disappointmentReading Between the Lines in Couples Therapy- When Actions Say What Words Cannot

For the therapist who believes that there’s “more than meets the eye” when it comes to the common complaints that couples come in with, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to relate to conflicts about the concrete aspects of “couplehood”, such as money, parenting, household chores, schedules, or even how to handle the in-laws.

It’s not hard to see just how easy it can be for the couples therapist to feel a sense of pressure to offer concrete solutions or a problem-solving approach, whether it’s help with negotiation skills, creative compromises for thorny budgeting conflicts, pat answers about parenting straight out of the parenting books, or ideas for how to compromise when it comes to the in-laws or the household chores.

Yet despite strong efforts to pull the therapist into such kinds of conversations and to avoid taking a deeper look at the emotional hungers and painful projections lurking beneath the surface, many couples find this problem-solving process unsatisfying to say the least. They appear to keep coming back for more of it but the deeper problem remains unsolved, and a gnawing uneasiness remains until the deeper needs are addressed.

The challenge intensifies when one partner seems to want to stay on the surface and the other partner begins to talk about emotional and psychological meanings. It would be easy enough for the therapist to get pulled into a collusion with the partner who appears more psychologically-minded, but a couples therapist actually must make room to accept all different types of communication and personality styles, whether defensive in nature or simply an artifact of one’s temperament.

Sam and Sarah were a case in point.

Sam liked to budget and to save, and Sarah liked to use her money to be “free” and “enjoy the moment”- she’d worry about the future some other time. Sam liked to go to bed at a reasonable and predictable hour; Sarah liked to stay up all night to finish projects and deal with being tired when it would hit her the next day. Sarah was known to express her anger in the moment, often in ways that left Sam feeling hurt way after the event…and by the time he was ready to talk about his feelings, the event was ancient history for Sarah, who resented Sam for wanting to “bring negative things back up”. Sarah thought that Sam was too rigid with the kids and Sam thought that Sarah didn’t discipline them enough.

It was hard to tell that underneath all of this was also an unstated fear that both Sam and Sarah shared about control.

Sarah had grown up with a very authoritarian, controlling father who punished her for the smallest infractions, and to her, structure and routine felt like another example of authoritarian strictures that interfered with her right to her autonomy and control. Sarah didn’t realize that her inability to allow for the predictability and consistency that structure can offer left her partner feeling that he was being controlled- by her moods, whims, and inability to think about how her current actions might impact their shared future.

Sam was equally afraid of losing a sense of control over his world; only for him, it was emotions that he was afraid of letting on the loose. Sam believed that ordering his world and planning for the future could protect him from becoming dangerously “unbridled” or “unbounded”- a sense of being “too free”- which he associated with his erratic mother, who leaked out her emotions all over the place and could never manage to contain them.

It was Sam though, in the couples therapy, who was readily able to see that he was afraid of his emotions, and who was able to acknowledge that he was most afraid of his anger and of acknowledging just how deeply he longed for Sarah’s love and acceptance, as well as his wish that Sarah could be different from the way his mother was and help him contain his own emotions rather than overwhelming him with her own.

Sarah had more difficulty going beyond her superficial complaints in the therapy; she focused mostly on her wish for Sam to give her more freedom and to be as different from her father as he could possibly be. Sarah often tried to pull me in to take her side about what was “fair” or “reasonable” or “normal” when it came to issues like money, parenting, or dividing household chores. She often asked me what other couples did and she had trouble understanding Sam’s feelings and point of view.

Trying to get Sarah to look deeper at her emotions and to understand Sam’s fears and desires wasn’t an effective strategy though; first of all, because it meant taking sides with Sam’s psychological style over her’s; and secondly, because this wasn’t a way of interacting with others and the world that fit Sarah’s needs and abilities at the time. It was hard to imagine how this couple could be helped to reconcile not only differences in their relationships to concrete aspects of their shared lives, but also how they could connect, when each one seemed to be relating on such different psychological wavelengths.

The answer came when I began to notice patterns in the types of details that Sarah discussed at any given time; details that increasingly appeared to hold a kind of meaning (in code) that Sam could learn to decipher and then respond to in a new kind of way.

Sam, Sarah, and I were able to slowly see together that Sarah complained about parenting issues when she was feeling that Sam was treating her as if a parent towards a child; trying to create rules or structure in ways that left Sarah feeling like she wasn’t a fully participating equal/adult in the relationship. Sam slowly learned that when Sarah would talk about parenting conflicts, he needed to be extra sensitive to the way he was relating to Sarah, so that she would feel respected and not feel talked down to.

We learned that when Sarah talked about household chores, it was code for her ambivalence about being an adult and a parent, which she sometimes resented and other times felt afraid of. Sam was able to provide understanding and validation at such times, which helped Sarah focus less on whether chores were being divided fairly or not, and more on how they could work as a team to get things done.

And money issues seemed to be code for “love”, which took us the longest to unpack and decode, because hidden in the money discussions were deep worries that Sarah had about whether Sam’s love would run out, and a fear of thinking about the future because she didn’t trust the future when it came to her fears about abandonment and emotional safety. Sam’s ability to reassure Sarah of his commitment to her and to their future helped her in turn to feel safer to share in the process of saving and budgeting so that their financial future together could be more secure.

Sarah never did quite learn to talk about her feelings more directly, but she did respond with less conflict, anger, and anxiety when Sam was able to read between the lines and respond to the deeper needs that her surface complaints represented. Sam felt more empowered and effective because he understood what his wife needed and how to respond to the underlying issues without getting into cycles of conflicts about the surface details. At times Sam wished that Sarah could verbalize her deeper feelings more directly but slowly we all learned that sometimes actions show what words cannot- and that that’s okay too.