Spotlight on Mental Health in East Bay Express (February, 2013)
by Todd Harvey, MA, LMFT
It really hurts when the person you love is focused more on “being right” rather than really understanding you! Does your relationship create a deep pain or numbness in your heart? When we start to believe that our legitimate needs for connection will not be adequately met by our partner, it is easy to focus on our personal needs at the expense of our partner. A normal human response to this is: nagging, petty repetitive fights, silent-treatments, numbing out, outbursts, being condescending and focusing on being right rather than really listening. We can get caught up in terrible cycles of withdrawing from or demonizing each other. The battle lines are often around libido, child rearing, money, jealousy, etc.
The painful charge involved in these struggles is a symptom of an inability to really trust and feel that if you showed your partner who you really are that your partner will not be there for you. Usually there is a partner that longs for more connection, has more protest behaviors and anxious and clingy behaviors when their needs for connection are not met. Often the other partner is more guarded and sometimes overly independent and longs more for individuation.
It is possible to shift the culture of your relationship from its current negative painful cycles into getting your attachment needs met! Once that is in place, the excruciatingly painful repetitive power struggles will become easier to address.
I have a three-stage strategic approach at helping my couples shift the culture of their relationship:
- First, I help the couple pathologize the nasty dance they get caught into rather than each other. I slow things down so we are better able to see how your ways of defending yourself from the real pain in the relationship impacts the system.
- Second, I strategically help both partners learn how to empathize and attune to their partners experience – even when their partner is “wrong”. Underneath the acting out and withdrawing behavior is almost always an unspoken, unmet attachment need from our partner. Often when we complain that our partner is “needy” or “avoidant”, they hear our complaint without hearing the longing we have for connection that is behind the complaint. When we don’t feel safe, it can be easy to get caught in negative cycles and not tell the truth about what is really going on emotionally. I help you give voice to the unspoken attachment longings that are hidden underneath the complaints. The empathic bond gets restored when the more vulnerable unmet attachment needs are able to be safely expressed and when your partner is able to cherish and empathize with them. When this happens, the initial problem that brought you into therapy is not solved, but the charge that made it such a painful power struggle is eradicated. Your empathic bond has been restored.
- Lastly, we problem solve and develop strategies and get on the same page concerning how to address the challenges in your relationship that brought you to counseling in the first place. Since you are now empathically attuned to each other, this stage is rather brief.
If you are caught in a nasty cycle, and if both of you want the relationship to work, know that you can transform your relationship in as little as 15-30 weeks. I work with couples individually as well as offer “Couple’s Skills” groups.