I’m writing and will be presenting a Continuing Education course for therapists called Clinician Use of WeConcile® to Facilitate Couples Work. (You can find the course here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/clinician-use-weconcile-facilitate-couples-work-web-conference.html). Doing this work is making me think about what it takes to make a change in a relationship, and about the couples who choose to stay stuck instead of tackling this significant part of their lives. And it is making me again look at what actually happens in a person to allow the kind of change that transforms a relationship to something amazing. Yet, so many people are scared of this.
Precisely what is scary for them? I think it is simply having to experience painful feelings and begin to sort through them. An example of a problematic feeling could be feeling awkward or gross in front of someone else hence feeling a sense of shame. Of course, we have difficult feelings, regardless, but we aren’t consciously choosing to look at them. They just leap out and grab us when we get triggered. We react, and then those feelings subside, or we put them away. We create an outside reason – she made me mad. We aren’t looking deep at why we were triggered. How what she said made us feel unseen or less than. How what she said, triggered an echo of our feelings about how our father made us feel.
This is a quote from Sue Johnson, founder of EFT for couples. “Awareness of emotion is central to healthy functioning …. Since emotional responses orient the individual to his or her own needs and longings and prime the struggle to get those needs met.”
So, for example, suppose Joe had a very successful father, and nothing Joe does makes him feel as if he can match what his father did. So, underneath Joe is going to have some feelings of not being worthy, or not being good enough. Joe’s deep longing is to feel worthy. What does Joe do about this feeling? He pushes it away. He doesn’t feel it. He’s not even aware of this feeling. Instead, he puts his wife down. He takes his yucky feelings and gives them to her – and he’s not even aware of it. She is too controlling, too annoying, too this or that. And she, of course, has her own dynamics that interlock with his. So, they bicker a lot. Sure, they love each other, but they are both in their individual defensive places much of the time. Neither Joe nor his wife has that sense of leaning back into the soft cushion of their relationship because emotionally, they don’t feel fully safe. Who knows when a harsh word will come, or one will criticize the other.
And yet, the process of changing this dynamic is known. Opening up each partner’s inner emotional experience, with a focus on emotional engagement and corrective experiences will allow new ways of relating and new self-structure to emerge. We just don’t know how to do this. That is why therapy, workshops, and experiential educational systems can help.
What if Joe became able to realize and talk about how being raised by his very successful father impacted his feelings about himself. What if he realized that he was continually reacting to issues that triggered a deep shame he had around feeling as if he was not good enough. What if, as he talked about these feelings, his wife began to understand him better, and he began to understand himself better. What if she began to see how what she did triggered him, and she developed more empathy for him. What if he also came to see how he triggered her and what if in this process of exploration and reconnection Joe began to see her value, and he began to want to connect, rather than push her away. And what if in this process, he found his own worth. And because of all of these shifts, he no longer put his wife down. Because they are now connecting on a deeper level.
Each person has the enormous opportunity to expand and reorganize their inner experience, transforming their relationship.
This quote from Brene Brown encapsulates the way to change, “I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck. I try to be grateful every day, and my motto right now is ‘Courage over comfort.’”
Courage over comfort. That is the key. The primary vehicle for change in a relationship really is developing a better relationship with our own feelings and unpacking why we feel what we feel when we are having that feeling.
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