“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.
Through couples counseling the partners learn to identify and examine their negative responses and test them for accuracy. For illustration, here’s an example:
Most mornings a husband reads the newspaper while the couple is having breakfast. He is usually so absorbed in the paper he rarely says much, and sometimes even forgets to acknowledge the wife beyond a perfunctory “morning” greeting. In this example, because the wife is insecure about her own worth, she feels neglected and rejected by her husband’s lack of attention in the moment. In a dysfunctional behavioral response, she may decide to come home late after work, which she knows will worry him. When he complains about her lateness, she may take out her frustration with the relationship by accusing him of wanting to control her, and blaming him for the lack of communication they experience.
In a well-functioning marriage, where the wife has a strong sense of self-worth, and has the assertiveness skills she needs to communicate her wishes, at breakfast she could have said, “you know, I would like to spend more of our breakfast time together talking with each other — about the upcoming day, the current news, anything. It is important to me to feel more connected to you as we both prepare for the challenges of the day. When we don’t talk at all, I feel we are neglecting our relationship.” In order not to neglect the husband’s enjoyment of the morning paper, they could agree that they chat a bit before he starts his reading.
As you can see, the wife takes responsibility for having her need to connect addressed. She does not blame or accuse her partner of neglecting her, but she addresses the true underlying issue of her concern that they are not paying proper attention to their coupleship. The basic framework of healthy communication, which I have often shared with you, is this: “When you do ..., I feel ...” The key is identifying and owning your feelings and needs.
So, in summary, through couples counseling, spouses learn to identify and examine automatic negative responses and test them for accuracy. They learn to recognize what part their individual fears and self-doubts play in their responses to their partners. Most importantly, couples learn to think and communicate clearly and realistically, so that the real, rather than the imagined, issues of their relationship can be addressed and resolved.
Based in Rockport, Life Coach and Psychotherapist Susan Britt, M.Ed., a former university director of counseling and career services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and by telephone 978 546-9431.