steve graybar phd

My work with couples is guided by my belief that members of a couple are attracted to each other, commit to each other and hurt each other for both conscious and unconscious reasons. A foundation of my approach is attachment theory and the work of psychoanalyst John Bowlby. As it is applied to couples therapy, attachment theory helps us appreciate, from the vulnerability of childhood often spring the insecurities, conflicts and relationship difficulties of adulthood. Children go through an attachment or bonding process with their caretakers that provides for their physical and emotional safety. This process shapes them, and their personalities. The quality of our early attachments impacts our thoughts and feelings about our self, others, intimacy and romantic relationships. It serves as a template for how we manage our emotions, maintain our self-worth, relate to our partners and derive our sense of well-being. This in part explains how threats to our intimate relationships are not only emotionally distressing but can feel like threats to our very survival.

Attachment and related emotional experiences of childhood and adolescence define our psychological comfort zones later in life (Abrahms-Spring, 1997). As a result, we are drawn to people who unconsciously complete our self-image and mental representations of intimate relationships. We “recruit” others to help us recreate familiar patterns of experience, both, positive and negative. This is apparent when we find happy and healthy partners that resemble the positive qualities we observed and enjoyed in our parents. It is also true for those of us from unstable, unhappy, alcoholic or emotionally abusive homes who often “find” critical, addicted, unavailable or controlling partners. In therapy, these clients are often dismayed to see themselves, pushing away healthy relationships and drawn to unhealthy or dysfunctional ones. Still other clients have consciously “chosen” partners who are polar opposites of their parents.’ Yet find themselves unconsciously pushing their partners into repeating hurtful patterns from the past. For example, one client who felt his mother was intrusive and controlling, intentionally chose a partner who was independent and successful and, “gave him his space.” In our couples work he criticized his partner for being aloof and uninterested in him or his career. Of course, his partner felt helpless in the wake of the mixed messages she was receiving.

As a result, most couples concerns have their roots in each partner’s unique attachment history and what Johnson (2010) refers to as attachment injuries. These injuries involve conflicts that threaten the importance and emotional security of one or both members of a couple. A couple may disagree and argue about sex, money, jealousy, in-laws and child rearing. At the core of each of these concerns is the threat they pose to the security of each partner and the safety of the relationship. When the insecurities of a partner are aroused or the survival of the relationship is in question, deep fears result. Behaviors meant to protect and defend against criticism and rejection, are used reflexively to prevent being flooded by feelings of worthlessness or abandonment. When conflicts persist over time, they erode the very relationship meant to protect us, inspire us and embolden us.

The Goal of Couples Therapy

While every couple is unique, most couples want similar things from their relationship. Most every couple wants to be able to communicate clearly and openly. They want a relationship that can provide them with a safe haven, a sanctuary and a respite from the stress and strain of the rest of their lives. They want an interesting and intimate relationship that is emotionally satisfying and physically fulfilling. Both partners want to be understood and accepted by the other for who they are. Couples want a relationship where each partner can share successes and setbacks with the confident expectation that these experiences will be met with appreciation and understanding not available from friends and family. They want to love and be loved.

Goodness of Fit

As in individual therapy, a good fit between the therapist and couple is essential for therapy to succeed. Each partner must feel understood and supported by the therapist very early in treatment. If, for whatever reason, one (or both) partners experience the therapist as unsafe, un-skilled or as leaning decidedly toward one partner or the other, these concerns must be addressed before additional work can take place. If these concerns cannot be resolved, a referral to another therapist is in order. Particularly in the case of a therapist who appears to be leaning toward or favoring one partner over the other. In couples therapy the relationship is the client. A therapist who is perceived as favoring one partner or one position over the other causes additional distress in the relationship. This perception undermines the goal of couple’s treatment; which is to strengthen the couple’s relationship, not decide who is right or wrong.

Except in extreme circumstances, if the therapist begins to lean, or align with one partner’s concerns over the other, he or she has initiated a competition rather than a thoughtful collaboration. Such leaning, stirs each partner’s fantasy that the therapist is actually a judge. As a result, both partners’ conclude that they must argue their cases ever more forcefully. In my couples work, I am not a judge or jury. There should not be a winner and a loser. If there is, the result will be certain failure. Winning and losing leads to, more conflict, even more fear and less understanding. Both partners “win,” by recognizing (what the therapist should already know) that in the course of protecting themselves both have been hurt and hurtful. This recognition is not easy and for some couples it is not possible. Dynamic therapy views relationships as open systems where our actions fuel love or fear, understanding or invalidation. We all engage in behaviors that expand or constrict, strengthen or damage our relationships. Aristotle once said, “Of all the virtues none is more important than courage, for without courage none of the other virtues is possible.” This is absolutely true in couples’ therapy where partners must work courageously to understand their vulnerabilities, acknowledge their blind spots and own their contribution to the relationship's problems.

The Heart of the Matter

At the center of nearly every couple’s conflict is a lack of emotional safety and connection. The lack of understanding and connection creates a predictable pattern of hurt and confusion in each partner and a pattern of conflict in each couple. This pattern gets re-enacted with such painful consistency that couples fall automatically into defensive roles (no matter how offensive they feel). These patterns can become vicious cycles that destroy the willingness to listen or learn, to love or even care. The enemy of the relationship is not “her” criticism or “his” withdrawal, but the corrosive cycle of protection (criticism and withdrawal) that partners use to defend themselves.

Again, it may seem that a couple’s problems are about kids, money, sex and/or the cap on the toothpaste. While these concerns are important, psychodynamic therapists see these issues as triggers to conflict not the core of it. Emotionally responsive and validating partners have the same conflicts, but address them differently. When the threat of attack or abandonment, are taken off the table, when emotional security and commitment are strong, conflicts become concerns, not life and death struggles for power and control. Carl Jung wrote, “If a relationship is not about love, it’s about power.” Beneath the need for power is fear-often the fear of failure, attack, rejection, inadequacy, abandonment, shame or humiliation. As such, the goal of my work with couples is to help them make their relationships about safety, security and love, rather than power or fear.

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