Couples generally come to counselling knowing things are not working and many have a reluctance to acknowledge or admit that very thing. I’ve heard many people say, “our relationship is 95% fine, it’s just the 5% that isn’t working and we need fixed. We have a great relationship, really!”
I think that somehow when we hear ourselves say, “things are not working” another voice kicks in with “that means something really bad about the relationship and the relationship is at risk or over”. This is not the case and saying things are not working means nothing more than things are not working. I personally think that holding back from saying “things are not working” stops us from not only acknowledging the extent of the concerns but also from being able to re-create a relationship that does work. It’s almost like we have to metaphorically tear things down to the foundations before we can rebuild them otherwise I think we run the risk of doing a patch up job.
It is during this process of looking at what is not working that many couples can fall into the blame game where they hear themselves directly or indirectly being held responsible for the tensions because they “are wrong” or have done something “wrong”. As soon as the other party hears themselves being blamed the usual response is immediate hurt, anger, retaliation and a destructive exchange often unfolds or continues from unresolved hurts and actions from the past. In my opinion if these past hurts are not addressed in a way that provides understanding, compassion and forgiveness these hurts tend to fester like an infected wound waiting for the next argument to rupture the historical hurt. These unresolved past hurts directly influence present day conflicts. These past hurts are often referred to as “baggage”. Its these unresolved hurts and disappointments that tend to influence how we react to situations. If you notice yourself over reacting to situations with a heightened sense of anger, resentment, bitterness, antagonism, hostility, etc it may be because of the influence of past hurts that still linger in the background.
What can help when managing a point of difference between yourself and other is firstly understanding that problems we face are often phrased negatively. They are often stated according to what is missing and as such land as an attack or as a complaint against us. People are generally not great at speaking clearly about what it is that we are experiencing and maybe out of wanting to soften the impact of what we are saying or to not appear weak or needy we state things in a manner that lands on other as a complaint or an attack. We need to remember that problems are like coins in that they have two sides. The opposite side of saying “things are not working” is that “I want things to work but don’t know how to bring about the change needed”.
It is not always possible when we are upset or stressed to hear the positive intent behaving many of the things our prospective partners complain about or attack us with. “You spend so much time your friends” can mean, “I want you to spend more time with me and am missing your company”. “You don’t talk to me anymore” can mean “I want you to communicate with me as I’m missing our chance to connect”. Being able to hear the absent but implicit message in perceived complaints and attacks is a very useful ability and a skill. Doing so can change the focus of a conversation towards what we want to create with someone rather than focusing what is broken and not working and who is to blame and why do you not do what I need to feel wanted, appreciated, valued, desirable and loved.
Hurt is the natural internal defence mechanism when we feel attacked or rejected, and anger is the normal response to protect us from hurt. I think this is because anger as an emotion is linked to taking action to protect, like the fight or flight response. Feeling hurt and pain can lead us to just being attacked further. How many young men in particular are taught to experience and process their hurt and pain as opposed to if someone attacks you attack them back. The saying “don’t get mad get even exemplified this”.
What I believe holds the greatest possibility for hope in changing the way conflict is managed is being able to take responsibility for things done that have had a negative impact on others around us. Also learning how to address others actions when they have done something that has had a negative impact on us without attacking them back but still addressing what has clearly impacted and effected you can make a huge difference to how tricky or delicate situations are resolved. This is a skill I now coach couples to do and it is these skills that hold the potential to transform how we manage contentious issues and resolve them in a manner where both parties can feel like their integrity has been maintained.
Restoring the love in your relationship means that we deal with hurts in a way that allows the dignity of all parties involved to be maintained and it is from restoring dignity where shame and guilt preside that healing takes place. The process “restorative” has stemmed from restorative justice practices where a perpetrator and victim meet and address what has happened in a blame free and robust manner. The perpetrator gets to acknowledge what they have done and the impact it has had. The victim gets to hear the perpetrator empathise with them and fully understand how they have hurt them. It also provides the opportunity for apologies for harm to be made and received in a sincere manner which is an important part of the forgiveness process.
Change comes about when an aggrieved party gets to hear their partner acknowledge and understand the harm they have caused. The person hurting gets to hear the person who has caused harm take responsibility, acknowledge the fullness of the impact their actions have had. They also get to discuss any other measures that can be taken to address the harm caused as an indication of their investment to put things right again.
I believe it’s not about what the hurt or damage was that determines the chances of successfully moving on from it. It’s about how robustly and safely the hurt and damage is explored and dealt with that determines how the relationship moves forward. Hurt is just that hurt. Hurt has no morality. Hurt is an indication that something is not right and needs to be put right so we can move forward. This is where being able to be coached in how to name what is not working in a way that does not blame or identify your partner as being wrong or at fault is critical. Being able to identify what happened, how the others actions impacted on you and getting agreement with your partner about what moving forward looks like is an important part of the moving forward process.
As a result of working with concepts like broken integrity and restoration of harm done I have personally seen major shifts in how couples open to being authentic with each other about what has caused pain and damage to themselves and the relationship they share. This way of working holds hope and the immediate opportunity for addressing the pain and hurt that once resolved allows for the possibility for forgiveness and love to flourish once again.
It does however take something for couples to get to this place including: time, a willingness to open to possibility of change, trust and an environment that can manage and hold all of the unresolved stories and emotions that keep people apart, feeling stuck and unable to move forward together.
By Chris Caruana, MA (Couns)