Tag Archives: Couples

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 (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/specialties/56/view)

  • “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.

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

 

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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.

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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.

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.

 

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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.

 

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