“She deliberately comes home late because she doesn’t really want to be with me anymore.”
“That’s not true. He just wants to control me, including controlling my time right down to the minute.”
When I hear complaints like these in an initial couples counseling session, I know that, working collaboratively with them, we will need to examine the source of this couple’s beliefs and perceptions about themselves, each other and about what their relationship means to them.
Sometimes some people are deliberately late because they have unexpressed anger toward the person waiting for them. This is anger expressed in an indirect, or passive aggressive, manner — which complicates the situation by obfuscating the real, unresolved underlying issues.
It is also sometimes true that one partner wants to control the comings and goings of the other. In most cases, however, couples make exaggerated, inaccurate emotional judgments about their partner’s behavior, tone or verbal communications.
Why does this happen with couples, friends, family and co-workers? The most basic reason is that everyone is a unique individual with a unique personality, and particular communication skills and emotional knowledge. Behavior in the individual is motivated by the myriad qualities of upbringing, value and belief systems, cultural expectations of gender, goals and aspirations, and expectations for the relationship.
Even so, many people unrealistically assume their spouses (and others) feel and think about the relationship the way they do. Most often, when there is discord in any relationship, participants make conscious and unconscious judgments about the behavior of others based on their own sense of self-worth. They may look at the words and actions of others through the magnifying glass of fear of losing the relationship and deep self-doubt, making every action more meaningful than it really may be.
One of the first tasks of the therapist in couples counseling is to help the couple examine ways in which they think about themselves, each other, and the marriage to determine if their views are accurate and realistic. If they are not accurate assessments of the other’s intentional communication, the cognitive processes of each will be examined to clarify the thoughts, knowledge, ideas and interpretations that each makes about the other, and the resulting emotional consequences of accurate and inaccurate assumptions made by both.