“You are so critical and hyper!”
“You are so withdrawn and unsupportive!”
We all tend to be experts on what is wrong with our partners. Certainly, this level of awareness is an important starting point when considering our troubled relationships. Yet, such criticisms are not conducive to healthy connecting.
Most of us carry baggage from the past that tends to haunt us, contributing to habits of mindless reactivity including criticism, cutting off, withdrawal, scape-goating, rebelling, accommodating, and the like. Movies, TV shows and personalities like Oprah and Dr. Phil have helped many recognize these predictable defense mechanisms. The reality is that career building, child-rearing and other pressures compete with our ability to slow down and really consider how to do something about what is going on, so we can move on to healthier relating.
When couples begin counseling with me I encourage them to consider that they are leaving “ordinary time” and entering into an intentional “season of reflecting.” Initially, they learn new communication skills that introduce the idea of being more intentional when together. This active listening approach adds to their comfort level; feeling safer with each other invites a new openness. They come to experience that conflict is essential to growth and not a threat to it, and processing the stuff of conflict becomes a must.
Eventually, sessions become a collaborative time when my couples know they can hunker down in an attitude of curiosity about their relational turmoil. They are less afraid of the issues they need to explore. As individuals they learn to be open to the questions that surface both within and between them about the sources of their relationship drama.
The payoff is that when people feel free to wonder they tend to shift from defensive behaviors; they are able to look to themselves for some answers. Both separately and together they learn to explore questions like: What do I do when I feel unsafe? How is my own reactivity triggering my partner? In what ways might my sibling position inform my current relationship issues? What practices might help me be less defensive and more sensitive and aware? What needs healing in me so that I can take responsibility for my part in the drama? What’s the stretch here? How is what my partner needs challenging me? How are my responses to those challenges part of my healing and greater maturity?
Lasting healing involves safely encountering self as well as other. I like to invite my clients into a safe, reflective way of being that ushers them well past the misery of merely pointing fingers.
Graham works at PC&CC/The Imago Center’s offices in Arlington and Alexandria.