*Photo by Brian Hatcher, Courtesy of Brian Hatcher.
Having identified the problem (inability to manage distressing emotions) we turn to solutions. Meredith Keller, LPC, ACS, marriage counselor, shares her multi-pronged approach.
1. Make space for two
If we have learned nothing else in this pandemic, we have learned the importance of space for both ourselves and others. In the context of healing a marital relationship, the right amount of space for (and between) spouses is critical. Meredith addresses this therapeutically by structuring sessions so that each person is given a full opportunity to participate in the conversation, respond to the therapist’s questions, and receive undivided attention. Meredith asks both partners the same question, and listens to each of them in turn. This does not mean that each person speaks 50% of the time, rather that each person has a turn to fully respond as needed.
While this may seem basic, it can be an important contrast to how couples habitually communicate — interrupting, talking over the other, giving only partial or begrudging attention to what the other is expressing. Sometimes one party has inadvertently squeezed the other out of the dialogue, forcing the other into the position of audience to their monologue. This can happen when one spouse is more extraverted, or commanding of attention, or has a greater ease in verbalizing their thoughts. A more introverted spouse may naturally retreat, and if not deliberately drawn out by the other, might give up and fade away, relinquishing their voice. When one spouse is dominating, the silent spouse is often angry, feeling (and being) communicationally disenfranchised.
By conducting the conversations in a way which creates a safe space for each spouse, Meredith models a type of respectful, attentive communication that the couple will benefit from experiencing and ultimately adopting. When emotions are inflamed in a relationship, at least one person may feel themselves to be distorted, either muted or amplified; not “right sized.” When space is intentionally drawn for each person, the emotional inflammation can start to resolve and things return to a more workable dimension.
2. Context and the bigger picture
Another way of bringing each spouse into the relationship is to invite more of them in — that is, more than just the issues that brought them to therapy. Meredith will ask clients about what is working both in the relationship and in other areas of their lives. How are you being fulfilled? What is working well between you? What are you doing about growing? What are your other supports? What are your interests outside of the relationship?
Clients might respond: “Well, my job is going really well.” And, “We are both really good parents.”
This exploration helps to enforce that the relationship is not responsible for meeting all needs. Their partnership is one important component of their lives, but only one.
This also helps the couple contextualize their current problems from a more complete vantage point, inclusive of their wholeness and complexity. Clients, feeling more integrated and aware of their strengths are more resourced to work with issues. By helping parties return to a more balanced way of seeing themselves, she enables their problem solving capabilities.
3. Educating the individuals about how to be with their own emotions
The initiation of dialogue between the client and their emotions is best explained through example.
One spouse might express themselves thusly: “I feel badly because you did this” Meredith might interject with: Hold on a second, let’s stay with “I feel badly” … what is that in you? Where is that located in your body? How are you managing that?
In this way she encourages the client to slow down and attend to the feeling as it arises before assigning it, classifying it, determining its cause. And importantly, before bringing in the other person. Bringing awareness to the feeling and accompanying the client as they consider, experience and articulate it, the therapist enables the client to develop a relationship with their emotional life.
Additionally, in this therapeutic interaction, clients can spend time gathering information about their feelings. This helps the person develop a better way of being with and ultimately expressing those feelings, in a less adversarial, inflamed, chaotic manner. The therapeutic guidance and companionship is essential to facilitate this — even to make an environment safe enough for change to be possible.
This approach enforces the concept that each individual is the first point of contact with their own emotions.
4. Further education
The client starts to become the first responder to their feelings. Only then can the feelings be triaged and the right kind of help requested. Clients can identify actions they can take, as well as support needed from others, including their partner.
Establishing dominion over one’s feelings is an essential first step necessary to identify appropriate remedies, before involving others. If abandonment and separation anxiety arise each time one spouse leaves for a business trip, what kind of attention do these painful feelings need from the individual experiencing them? And what other resources are needed for managing separate time including other friends and networks, enjoyable activities, self-care, and purposeful endeavors that promote passion and delight. Perhaps, too, there is something the partner can do that would help. The spouse might request, and the couple agree, that during lunch breaks and at bedtime, the traveling spouse calls to check-in. The simple establishment and follow-through of scheduled connecting can help regulate the other spouse and enforce the object constancy of their relationship. Behavior change is only one aspect of helping the spouse to address troubling feelings requiring significant attention — with the individual being at the helm of how their feelings can be soothed and managed.
How can partners learn to communicate so their requests can be received by one another? How can communication be improved so that spouses can relay their needs and share information while simultaneously uplifting the other? Meredith teaches couples to effectively communicate. A cornerstone of this work is helping individuals identify what they need and which needs can be reasonably asked of the other. How can each communicate with the other in a manner that enhances the connection instead of undermines it, as demands and repeated pleas so often do? Requests expressed in some ways are more likely to be positively responded to. What does each person need in order to feel safe, respected and valued in communication? This topic is vast and rich and beyond the scope of our conclusion. A few thoughts regarding communication hygiene:
Before launching into something, ask if this is a good time to speak, or when a good time would be.
Be the intermediary, not merely a mouthpiece for your needs; speak for them, not from them; your listener need not be in direct contact with what you have not yet digested or explored; raw feelings, like most foods, need to be prepared in order to be served; they must be organized in such a way as to be recognizable and digestible.
Alexander Mediation Group