Joining Narratives in Understanding Relationship Problems
When couples have longstanding conflict or a tense stalemate in their relationship, the most common reason for this can be found in the narratives playing in each partner’s mind:
She only notices what I ever do wrong – she is a criticism machine that finds the one thing I didn’t do and points it out. Just twisting the knife whenever she can.
He is so hyper-sensitive. I can’t say anything to him that I need him to do without throwing a big fit! He really can be so immature. If I want anything done around here, I have to do it myself.
When couples are locked up in conflict, it is often these narratives, and the statements that each partner makes that stem from them, that cause breakdowns in communication. Naturally, each partner tends to diagnose the problem as lying squarely on the other’s shoulders, and the more they try to bring this idea up with their partner to fix the problem, the worse things seem to go and the more trapped they feel. In Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), this is called the polarization process.
It is the judgment, the you’re wrong-ness embedded in the narrative that each partner tends to have a defensive reaction to, escalating the conflict to a place that becomes unhelpful to either partner. So, how do you practice effective couple therapy when both partner’s experiences of each other are so wildly different?
I believe the key to couple therapy working is in getting both partners to engage with a unified narrative – one that doesn’t erase their perspective, but that instead considers it in context of the partner’s perspective.
In IBCT, this is started in the assessment process with the DEEP formulation – an acronym that stands for:
Problematic Patterns of Interaction
Understanding what factors are involved for couples in each area can help the couple and therapist work on finding a narrative that is both authentic (matches each partner’s understanding of the problem) and effective (helps both partners escape unhelpful patterns of conflict in the relationship). The rest of this post will help you understand each of these areas better and may have you thinking of your relationship in a different way.
No matter how healthy or unhealthy our relationship, there are always going to be differences between you and your partner. Often the true distress in a relationship can come from both the impact of those differences and the ways that both partners try to manage them.
Our differences can sometimes start out as a point of attraction – The extroverted partner can bring an introverted partner out of their shell in a positive way – The introverted partner can show the extroverted partner a sense of peace and comfort in staying in. However, over time and as we go through changes in our lives, we may begin to experience our partner’s differences as more grating on our sensibilities, and they start to fill our narratives as to where the problems our in the relationship come from.
Of course, at other times, differences may not have been part of an attraction, merely part of the overall package that came with being with your partner. Even when this is the case, of course, differences that could previously be easily overlooked suddenly start having much more impact (very commonly for couples after having a child).
It should be noted that differences between partners can be described in all sorts of judgmental ways, which are largely part of each partner’s narrative when they begin the journey of couple therapy. IBCT works to help both partners understand their differences in non-judgmental ways that are less likely to spark conflict in the relationship. It is helpful to the therapy process to acknowledge the differences that exist (not see them as a sign of relationship failure, for instance).
In healthy relationships, our differences are best understood from a neutral place, meaning that neither partner needs to feel badly for being different, only that the difference is something to be understood and worked around.
Emotional sensitivities are the areas that we react particularly strongly to because of our unique characteristics and histories. They are our “buttons” that help describe why the things that particularly affect us do so. Consider the following examples of emotional sensitivities (not real clients):
John grew up with very stern and disapproving parents who were quick to criticize him and would search for imperfections. As a result, when he feels criticized in his marriage to Katherine, it taps into the years and years of neural networks built up that motivate him to defend his character. Unfortunately, this response then causes Katherine, who was not intending to criticize, to feel unheard.
In addition to our upbringing, emotional sensitivities can originate from prior relationships in adulthood. Consider the following example:
Rachel is thankful to be in her new relationship with Joanne, which is much healthier than her last. However, she fears that her ability to function in a relationship has been damaged by prior experiences. Due to being lied to and feeling emotionally manipulated by her previous partner, she finds it difficult to trust that when Joanne says something, that she means it. Joanne, conversely, has an emotional sensitivity around never feeling heard, which is triggered when Rachel does not take her word at face value.
Lastly, there can be emotional sensitivities that originate from events in the relationship itself. These are often the most challenging to wade through for the couple, because they bring up strong reactions for both people. Consider the following example:
Emma finds herself resentful of her partner of over ten years, Aaron, ever since her sister passed away unexpectedly. He initially seemed supportive in the aftermath of the event, but as time went on, he seemed to expect her to simply “get over it” and go back to the way things were before. This caused a deep sense of hurt for Emma, who had always known Aaron to be the type not to dwell on his emotions, but now this strategy was being directed at her. As a result, any time Aaron now interacts with his emotions this way (happening quite frequently), it activates that hurt and anger that Emma feels. Aaron doesn’t understand why she has this emotional reaction.
People sense a pretty heightened level of invalidation when they feel they are being told they are wrong for having the emotional sensitivities that they do, which unfortunately happens often in relationship arguments. Effective couple therapy can help both partners better understand their own and each other’s emotional sensitivities as well as why those sensitivities exist, so that both partners can better understand how to interact with these sensitivities.
The fact is, our emotional sensitivities can actually be a huge source of connection and intimacy between partners – that is, when we better understand and move beyond the conflicts we attribute to one another’s sensitivities.
In addition to our differences from our partners and unique emotional sensitivities, conflict can be influenced by stressors that come from outside the relationship. Typically, these stressors operate on the relationship by interacting with one or both partners’ differences and emotional sensitivities.
For example, perhaps a recent uptick of work stress causes one partner to be particularly quiet at the dinner table, which triggers the other partner’s emotional sensitivity of being rejected. Or perhaps a couple experiences unexpected financial stress due to an unexpected home repair, and this brings to the forefront the differences in how each partner copes with stress.
Chronic stress can have a cumulative impact on the body and our experience/expression of emotions. That is because our emotions (e.g., anger, fear, sadness) are a part of the body’s stress response, called the Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism. When stressors continually trigger this response, this tends to make people more irritable and on-guard to potential threats, including social threats in their relationships.
The most helpful way to approach external stressors is to acknowledge the impact that they are having on the relationship and why, and for both partners to work collaboratively on helping one another feel supported in the context of the stressor. In other words, just like differences and emotional sensitivities, stressors outside the relationship can either serve as a source of conflict or a source of connection.
Problematic Patterns of Interaction
The three factors discussed so far (Differences, Emotional Sensitivities, and External Stressors) all tend to focus on the content of the conflict in relationships. That is, they describe each partner’s viewpoints and definitions of the problem: where to take the shared vacation, whether the comment from one’s mother-in-law was actually a laundered criticism, how much time do we share vs. operate independently.
In contrast with these, the final part of the DEEP formula, Problematic Patterns of Interaction, focuses on the process of conflict, rather than its content. In other words, it describes the ways in which each partner tries to get their points across and get their needs met with their partner.
Unfortunately, as indicated by the “Problematic” part of the label, these attempts are often what cause each partner to feel further stuck, to further escalate conflict, as well as further radicalize each partner’s narrative of the other. Consider the following example:
When John felt criticized in his marriage with Katherine, he used to defend his intentions, his plans to do something, or downplay the impact of the problem. These reactions came out of his emotional sensitivities from childhood about never being good enough and having to explain himself in order to gain any approval. However, the more that defending himself seemed to set Katherine off, the more that John transitioned to straight criticism of Katherine’s criticism – characterizing her motives as malicious and unfair. This pattern then gave way to Katherine ceasing all requests for improvements, but alongside much chillier feelings toward John, finding it difficult to motivate herself to empathize with him when he seems unwilling and unable to let her feel heard.
The ways in which we try to feel seen, understood, and get our needs met in relationships can often, despite our best intentions, become a main feature of how and why the problem is getting worse. This is often difficult for us to see from our viewpoint inside the problem, but may be easier to understand in the abstract.
There are several common ways that we try to get our needs met that lead both partners to feeling further stuck:
The first falls under the category Moving Against One’s Partner, and includes accusation, blame, and coercion. These reactions generally align with the Fight part of our Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism in our nervous systems. With coercion, we near force our partners into compliance by stepping up our aversive behaviors, causing them to give in to the request in order to escape the unpleasantness of it. While this can be powerfully reinforcing in the short-term, because it does result in the immediate outcome one is looking for, it also has negative side effects for the relationship, eroding trust and leading one’s partner to have their own reaction against that aversiveness.
The next ineffective way in which we may try to get our relationship needs is by Moving Away from One’s Partner. This includes behaviors such as avoidance of the topic, denial of a problem, and withdrawal from the discussion or the relationship. These are strategies that generally align with the Freeze part of the Fight-Flight-Freeze response in our nervous systems. A common dynamic with this response is to react against the other partner’s attempts to engage them on the topic, which creates the Demand-Withdrawal Communication Pattern.
The next category of ways we may try to get our needs met in relationship conflict is by Hanging onto One’s Partner. This includes things like being very watchful of partners’ behaviors and being intrusive in a desire to be reassured. These are behaviors that generally align with the Flight part of the Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism, in that the person is engaging in behaviors that erode trust in the relationship in the long-term in order to escape the more immediate experience of fear and negative thoughts.
There are also a few common experiences of couples who have been trying for some time to both get their needs met in the relationship:
The first is Escalation of arguments: as both partners push the other to adopt their personal view of the problem, this can wear on both partners and seem to “short-circuit” arguments. That is, when each partner is already aware of the ways in which their partner views them as deficient and can anticipate this, more and more subtle or unintended comments can trigger arguments.
The next outcome of problematic patterns is called Polarization, and describes the ways in which each partner can become more calcified in their views of the other and of themselves. There’s a saying from the psychological field of Motivational Interviewing that “People tend to believe what they hear themselves say.” As partners make their cases more and more to the other, and experience the invalidation present in their partner’s response, they tend to become even more rigid and inflexible in their views.
A third consequence of the problematic patterns is a sense of Alienation from one’s partner. This fits a phase of disagreements when things seem so hopeless for getting one’s needs met, that one or both partners transition to a strategy of giving up on trying, which at the very least relieves that active pain that comes up each time there’s a difficult interaction. The problem is that it is clearly not a healthy place for relationships to be in for an extended period of time. Alienation is often the experience in couples when they decide to engage in couple therapy.
Kinda bleak, huh? This post may give the impression that relationships are futile enterprises best reserved for people who don’t have differences, sensitivities, stressors, or unhelpful ways of reacting to them, but that’s simply not true. Instead, the fact is that we all have these aspects to us, and because of that, all of our relationships with one another are unique. I think that’s beautiful, and that kind of beauty can be unlocked by the couple by getting to the heart of relationship concerns, strategically giving up on what’s not working, and trying out new ways of interacting with the problem.
The DEEP formulation in IBCT is a helpful guide in finding a narrative that both partners can engage with, which can offer the beginnings of a way out from the relationship conflict. Much of the work of couple therapy focuses on the Problematic Patterns of Interaction, since this is the area where both partners tend to have the most control.
The work of couple therapy involves the careful balance between the concepts of Acceptance and Change, and using the DEEP formulation to understand your relationship can serve as a compass for the couple in finding it.
It can be quite challenging to effectively address relationship concerns, and so it is often helpful to have the assistance of a couple therapist as a third-party invested in supporting the health of your relationship. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.