is the way i protect myself in my marriage contributing to the problem?
Having been a marital therapist for 28 years, and a partner in a wonderful marriage for 23 years, I know that marriage can be difficult and takes work. I often tell my clients I am not only using things I have learned as a therapist, but also my own personal experience. I really do understand that we all get defensive and have our struggles. Below are some of the ideas that my clients and I discuss to improve the parts of relationships that can get stuck.
1) Know that people are complex
When I work with or talk to couples, they will often say something like; "My partner is (a jerk, cold, shut down, too sensitive, too intense, etc.)." When I hear this, I know that this partner feels this statement is absolutely true. I also know that they have a partner that is probably thinking something similar. For example, I might say, "Did you know that your partner thinks that you are too intense?"The partner's response might be, "Did he/she tell you that the reason I am so intense is that he/she is too lazy and I have to do everything?" They are not telling me who their partner is; they are telling me about aspects/parts of their partner's personality that are difficult for them. It can be very easy to respond to these "difficult parts"by becoming "difficult".
For example, the part of Ross that is "too intense"has a hard time with the part of Rachel that is "too lazy"or laid back. There are many more parts of each person's personality than just the difficult ones. Our partners may have parts of them that are spontaneous, fun, silly, creative, romantic, focused, hard-working, passionate, etc. As a matter of fact, we probably wouldn't have fallen in love with them if they didn't have parts of their personality that we adored at some time. Those parts of their personality are not gone, but they may have gone under-ground in an effort to feel protected. Once people can get unstuck, they tend to naturally awaken the parts of them that we used to adore.
Skill Check: I know that we are both complex people and although that intense part of him/her is really difficult for me, I am sure there are parts of my personality that are difficult for him/her.
2) When there is a problem in the relationship, the best place to look is in the mirror.
It is human nature to feel like our side of the situation is the right side. We don't have to look past our political system (Republicans and Democrats could probably benefit from some good marital therapy) to see an example of this. When one is passionate about what they feel or believe, it is easy to forget that the other side actually has a point, too. In a couple, it may sound something like this, "If you really knew how (intense, sensitive, over-reactive, angry, anxious, controlling, etc.) my partner was, you would understand the reason I act this way". Unfortunately, one's partner is often thinking the same thing and it doesn't usually lead to more understanding. When I work with couples, I try to help each partner see the following: 1) You probably have a very good reason to feel the way that you do, 2) Your partner probably has a perfectly good reason to feel the way that they do (this one is usually harder for all of us to realize when we are triggered), 3) If you wait for your partner to come around, you may be waiting for a long time, 4) It may be that the way you are protecting yourself is making it more likely that your partner will continue to act this way, and 5) Although you have every right to protect yourself or your perspective, you are not powerless. There are often better ways to communicate your perspective that will make it more likely your partner will understand you and move off of their protective stance.
Skill Check: I am willing to learn about the ways that I am protecting myself or my perspective. I am even willing to look at how the way that I do this, may actually be making it more likely that my partner will stay distant or in conflict with me.
3) Try a new way to express the way you are protecting yourself
I strongly believe that people are well-intended in their relationships. I understand that it doesn't always seem like one's partner is well-intended when they are "acting so (intense, controlling, critical, sensitive, etc)." In their heart of hearts, both partners probably would rather not be feeling so distant or stuck in conflict if they had a better way to resolve it. It is very unlikely that either partner woke up in the morning with the hope of making their partner feel more defensive. On the contrary, the part of us that protects ourselves is usually hoping something like, "Maybe if I can show my partner what it feels like when they hurt me (by hurting them), they will finally get it and stop this behavior."Although this will almost always lead to a never-ending defensive struggle, we can understand that the deep down intention is to get some kind of understanding.
When a partner is wanting to learn a new way to communicate the way they protect themselves, it is important to understand the difference between being the protective position and talking about it. Being the protective position can look like, "The only reason I am critical of you is because you are so irresponsible"(not likely to go well because I am being the critic). Talking about the protective position sounds more like, "I know that I have a tendency to be critical and I am sorry about that. I think I do that because a part of me becomes overwhelmed with what we have to get done."
When attempting to communicate in this new manner, each person should remember: 1) Do not be fake, your partner can usually sense when you are not being genuine, 2) It is okay to feel protective, but it is imperative that you understand that your partner probably feels protective also, 3) Express your protectiveness in a way that isn't inciting or accusatory in any way, and 4) Let your partner know that you care about how they are processing this information.
Skill Check: There is a part of me that wants to (get angry, shut down, be right, etc), but I am really just protecting the part of me that is afraid of feeling (hurt, abandoned, criticized, disliked, alone, etc). I am sorry if the way that I protect myself sometimes makes you feel (hurt, abandoned, criticized, disliked, alone, etc).
4) Recovery from the problem is well worth it.
I often talk to couples about the importance of recovery from a conflict. Although immediately catching ourselves acting defensively would be ideal, this isn't realistic for most of us. When couples are stuck in conflict/distance, they often have a part of them that feels certain that no matter what happens, they will never be understood the way they would like to be. This can become a bad habit and self-fulfilling prophecy. Why not have a different habit/pattern that sounds something like, "No matter what happens between us, we will always drop our swords and come back to try and resolve where we became stuck."
It can be such a wonderful feeling of security to know that no matter what we get into, we will always come back and work things out. As a parent, I want my children to feel that no matter how hard their day is or what mistakes they have made, they will always have a safe place to come and talk about it. Marriages/relationships deserve that same sense of security.
Skills Check: Although a part of me still feels (mad, hurt, anxious, etc), I know it is in my best interest to drop my defensive stance and attempt to resolve this conflict. I will do that by learning to talk about what I am defending instead of acting it out.
Over the years of being a couples therapist, I have been heavily influenced by many writers/teachers. Two of the approaches that I am most influenced by are Dr. Richard Schwartz (Internal Family Systems) and Dr. Brent Atkinson (An Emotionally Intelligent Approach To Couples Therapy). To learn more about the concept of working with the different parts of ourselves please look into the work of Dr. Richard Schwartz and others at www.selfleadership.org. For more information about working in a way that makes it less likely that each partner will be defensive, please read the work of Dr. Brent Atkinson at www.thecouplesclinic.com.
- Mark Bakal, Psy.D., Extension 314