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.
Often times when we feel anger in intimate relationships, it is the result of fear. Fear of abandonment, or fear that we might be hurt again in a way that we have been hurt in the past, maybe even by a previous partner. This kind of fear can make a person’s defenses go up and result in a fight or flight response that looks like yelling or screaming and saying hurtful things. Sometimes the gut reaction is to punch first or punch back. This is the role of the fight or flight response in human beings. We are designed to pay attention to and remember things that can hurt us so that we can better avoid and/or cope with them in the future. In a very real way, the brain processes relational trauma similarly to the way it processes physical trauma, and most people would prefer something like a broken arm over a broken heart. This is why we tend to put up strong defenses and even offenses in relationships. Effective couples therapy helps partners to learn to stop their gut reactions (getting the first punch or punching back) and talk about the underlying fear and primary emotions that are behind those reactions.
This video is a beautiful depiction of the way changing the way you say something can have an effect on the way you are heard and perceived by others. I have witnessed many couples in therapy simply change the way they say something and really touch their partner’s heart. Just as the blind man’s sign is changed in the video, changing “I hate you, go away!” to “I’m hurt and afraid and I need you to be there for me” can mean a world of difference.