Recently I saw a couple who perfectly illustrated a common quandary. Both individuals lead busy lives. They are doing their best to juggle the everyday demands of life—a particularly hectic work patch for one, family stressors coupled with financial worry for the other. Each is somewhat consumed with their respective stressors. Neither partner is sleeping well, and they both report feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, and general irritability.
I could tell we weren’t going to gain traction if I asked either to listen to the other and/or to have compassion out of the gates. Rather, each person needed some TLC all their own. When members of a couple are in this state of emotional flooding or preoccupation, it’s nearly impossible for them to access the caring, giving, and curious parts of their being. It’s like the plane is going down and all they can think about is saving themselves.
I recognized we would have to take a different tack to sail this particular course. Taking turns, I asked each partner to give me a summary of their chief stressors. What is going on that is making them vibrate with angst? This gives a couple a place to anchor their frustration.
After each person finished, I asked them to tell me the feelings that were attached to events or complaints. I prompted them with their own examples, and they reported the difficult feelings that were hanging over them like an albatross. Staying with the complaints themselves keeps partners distanced and reinforces a degree of competition over who has it worse. Once we added the feelings, I saw each partner soften toward the other. They were interested in the other’s struggle. Feelings are something they can relate to, sympathize with, and move toward.
When members of a couple are in this state of emotional flooding or preoccupation, it’s nearly impossible for them to access the caring, giving, and curious parts of their being. It’s like the plane is going down and all they can think about is saving themselves.
One partner then offered up a desire to help the other—solicited an ask for what they needed. This created an opening. They were then able to say what they needed in specific terms. We have to be careful that this doesn’t become a marching order or a promise, but rather ideas of how they can show up and be helpful when their partner is struggling. Having their own difficulties known—first to themselves and then to another—makes them more available to be of service, to connect.
Another element that can help shift the energy is humor. It wasn’t a realistic option when they walked in door. Both were mired in their own discomfort. They were guarded and bleary-eyed. However, during this late-middle stage of the session, humor has a place. Each person feels more grounded and aware of what is happening for the other. When we can find humor about something neutral, it can be a bonding agent to help them find a thin string that reconnects them. It can make them feel together again in something and allows the guarded self to relax ever so slightly. I could tell humor was working when they nodded and chuckled as the statements were happening.
I could also tell they felt a degree of relief we didn’t get into a heavy discussion—one that might include critique of them vis-à-vis the other. Neither partner was resourced enough on this day to have that kind of session. And that is okay. I saw the session as useful in that each party left feeling a degree of relief from their own stressors and a renewed hope or willingness to connect with the other.
In fact, a couple showing up at all for another session is a signal they want the relationship to improve. Otherwise, they could find countless other pressing priorities. Starting with this assumption, no matter how heated they arrive, helps us move forward with a spirit of hopefulness.
If you and your partner are struggling to connect, consider contacting a trained couples counselor.
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