Perhaps the most significant benefit I have to offer a couple is the chance to meet at an appointed time and quiet place to express how they feel about their relationship and their partner. In this environment they also have a highly trained mental health professional who listens with an impartial ear to their difficulties. They finally have a nonjudgmental observer to hear them out as they describe their conflicts. This seems rather simple, but actually, couples rarely take the time to sit down, look at each other and express their disappointments in their relationship and with each other. And when they do, they generally end up fighting because there is no professional referee to observe and offer insight into their situation. But here in the session, they finally unload frustrations, sadness and even hopelessness in the relationship’s ability to bring them happiness as it once did. As they bicker and quarrel in my office, I am ready with specific questions aimed at gaining clarity about how and why they feel as they do. Often the partner hears for the first time how lonely and isolated the other person is, even when they are spending time together. It’s as if the couple has failed over time to “check in” with each other to find out what is really going on with their mate. And when they finally do it is usually charged with a good deal of anger, and a fight it erupts.
Couples don’t intend to neglect their partners or leave their relationships to drift away from them. It is very easy to become so involved in work and attending to home and family obligations, that there is little time or energy left over to inquire what’s going on with your partner. There may be concern that the partner is frustrated, as frustrated as they are, so the whole topic of their “relationship” gets avoided. Over time couples gradually lose the intense connection they had when they first met. This is partly because they avoid “checking in” with each other anymore.
Couples often tell me that early in their relationship they did listen to each other often and they remember being genuinely curious about what their partner thought and felt about themselves and the relationship. Now it’s different. Each person has a sense that their partner has some disappointment in the relationship and probably with them specifically. There is the fear on the part of each person that maybe they haven’t brought their partner as much happiness as they had promised. There is guilt over this and each person tends to withdraw from the whole topic of “us” so as to avoid hearing the other person’s disappointment in them.
And this is where it gets really interesting. Often a person finds that their partner is not as disappointed in them as they had imagined, but feels let down about something else entirely. Couples learn that many disappointments in life get blamed on the people closest to them.
Or, couples begin to realize that they had held overly idealistic expectations of what being together in a close relationship would be like. Here I compare what the relationship actually is or has become, with what was originally expected. So clarifying the actual experience of each person in the union with some of their original expectations of the relationship is an important step. Then a gradual process begins of recalibrating expectations about what is realistic and achievable in a relationship. This painstaking process can illuminate even deeper sources of dissatisfaction that had been blamed on the partner or the relationship. Now it’s possible to see other factors at play. After a good deal of exploration, communication and clarification, in addition to some guided insight, I often hear a collective sigh of relief in the room. Things aren’t as bad between the couple as they thought after all. With some fresh perspective on the part of both people, the relationship can get back on track.