As a therapist that specializes in sexuality and relationships, about half of my clients are couples. Sure, many of them have some sort of sexuality-related difficulty, but fundamentally more often than not, most of my clients have deep-seated communication problems that make further progress impossible. Invariably, these issues in communication narrow the range of possible discussion. Since these couples don’t have the tools to appropriately manage conflict, or they are too defensive or reactive about certain subjects, the list of prohibited conversation topics increases while the possibilities decrease.
Joe Overton, a public intellectual writing for the Mackinac Center of Public Policy, created a term known as the “Overton window” to describe the range of socially accepted public discussion. Overton theorized that politicians can only voice opinions within a narrow band inside the left to right political spectrum. Any politician who voiced an idea outside this range of acceptable opinions would see their career come to an abrupt end and experience ostracization. I often think of this socio-political phenomena as an appropriate metaphor for the difficulties my clients often experience. When I see troubled couples in my office, the Overton window is typically so small that the range of conversation has become limited to the most basic superficialities. Instead of being able to negotiate common values, sexual desires, and fundamental concerns, they may only be left with rehashing plot lines from their favorite TV show. Just as political scholars might argue that a narrow Overton window is symptomatic of a troubled, dysfunctional society, so too, based on my clinical experience, a tiny Overton window is one of the key symptoms of relational dysfunction.
When I work with my clients, especially those who are dug-in in trench warfare, I have to help them to start seeing their partners as allies. In many ways, for some of these folks, it’s literally like “sleeping with the enemy,” as they have absolutely no trust or respect left in the tank. In these cases, I need to educate my clients to learn to tolerate their own negative feelings and address their partner in a non-confrontational manner. What I’m hoping to do is help my clients become more able to display vulnerability and authenticity with each other. But fundamentally, in order to tolerate one’s vulnerability in front of the passing judgment of another, individuals must first learn to tolerate these same vulnerabilities and differences in others. The word for this ability to tolerate differences in others is differentiation. When it comes down to it, relationships that have small Overton windows consist of poorly differentiated individuals, just as a society with a small Overton window consists of large groups of poorly differentiated individuals.
As I’ve written about before, relationships often go through several clearly defined stages. Indeed, when individuals first come together, that initial honeymoon phase is often noted for its symbiotic quality, in that each individual feels intensely identified with the other. Once this initial phase of limerance starts to fade, individuals start becoming much more acutely aware of differences they may not have at first noticed. As a basic example, they may start to become annoyed with little morning or breakfast habits– the other person takes too much time in the bathroom or likes their coffee a certain way. These are minor little annoyances that usually don’t amount to anything more significant, but they serve as a microcosm for a much larger process of the individuals in the relationship beginning to define themselves in the relationship based on their separateness, not their identicalness.
This often turns into a crossroads in the relationship. Some individuals rush to recover that initial symbiotic harmony, demanding that their partner relinquish their individuality. Others work cooperatively to negotiate mutual needs. Others still give up on all negotiation and seek to create parallel lives in which they can get their needs met outside of the confining demands of their partner. In many ways, the entire future of the relationship depends on the partners skillfully navigating this fork in the road. If they veer in the wrong direction and do not have facilitated support in recovering their way, I have often seen resentment set in and build layer upon layer, until all good will in the relationship is stamped out.
When I see couples with communication problems, they are often in this very process of veering off-course due to difficulties in managing differentiation, and subsequently struggling with conflicting feelings of resentment as well as a desire to save the relationship. However, due to their unresolved inability to tolerate differences, they continuously keep sabotaging the relationship until the Overton window is so minuscule, that there is very little mutuality and common understanding preserved. In such cases, I must do a lot of communication work with the couple before we can get to anything else.
To this end, I seek to help each individual see their own patterns of avoidance and reactivity. These two ineffective forms of communication are caused by an inability to tolerate one’s own emotions that are triggered by the other person. So, I must help each individual identify their feeling states and verbalize them in more collaborative and confiding terms. Only by tolerating one’s emotions can one tolerate the individual that is triggering those emotions. By clearly articulating our response in non-defensive and non-reactive terms can we then hope to help the other person see our perspective and then allow them to appropriately and safely voice their own. When everyone in the room feels free to speak, only then can we see the Overton window expand. And the more it expands, the more we can address other things. Such as being understood and getting more of everyone’s needs met.
The more resentment has built up, the more this is a slow process. But some of the most rewarding moments in my work is when I see that light bulb go on and one or both partners finally realize they can stop the struggle and lay down their arms. In these cases, I am reminded of the Chinese finger trap, a toy in which two fingers go in both ends of a small cylinder, and the harder the fingers struggle, the tighter the trap wraps around them. Only by relaxing the fingers does the toy loosen. I believe this is an appropriate analogy. For it is due to resistance that the opening (window) tightens and only through acceptance does the window expand. I can think of no other metaphor that so definitely defines my work.