“We came in before there was a real problem.”
My heart jumps for joy. This very wise couple hasn’t waited until a crisis has hit. No one is flirting with a coworker. Vicious, repetitive arguments aren’t heard late at night. Or perhaps worse, steely silence doesn’t define the week, where the only words spoken have been about the details of soccer practice.
If only that were the norm.
Many couples don’t do maintenance on their relationship. Instead, they’re inundated with normal distractions — getting a promotion, piles of laundry, figuring out how to make the car run one more year, helping with math homework. The list goes on and on. The erosion of their relationship — if they still have a sense of relationship — can take a back seat.
Problematic patterns may begin to entrench themselves, as when heavy rains run down a hill, and create deep gashes in the soil. When it rains again, the water will travel exactly where the gashes have worn themselves into the dirt. Behavior and communication between two people are the same. When there’s a storm — when there’s conflict or disappointment — both people can find themselves saying and doing exactly what they said and did before — not even recognizing what is propelling them forward.
“I don’t know why I can’t stop myself, but I say the same hurtful things I’ve said before. And then some.”
“I know if I walk away, she’ll get mad, but I do it anyway. I don’t know what else to do.”
This is a problem. When trust is damaged, when you’re not sure you even like your partner any more, when words have been spoken that are difficult to forget — it can feel like it’s too late. You can give yourself permission, out of hurt or anger, to turn away emotionally. Detachment begins, and you imagine a fresh start, a new relationship, before you’ve even attempted to fix what’s wrong with the one you’re in.
But how about that couple that comes in before those patterns begin their ominous control? What are they doing that’s different?
First, they are likely two people who take their fair share of the responsibility for the patterns they’ve created. And realize — they just might be able to stop the rain before it begins.
Second, they’re doing maintenance. Prevention.
Much of the time, couples aren’t proactive. Their relationship is nearly in ruins before they seek help. What’s the rationale that’s getting in their way of considering therapy?
Misconception #1: Therapy involves giving up control.
“Some stranger isn’t going to tell me what to do.”
There is a huge misperception out there that therapy is somehow like school. The therapist is the teacher, she or he has all the answers, and you, the student, are assigned tasks which are your responsibility to perform. The assumption that the therapist has this kind of authority can set up understandable defensiveness and even rebellion, before therapy has even begun.
What a good therapist does have is objectivity and experience. They act as a consultant would, seeing the problems you’re describing in the context of the hundreds of stories they’ve heard. They may connect present-day issues with your past, or notice behavior or communication patterns that are harder for you to see. It’s the same as a coach watching your golf swing, or a chef tasting food you’ve prepared. They have their insight to offer into your choices.
Therapists consult — they don’t rule.
Misconception #2: Excuses of money, time and availability.
“Therapy costs too much, it takes too much time, and you can’t find a therapist when you need one anyway.”
These are very common excuses. And they have answers. Many therapists will work with you on the financial aspect of receiving their services. Their time has a tangible cost, but so does divorce. There are brief therapy counselors, and couples therapists take new patients because their patients are working hard, and making positive changes.
Citing concerns about money or time or availability can, instead, be a veil for a struggle with being vulnerable.
My father-in-law used to joke, “People pay to talk to you?” In many ways, his teasing revealed an important point.
There’s a misconception that therapy is all about talk. Words. It’s not. Therapy is about a specific kind of relationship — a focus on you and what you want to change in your life. Your therapist’s job is to carefully understand and hold your emotions — your hurt, your anger — and help you work through them. She or he is emotionally present with you, helping you to maneuver through whatever is causing pain. For couples, the work for a therapist becomes to provide that compassion and support for both, even though there can be vast disagreement and conflict.
The therapeutic relationship can feel vulnerable. And it’s that fear or discomfort with vulnerability that can fuel a defense. It costs ultimately more to ignore the problem, and refuse to consider help.
Misconception #3: There is distrust about privacy and anonymity.
“I don’t want anyone to know my (our) business.”
There’s no getting around this one. At its root is a struggle with shame. If you’re 50,000 dollars in debt, if you’ve got an addiction, if you were abused as a child, if you meticulously clean your house at 3:00 am– those things are important for a therapist to know. Or they can’t help.
Yet they are all difficult to reveal. We can carry intense shame for problems we may have created or we experience due to our genetic background, as well as blaming ourselves for abuse or neglect that’s happened to us. Recognizing trauma for what it is, respecting and understanding our genetic inheritance, and letting go of shame is a huge part of therapeutic work.
It takes courage to reveal.
Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” the new gift book by Dr. Margaret! It’s perfect for engagements, anniversaries, weddings, or for the person you love!
You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”
Originally published on The Gottman Blog.