Darren Haber, MA, MFT: Usually a referee in striped shirt comes out and throws a yellow flag, followed by a loud whistle.
OK, maybe not. But, I can tell you that as someone who conducts couples work fairly often, it’s inevitable that a skirmish or argument will break out at some point. In fact, it can be helpful to the therapy, to process strong feelings and get in touch with some of the hurt or fear that usually lies beneath anger. The commitment for couples I recommend, however, is to short-circuit any escalation to the point where the session falls apart or is derailed by anger or accusation.
Most couples have a pattern where they get stuck in a feedback loop that overheats to the point where the circuitry blows, and both people are left feeling alone and demoralized. In fact, generally speaking, any time you find you and your partner stuck in an escalating anger-cycle, STOP. Take a time out, walk around the block, stretch, breathe slowly for a few minutes—nothing gets accomplished when couples are just verbally bashing away. There are some things that can never be unsaid.
When working with couples, I suggest that we have a mutual gesture or safety word that means “time out”. (And no, obscene gestures are not recommended.) We agree that any time this gesture or word is spoken, we stop immediately.
The goal, ultimately, of couples work is to increase intimacy and reduce what is hurtful or gets in the way of closer relating and bonding. One frequently-encountered obstacle is when one partner points the finger and makes “you” statements, especially of the “you never” or “you always” variety—always red flags. “Never” or “always” are extreme words that rarely, if ever, apply. Secondly, using “I” statements—specifically, “I feel”—softens things up and tends much more relatable. Doesn’t “you’re lazy!” sound a lot more negative than, “It bothers me when you don’t do what you say you’re going to” or, “I feel taken for granted when you blow off your chores.”
Learning a mutual language that speaks to both mind and heart is one of the key goals of couples work.
Denise Onofrey, MA, LMFTC: It is appropriate to ask your therapist what you can expect if you and your partner start to fight in a session. Sharing this curiosity can open up the conversation and allow for healthy boundaries to be determined. Though some fighting needs to be off-limits in and out of the therapy office, it is important for the couple and therapist to set up healthy boundaries in order for the work to be effective. For example, some therapists have a “no name-calling rule,” while another therapist may intervene when a he or she determines that a person needs to practice a new skill, such as distress tolerance.
It is essential to be authentic within the therapy session, which can sometimes mean that the fight comes to therapy. This can provide a therapist the opportunity to guide you “at your worst.” Though emotional and physical safeties are imperative, fighting can be an authentic part of improving a couple’s interactional pattern.
Deanna Daniels-Jacinto, LMFT: In an ideal world, fighting in the form of raised voices, name-calling, storming out of session, etc. would not happen. However, when it comes to couples therapy each partner in the relationship may be feeling unheard, misunderstood and/or hurt, and fighting can and does happen.
A skilled therapist should be able to deescalate fighting and make sure that prior to leaving session, the parties involved feel safe enough to go home with each other and have confidence they can contain the content until next session. Sometimes fighting is the mechanism couples misuse with each other, and when it plays out in session it presents an opportunity in a safe environment to examine and deconstruct the content of the fight so couples can uncover meaning and/or learn more constructive ways to communicate with each other.
A therapist should not judge a couple for getting caught up in a fight, but use it as a therapeutic experience. Most importantly, a fight should be deescalated prior to the end of session so it does not escalate at home in the form of physical or psychological abuse.
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