach looking over the field from above and watching what each player does. If the counselor is able to keep perspective, they can be useful to their clients by helping them gain a larger view of what is going on in their relationship.

Step 1: Decrease anxiety. Nothing can happen until the anxiety in each individual comes down to a level at which they can both work on their part. Often, just talking can help bring down the anxiety. Setting up your expectations (as the counselor) for the session can also help limit the escalation of tensions. One of the biggest factors in decreasing the anxiety when a couple is in the room is the counselor’s ability to remain objective and neutral.

Step 2: Take a step back. Have the couple take a step back from the intensity of the moment by widening the lens they are using to view the problem. Often, each person is hyper-focused on the other, so taking a step back means having each person shift their focus off the other and onto their own functioning. When one person begins talking about what the other is doing, you can help them shift the focus by asking questions about their thinking on their own behavior and thoughts.

For example, if one person begins telling you how the other never says anything, never has an opinion, and is just so limp and passive, you might respond with questions about what they do and think when their partner does those things or what they are doing and thinking before the other partner reacts passively. Conversely, when one partner tells you that the other partner is angry all the time, comes at them with high intensity and is critical, you might question what they do when that happens or how often they anticipate their partner’s intense reactions.

Step 3: Highlight the reciprocity. Continually point out the reciprocity in the “problem” — the fact that each person is contributing in some way to the maintenance of what is going on. Highlighting the reciprocity helps each person begin to recognize that they are an equal participant in what is going on in the relationship, and it furthers the process of each individual shifting their view of the other as the problem to focusing on their own functioning. Using the example above, you might point out to the couple how interesting it is that each time one partner gets intense, the other becomes passive, and how when one becomes more passive, the other gets more intense.

The beauty of this perspective is that it is never up to one person to change the other. There is always something for each person to work on individually, and in doing so, each person is also working on the relationship. There is always a way to move because the processes between two people are constant and ever flowing, even if the participants are locked into automatic and reactive behaviors. A change in one person sets off a change in the process between the two. It is nonsensical for one person to blame the other because they are each contributing, and have contributed, to what is going on between them in the present.

This shift in focus — from off of the other and onto the self — is necessary for each person to move forward effectively. If this shift isn’t made, people tend to either get stuck in conflict or give up more and more of the self to keep the relationship stable. A little conflict is better than a false stability.

Working on self in the present: Working on the reciprocity

Taking a step back and gaining perspective allows people to reenter the tensions of the present moment with more clarity because the focus has shifted from off of the other and onto the self. Once that shift in focus has been made, people can work on managing their emotions and anxieties in the here and now. But these two steps are inextricable because the knowledge gained by looking at and understanding one’s part in relationship patterns is the catalyst for better managing self in the present.

Step 1: Watch the reciprocity. Once each person has begun to see the reciprocity and recognize that they are an equal contributor to the relationship tensions, then they can begin to work on their part. The first step is helping each person become an expert on how they contribute to the reciprocity. What you are doing as a counselor is moving the clients’ thinking from a cause-and-effect framework to a systemic framework in which the rule is reciprocity.

After seeing it, people can begin to be aware of the reciprocity in the present. That awareness might show up in session as one person reflecting on how when their partner got angry, they “retreated again.” In response, their partner increased their intensity, and this person reacted to that increase by shutting down. The client’s focus is now on the process and their part in it.

Step 2: Work on the reciprocity. As each person becomes an expert on their part in the process between the two, they simultaneously begin to work on themselves in the present moment and in the reciprocity that is always ongoing. As the partner from the example above begins to see that their “retreating” and “shutting down” contribute to the other partner’s increasing intensity, they can begin to work on staying engaged in the relationship under pressure. This might begin with noticing their impulse to retreat and staying in the conversation a bit longer than they normally would despite the “feeling.”

In other words, they are tolerating the discomfort of the feeling, but that tolerance is driven by a thoughtful framework regarding the nature of reciprocity and their part in that process. It might mean recognizing that the partner’s intensity is not a critique on them but is rather about their partner’s own functioning. Thus, the first partner may begin to take things less personally. We could go on and on here, but the point is that this person begins to be less caught up in the emotional intensity of the moment. In doing so, the person is able to be less reactive and more thoughtful in what they do and how they do it. The more they work on themselves in the reciprocity, the more options they have in how they function, and the greater the chance for the relationship to improve.

We focused on one partner above, but we could do the same exercise with the other partner. That person would begin by seeing the reciprocity of increased intensity by them and withdrawal by the other partner. They might begin to watch their own functioning, recognizing that the more intense they get, the more their partner retreats. They might notice that when the other retreats, their own intensity automatically increases. They might begin to work on managing that impulse and their facial expressions, tone of voice and so on in the presence of the other. And in working on themselves, they might begin to see that they are working on the relationship.

The challenge as the counselor is to continually bring the focus of the session back to the process of what is going on, or has gone on, and to stay out of the content. Any couple will tend to slide back into content — who said or did what to whom — when tensions and anxieties rise. It is the counselor’s work to stay neutral and objective and to point back to the process of what is going on.

Just as the paradox of marriage is for each individual to manage the self, the paradox of counseling is that the counselor must manage the self rather than try to change whomever is sitting before them. We see the work of the counselor as being no different than the work we perceive as useful to clients. In other words, if the counselor is getting lost in the content of a couple’s argument, then the counselor is not managing their own self, and their anxieties have taken over. But if the counselor can stay focused on the process of how the couple argue, how this contributes to the larger patterns of their relationship, and how that is tied to a history of behavior of which they both are a part, then the counselor is being useful in some way and is managing the self, at least a little bit.

 

****

Guillermo Cancio-Bello is director of the November Institute, where he works to bring natural family systems thinking to the lives of individuals, families and organizations in the pursuit of growth through a deeper understanding of human relationships. He is currently undertaking a Ph.D. in counseling at Barry University and lives in Miami with his wife and two dogs. Contact him at thenovemberinstitute@gmail.com or visit thenovemberinstitute.com.

Jim Rudes is an associate professor of counseling in the Adrian Dominican School of Education at Barry University. He has more than 20 years of clinical experience, and for the last several years has devoted most of his professional energy to the study of family systems through the lens of natural family systems theory. His current research interests are concerned with emotional process versus content, and the light at the end of the tunnel. Contact him at jrudes@barry.edu.

 

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

****

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.

For such a time as this: A plan of action for couples and individuals

By Esther Scott June 15, 2020

[Editor’s note: This is the second of four articles in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining articles will be posted on subsequent Mondays in June.]

The new normal that the coronavirus has introduced can create some real tension, particularly for couples who think they are losing “that loving feeling” as a result of the shelter-in-place mandate meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. Every marriage has its natural ups and downs, but research studies suggest that the way we relate to each other can have profound effects not only on our mental health, but on our biological health as well, “for better or for worse.”

This unplanned for and prolonged time to stay at home may bring discomfort for many of us, but we can come out the other side with new skills. Having a plan of action can help protect your relationship during these changing times and may even help reignite the spark that brought you together in the first place.

Here is an action plan to follow to help you reclaim your “happily ever after” even during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

1) Bring back that loving feeling. Be more proactive.

Early in relationships, we prioritize our one-on-one moments, but eventually we begin to sideline, just when we may need to connect the most. To “bring back that loving feeling,” research shows that couples should engage in meaningful activities to stay connected with each other. It could be as simple as trying a new weekly schedule that includes a night for reading or listening to music, a night for TV, a night for conversation and so on.

One exercise we recommend to the couples who come to see us is to put a big fluffy pillow in the middle of their living room or bedroom floor, grab their favorite drink (e.g., a bottle of wine, sparkling apple cider, tea), turn off cell phones and TVs, turn the lights down low, play soft music in the background, and simply talk to one another for 45 minutes. We recommend they do this at least once a week.

No one enters a relationship with the expectation that it will be boring or unhappy. Boredom signals that our relationship needs to be refueled. Just as the fuel light on your car indicates when you are running low on gas, boredom and unhappiness mean that your relationship needs to be refilled. You wouldn’t think of abandoning your car when the fuel light comes on; you would think of refilling it. The same goes for relationships.

Boredom and “unhappiness” do not mean that a relationship does not work — it just means that it needs some attention. Early in the relationship, everything is new and exciting. We talk for hours, text countless times and spend every second we can together. Then, somewhere along the way, we believe we have shared all there is to share and know all there is to know about each other and we stop connecting, which can lead to a sense of boredom and unhappiness. We need to continue cultivating those opportunities that helped our relationship to grow in the first place. This, in turn, will help bring back that loving feeling.

2) Focus on supporting each other.

Can I depend on you when I need help, feel scared, worry about dying or don’t feel well? Am I willing to be that source of comfort and stability when you need me? These are questions the subconscious mind has kept in storage from the moment you decided to join your lives together.

No matter how long you have been together, the current pandemic has revealed the need for much more mutual dependency. Now is the time to give reassurance that your partner can count on you to protect them by protecting yourself. Now is the time to provide empathetic listening when they are feeling scared about their future or frustrated with the new changes and losses experienced. Now is the time to support each other.

3) Talk to connect. Connect through agreement.

Instead of talking about what is not working, have a conversation about the needs you both have and how to satisfy each other within your relationship. Try focusing on what is good about your relationship, what you admire and what you feel grateful for. Once you show appreciation for each other, it is likely that both of you will have a change in attitude.

Research shows that if you focus on the ways your partner is supportive, both you and your partner will feel better about the relationship. Connecting this way increases your chances of standing strong through the storm. Use this crisis as a call to action.

We continue to change and grow every day. The problem is that we have stopped sharing. Talk to connect! Ask questions: “How do you think the world has changed since COVID-19?” “What is something you truly enjoyed doing that you have not done in years?” “What is the best way for me to encourage you and support you?” There is still plenty to discover about each other.

 

Note for dating couples

Adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger. COVID-19 may have intensified your relationship more quickly than it would have otherwise. Use this opportunity to examine your partner’s character during this crisis.

Character is the first thing to inspect before marrying someone. Your potential spouse can have good career and a strong personality or be fun loving and good looking, but if there is a character problem, these other qualities will not matter. Your character determines your commitment to the relationship, and commitment is the essential ingredient that will help you build a lifetime of enjoying one another.

The following questions can help you identify potential character issues that will need to be addressed to keep your relationship healthy. Most of these questions can be answered simply by watching a person’s behavior around family and on social media.

  • How do they handle stress or crisis situations?
  • Are they teachable?
  • How well do they set healthy boundaries in their life?
  • How do they handle money?
  • Are they angry or hot-tempered?
  • Do they follow through on commitments?
  • Do they demonstrate respect for others?
  • Are they entitled?

 

Plan of action for individuals

If you are going through COVID-19 alone, the lack of social connections and the disruption in routine can impose additional stress that can lead to depression. These feelings of association and loneliness are flexible and change with context. In fact, things may get worse before they get better. What felt manageable yesterday may not feel manageable tomorrow. Here is a plan of action for you.

1) Change your perspective.

You may find yourself riding this wave “alone,” but it is important to remember that you do not have to feel lonely. This is a global pandemic. We are all in this together, even if we are physically apart.

Now is the time for a change in perspective. Remember, perception is reality to those who perceive it. Your world is built from the inside out, from your brain. If you perceive your time alone as lonely time, then you will feel lonely. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. On the other hand, you can be in a relationship or surrounded by people and still feel unsupported and lonely. Use your situation as time of reflection. Solitude can be a season for us to reconsider what is important in our lives.

2) Reach out and connect.

Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them in a more meaningful way. Let people know how much you care about them. A phone call, involving a real voice instead of a text message, is better, and a video chat instead of just a phone call is best. Humans were created to be social beings, and hearing a real voice and seeing the faces of those we care about is exactly what we need in times of crisis.

Talking about your feelings with someone when you are stressed or upset may or may not resolve your problem, but it can help you to feel better and less alone. If, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end of the call, be the support that person needs. Listen and convey that you understand their feelings. This act of one person sharing something vulnerable and the other responding with understanding and care is what we call empathetic listening.

3) Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms such as pornography, alcohol or drug use can prevent long-term complications. The spread of the coronavirus and the necessary physical distancing measures put in place have led to increased feelings of loneliness and stress, which can help explain the reported increase in pornography use. Some claim that pornography does not present a problem for those who use it. However, a number of research studies show links between pornography use and potential concerning outcomes, including lower levels of sexual satisfaction for men.

Alcohol and substance use are also popular coping mechanisms among those looking to reduce feelings of stress, loneliness and boredom. However, alcohol and substance use could do more harm than good and could lead to a possible spike in addiction disorders for years to come. Health experts warn that an increase in alcohol and drug use could have both short- and long-term impacts on health and safety.

To avoid the potential harm of relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, we recommend using humor and creativity to reduce stress and boredom. Using humor does not mean that we are trivializing the challenges brought to us by the coronavirus; it means we are trying to cope with them in a healthy way. Laughter is the best medicine, and humor can improve our mood and increase our resilience.

The movie Groundhog Day offers a great example of how many of us may be feeling. Every day seems to be a repeat of the last. But remember, even though it was the same day over and over again, the main character in the movie had the opportunity to learn something new every day. You may be alone, but you do not have to feel lonely. We are in this together with our friends, family members and even the entire global community.

 

****

Esther Scott, LPC

Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.

 

 

 

****

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.

How to help domestic violence clients during shelter-in-place situations

By Federico Carmona April 13, 2020

It’s heartbreaking to read the variety of articles circulating about vulnerable people trapped at home with their abusers because of shelter-in-place mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, experience reminds us of a concerning reality that is typical of these uncertain times: Adverse labor market conditions are positively related to domestic violence. Research conducted after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the Great Recession of 2008 found that economic crises have significant negative effects on the quality of intimate relationships and parenting in working families. Marital conflict, abuse (particularly violent controlling behavior), and a decline in parenting quality are among the harmful effects in families of a macroeconomic downturn.

In my role as a trauma therapist, I have seen dozens of domestic violence clients during clinical intakes and in counseling. I have also read a multitude of articles on the subject about studies and reports from different parts of the world. Shelter-in-place mandates aren’t a good thing for women and children who are the targets of abuse. The anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty of these times can cause negative emotions to churn, leading to behaviors that increase the already-concerning number of domestic violence and child abuse cases. There is no “how-to” manual to deal with the current situation, of course, but the safety of this vulnerable population demands us to do our best.

How can the counseling community help domestic violence clients who are trapped at home with their abusers? I offer a few suggestions:

Reach out between appointments/sessions. One of the critical signs of abuse is the isolation of victims of domestic violence from their networks of love and support. An occasional check-in from us can empower these clients to tell us more about their situations and perhaps even dissuade their abusers from further violence as we keep checking in.

Listen, just listen. People experiencing domestic violence need an empathic ear — someone who will allow them to vent their repressed emotions and feelings without judgment. We are not to offer advice, only listen and empathize. It’s just time to build trust.

Validate clients’ feelings, emotions and beliefs even when they don’t make sense. The best way to build trust with clients experiencing domestic violence is by being present with them. We’re present with them through our vicarious empathy, active listening and compassionate validation. Our empathy is vicarious because it takes an emotional toll to connect with someone’s anguish and suffering. Active listening requires us to be disciplined enough to fully concentrate on what the client is saying rather than on the answer that we might have in mind to their situation. Clients experiencing domestic violence require validation — compassionate validation — because many times, their decisions (or lack of them), circumstances and beliefs don’t make sense to us.

Introduce them to mindfulness exercises. Clients experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they’re worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of and control the incipient abuse. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear.

Mindfulness can help these clients become aware of their emotions, thoughts and bodies to take control of them and find much-needed relaxation. Meditation exercises shouldn’t necessarily be long. There are plenty of sites online with short, simple exercises, from breathing to stretching, that can help clients gain the bodily and emotional awareness they need to function.

Remind clients of their strengths and qualities. One of the benefits of practicing active listening is the ability to notice in clients’ stories what they have forgotten about themselves: their own power, qualities and strengths. By doing this, we help clients not only to survive their circumstances but also to move toward a better future as survivors of domestic violence who deserve lives of meaning and purpose.

Help clients to start a project. Because of shelter-in-place mandates, more perpetrators of abuse are at home all of the time. This increases the emotional state of “walking on eggshells” for domestic violence clients. We can help distract these clients from that state by brainstorming with them or suggesting a project to them. It could be an individual project based on their abilities, strengths and qualities that we noticed in their stories, or it could be a project that involves their children.

Assist clients in making a safety plan. Making a safety plan is incredibly useful. It doesn’t need to be complicated or lengthy. The simplest way of doing this is by helping these clients become aware of their circumstances (call the problem what it is — domestic violence). The rest of the plan might involve:

  • Trying to avoid conflicts and arguments during the mandated confinement
  • Involving their children in most of their home activities
  • Reaching out to relatives and trusted friends (when possible)
  • Being prepared to leave at any moment (i.e., having money, documents, car keys, children’s backpacks filled with some clothes and snacks ready to go)
  • Calling 911 when they feel that they or their children are in danger (even in a shelter-in-place situation, law enforcement will issue an emergency protective order to separate victims from their abusers)

Involve others. We can help our clients experiencing domestic violence to think about the resources they possess to deal with their situation. One of these resources could be men who are part of the couple’s life in some way (e.g., clergy, friends, relatives, co-workers, classmates, teachers, bosses).

When families and friends get involved, perpetrators of abuse can sometimes be dissuaded from causing harm to their partners and children. The presence of fathers, brothers, neighbors and friends prompts accountability. Some of these individuals might be willing to offer their support and speak up against the ongoing abuse. Victims of domestic violence can only break their silence and become survivors if they feel supported. We need to be cautious, however, and see each client in their particular context, giving consideration to whether this type of intervention could put them in more danger than they already are.

Help clients build a network of support. Isolation is one of the most critical signs of abuse. It creates a hated dependency on the abuser. Imposed isolation robs victims of domestic violence of their personhood. It suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece as family members and friends are pushed away. Connections are the simplest way to beat domestic violence. It is critical that victims of domestic violence get reconnected with relationships they trust. It is also crucial to get these clients connected with other survivors of domestic violence (via online groups) so they can claim their victory and begin the journey of healing from the trauma caused by the abuse.

Inspire clients to pursue self-sufficiency. Studies show that when women’s wages are relative to those of men in dual-income couples, there is a significant reduction in domestic violence. To be self-sufficient is to have bargaining power. It’s to have the ability to exert influence in the relationship. There are public resources designated to help survivors of domestic violence pursue further training and education with the purpose of becoming self-sufficient. Check with social services agencies about these resources.

These recommendations aren’t intended to override the urgency of calling 911 when someone is facing a clear and present danger at home. Let law enforcement personnel figure out how they will bring individuals and families to safety during shelter-in-place situations. Emergency protective orders are being issued even with the courts closed.

 

****

Federico Carmona is a trauma therapist for victims of domestic and sexual violence at Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles. He is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The experience of domestic abuse in his ministry and his own family motivated him to seek specialization in clinical counseling, specifically in trauma, to assist survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and violence to reclaim their identity, peace, and lives with dignity and purpose. Contact him at federico@peaceoverviolence.org.

 

****

For more information

 

****
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.