When I ask couples what their goals are for counseling, one of the most common answers I get is “better communication”. But ironically, I don’t think I’ve met a couple yet who’ve needed actual help learning the “right words” to talk to each other. I swear I must have some of the most verbose, self-aware clients in Edmonton. But they’re still getting stuck, and I think the common assumption is “I must not be saying it right” or “my partner’s not hearing me”. This hasn’t been my experience.
Although the content of the argument changes from relationship to relationship, I’ve noticed that a lot of where couples get stuck is around the same themes: Nothing I do is ever enough, I’m alone in this, I can’t get my needs met, I’m not cared about in this relationship, and no one even sees me. There may be variations on these themes, but those seem to be the big ones in my experience. And if I can boil it down even simpler than that, it comes down to this question: in my most important relationship, the place I’m most vulnerable, what am I deeply afraid of?
This is a huge switch from where we started (communication skills), but an essential one. Now we’re having a different conversation that’s getting to the heart of their stuckness. And not because I’ve taught them anything about how to talk to each other – we’re just finally moving beyond whatever the surface topic was (laundry, navigating time together vs time apart, money, sex, etc) into what’s underneath. Imagine the following scenario…
Clara and Madeline have just moved in together, and at first all was going well, but then Clara started spending more and more nights away from home, out with friends at the bar. Madeline is starting to feel anxious about the increasing distance and spends the whole night texting her with increasing urgency, trying to get her to come home, and even falling asleep with her cell phone next to her. Clara gets angry that her time connecting with her friends is being interrupted, and accuses Madeline of trying to control her, then spends the night at a friend’s.
What’s underneath the surface here? Clara could be dealing with feeling alone in the relationship, or with fears about being abandoned. Madeline could be coping with a fear of being consumed by a relationship or controlled in it. Without the recognition of the deeper fears at play for each of them, it would be easy for them to get stuck in having the same argument each night. But if they’re willing and open to understanding each others’ reality, there’s a lot more room for them to move. Empathy and recognition of the wider story opens up possibilities.
As a relationship therapist, the other thing I try to bring to light right away is that our underlying fears and needs tend to trigger the other person’s underlying needs and fears. In the above example, Clara’s fear of abandonment and attempts at closeness could have triggered Madeline’s fear of being consumed, and resulted in her pulling away. That withdrawal would likely increase Clara’s fear of abandonment, and so on, and so on.
So if you find yourself stuck in the same argument again and again, you might ask yourself “what’s the underlying fear or need here in me?” And, “what is my partner most afraid of?” In other words, “what’s really going on?”
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.