Relationship Counseling, Marriage/Couples

“As long as both parts of the couple have respect and caring for the other – and want the relationship to work -- any relational problem can be recognized, understood and real change can be made.” -- Jayne Gottschalk

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I see a lot of couples who are searching for ways to deal with relationship problems and to make their relationships better.

Generally when couples first come in they are in great distress – having tried in countless ways to make their relationship work. Now they are frustrated, hurt, oftentimes angry and generally unfulfilled. Sometimes they are so fed up they are ready to throw in the towel.

Oftentimes the couple complains of loss of connection, lack of communication, unhappiness, reduced or no intimacy.
It seems that the couple has drifted away from one another over time. Our goal in therapy is to take ownership for the behaviors that might be contributing to that drift and add new behaviors that generate connectedness.

What follows is a basic and generic description of a cycle of disconnection that many couple's present with. Of course there are many extenuating circumstances that complicate relationships but basically many relationships follow this same dysfunctional pattern:

The Pursuer and the Withdrawer
As an emotionally-focused couples therapist I look for the attachment issues and the negative cycle that gets couple's stuck. Generally one partner is the “pursuer” – the one protesting the lack of closeness and the disconnection in the relationship. This person desperately wants the attention and caring of their partner but they go about getting this attention by criticizing and blaming which in turn does the exact opposite of bringing the partner closer. In fact,  it makes the partner go further away to escape the negativity. This person who moves away to escape the blaming dialogue is called the “withdrawer.” The withdrawer feels he/she can do nothing right. They feel caught and trapped by what they perceive as a “nagging” spouse or partner. No matter what they do they are criticized – so slowly they develop a “why bother” attitude. If this negative cycle continues unabated the wedge between the couple grows; the disconnection deepens and the likelihood of finding happiness together is dramatically reduced.

The way back to connection in therapy is to slow everything down and begin to understand and recognize the negative cycle the couple is stuck in . “When he does this…you feel what? When she says this…you do what?”

Slowly the cycle is broken down and the couple begins to explore their actions and reactions and take ownership of their part in maintaining the stuck-ness or negativity. This is when change can be made. Slowly the withdrawer feels safe to come forward and engage – trusting that he or she won’t be clobbered with criticism and blame. The pursuer recognizes the withdrawer’s engagement and steps back – criticism and blame is dramatically reduced. The couple slowly begins to reconnect and identifies the dysfunctional cycle they were stuck in as their enemy and they join forces to work against it. The couple begins to see the good in one another instead of constantly being angry and defended.

hands holding

Affairs, Infidelity, Power Imbalance, Addiction Issues, etc...

This is a simplistic way to describe the work that is done in couples therapy and to explain a pattern that is often seen. Of course there are other issues that present – one partner in the couple may have gone outside the relationship with a full blown affair or a sexting encounter; there may be issues of intrusive family; there may be differences in gender roles and lack of balance; there may be addiction of a substance or sexual kind. The issues that present in the therapeutic setting are countless – but as long as both parts of the couple have respect and caring for the other – and want the relationship to work -- anything -- I say any relational problem can be recognized, understood and real change can be made.