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A Couple Walked Into a Marriage Counselor — the Problem

Rachel Alexander Aug. 3, 2022

{4 minutes to read}  The main issue presenting in couples who walk into couple’s therapy is a difficulty in managing painful emotions, according to Meredith Keller, LPC, ACS. While many well-identified common denominators factor into a marital breakdown, Meredith usually sees this other problem that is well worth exploring.

Being with our emotions is tough stuff and gets confusing. What is one’s own responsibility in mastering emotions and what is the task of a loving partner? What is another person’s role in helping us regulate our inner equilibrium? In marriages, the inability to self-manage emotions coupled with the subsequent misidentification of that as a flaw of the other person causes problems.

Emotions – the big, dark, difficult ones that push us to the edge of our capacity to cope; that jolt us into confrontation with the meaning of our own existence. Who am I now that my father died? How can I cope with “the one” leaving me? What just happened to our world on 9/11? Those are the feelings we are talking about. Feelings that rock us — throw us off-kilter — shake our center of gravity, and even question gravity itself. And in many of us, these feelings can be set off not by anything as drastic as death but by minor events, blunders, and inconveniences that trigger feelings usually aroused by bigger things.

How do we be with these feelings properly? How do we be with them without shifting their cause or care to our partner? Good questions.

When couples come to Meredith, one or both usually struggle with troublesome emotions that get the better of them. They are ill-equipped to handle these feelings alone. There is often an automatic — and incorrect! — presumption that the feelings can be alleviated by changing partners. The faulty interpretation goes like this: “I’m so distressed because my partner does/doesn’t, is/isn’t; and if only he would do/not do, I would feel calm and free.” The issue is the paradigm itself – the false belief that the other person is the factor that needs changing. The paradigm needs shifting foremost; the partner may or may not need to change.

The problem is this: one spouse usually blames or tasks the other with the governance of his own emotions. Much can be outsourced – but not this!

How do we challenge this misconception? Let’s start with some basic premises.

  • There are problematic, unmanageable feelings.

  • New ways are needed to cope with them, including help from another.

  • A partner can help co-regulate so these emotions may be less likely to spin out of control and can be mitigated when they occur.

  • These overblown emotions are the primary responsibility of the person experiencing them.

When one spouse has difficulty managing distressing emotions it can wreak havoc on the relationship until both parties learn better coping skills.

Until recently, we were not particularly educated on how to manage our emotions. A couple of the old ways of managing emotions were these:

Fantasy Island Style: “Smiles everyone, smiles.”

Cardio-Vascular/Clogged Artery Style: Push them down until you no longer remember what we’re even talking about. Then push some more until those feelings are stuffed down so far you will next see them in the ER. In other words, we renounce feelings and their care, leaving our bodies, unassisted, to do the best they can. Generally, disease follows.

While the above approaches are helpful in fostering inauthenticity and accelerating mortality, they are unhelpful in healing (or dealing with) hurt feelings.

So how are we supposed to help ourselves and one another with unbearable feelings that, at least from time to time, take over and run us? Our next article aims to answer this.

Rachel Alexander

Rachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group

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