The topic of empathy comes up a lot in couples counseling. Sometimes when our partner is having a hard time, we want nothing more than to help him or her feel better. this is a natural, loving thing to want, but sometimes we go about it the wrong way. There is a difference between being supportive and available to your partner, and simply trying to cheer him/her up. I would say that in at least 70 percent of the couples I have worked with, one partner presented with the complaint that the other partner always tries to “fix things” rather than being present and supportive. When someone is having difficulty in life and you try to “fix things”, the person you’re trying to help may end up feeling unheard, misunderstood, and unsupported.
It is common knowledge that our childhood interactions with our parents/caregivers have a significant effect on our development. Until relatively recently (the mid 1900s), children were commonly seen as small adults and were not treated with the same care we give them nowadays. It was typically believed that infants needed little more than physical safety and nourishment to thrive in life. The baby’s attachment to its mother was seen as one of biological necessity: the baby needs the mother for nourishment, she supplies it, and so the baby loves her. We now know that babies have deep social needs and that the relationship between the mother and the child is about much more than food.
When couples come in for counseling they generally present with a list of problems they have been having with each other. It is my job to wade through all the he said, she said and help people explore the underlying hurts and fears that are behind their actions. Most of the negative behaviors in a relationship and complaints couples have about each other are symptoms that are a result of deep underlying hurts and fears that are not being addressed or communicated.
One of the most common problems I see in couples therapy is the issue of effective communication. “working on communication” is kind of a cliche thing in therapy. Most couples who are new to therapy will identify communication problems as a reason for coming to therapy. But what do we mean when we say that? Communication problems can look different for every couple, but one of the central issues I focus on in couples counseling is the underlying primary emotions behind hurtful words and automatic reactions. In therapy I guide couples through exploring what are the underlying emotions that drive their behaviors and then help them to give words to those emotions.
Sometimes in relationships we feel the need to be everything for another person. To go above and beyond to take care of another person’s needs. We all want to be loved and show those we love that we care for them, but having healthy boundaries means having a good balance between giving and taking. It is especially easy in new relationships, to go above and beyond to show your partner that you are someone he/she would like to be with.
Genuine human interactions with other people are an important part of a healthy, happy life. I’m not saying that you should spark up in depth conversations with everyone you meet, as may be depicted by this video, but its important to have open, meaningful conversations with people. Especially the ones you love. This is often a focus in counseling, and actually, one of the big ways counseling is helpful. When you go the therapy you will have deep meaningful conversations with your therapist that you might not be having elsewhere. This is something we all need, and can therapy can provide good practice for better expressing our emotions and engaging our loved ones in open, vulnerable discussion.