When I work with couples in distress, I often first need to put out some fires and get the couple out of crises before we can make any steps forward. If they are having sexual problems but have also built up so much resentment that they are fighting like cats and dogs, we can’t even begin to get to the sex stuff until we address the overall relational dynamic. I’ve written about this before in this article about why sex therapists must also be good couples therapists.
What I want to address in this piece are some of the mechanisms of how we can get a couple out of dire conflict and into a place where we can get some real work done. This requires achieving a safe space for both individuals, a sanctuary if you will. And it’s not small feat as we are in effect trying to transform a battlefield into a sanctuary. Wow, even writing that, it feels so daunting, like it would take something miraculous to pull off. But it doesn’t require miracles, but simply a process in which both partners are equally committed to putting aside attachments to who is right and wrong and putting in the necessary work to communicate more collaboratively.
There, that’s the magic word– collaboration. Which is so difficult for folks to pull off when they feel flooded and go into fight or flight response. Let’s talk more about collaboration and the fight of flight response when it comes to the way that couples communicate. I am indebted to the work of Dan Wile, and his writings on collaborative couples treatment for much of my thinking here.
Wile breaks down couples’ communication patterns into three main categories. The first two are highly toxic and unproductive and generally occur when one or both partners feel threatened and triggered. The first of these two is antagonistic communication. This means exactly what it sounds like. This is where individuals are harsh, critical, angry in tone, loud, and demeaning. It corresponds to the fight response of animals that feel threatened. Next is the withdrawal. This corresponds to the flight response. Examples include stating that nothing is wrong when it obviously is and then acting out in a passive-aggressive way, leaving the scene of the discussion, refusing to talk and shutting down. Stuff like that. Whereas antagonism is too aggressive, withdrawal is extremely avoidant.
It is often the case that antagonistic and withdrawal styles are found in the same relational dynamic. Antagonistic individuals may find themselves in partnership with withdrawing individuals, and their triggers fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Classic push-pull dynamics that maybe some readers may have heard or read about. None of this stuff is productive, but I also want to make clear that it is not necessarily pathological or not normal. Indeed, we are wired to mobilize to fight or flee when we feel unsafe, so the issue here is not with our natural response to defend ourselves but rather with a more systemic issue of lack of (the subjective feeling of) safety within the relational framework. So what we must do is twofold: build more capacity to tolerate emotional triggers, and build more of an overall feeling of safety between the partners.
Let’s focus on the building of safety. We do this primarily through the third means of communication– confiding. Confiding communication requires the individual to stay present and discuss one’s feelings from a first-person point of view. It demands authenticity and the risk of exposing one’s vulnerabilities. Easier said than done when bullets are flying, right. Well, we want to start modeling this kind of behavior in the therapy room so that all partners can internalize the experience of hearing each other this way and then having more capacity to take these skills with them home. It takes time, it’s not going to happen overnight, but I want to start helping couples to have the lived experience of being able to communicate with each other on a different level, one that may initially only feel safer because it is being conducted in my consulting office.
Wile calls this “finding one’s voice” as opposed to the “losing one’s voice” that occurs when we are in fight/flight mode. So what may a confiding communication look like? Sometimes I may model it by speaking on behalf of one or both partners. So for example, for the withdrawing partner who has lost his/her voice and has become too triggered to be able to stay present in communication, I may say to the other person as if I was the partner, “I would like to tell how I feel but I am too afraid that you might get mad and reject me for it.” I would like both partners to hear what that sounds like; for the withdrawing partner to feel what it’s like to have voice given to one’s internal thoughts and for the antagonistic partner to perhaps hear these truths for the first time.
For the antagonistic partner, I might say, “I feel really hurt when you withdraw for me and I don’t know how to get my needs met without trying harder by showing you how mad and upset I am.” Something like that. Doesn’t have to be exact or perfect, just get the sense of it down. I may have both partners practicing in this way, finding ways of reclaiming their voice a little at a time by letting their partner peek into their authentic selves. And in this way we build safety because our minds seek congruence and when we have lived experiences, our minds form conclusions in order to explain these events. So when we take careful, measured risks of exposing our true selves in this kind of authentic way, and we are not hurt, and we are not rejected, but instead we see that the results are positive, we then start to transform our beliefs and conclude that we must be safe after all since our voice was heard and validated.
I’ll end here for now since I think I’ve made my basic point. There are three basic ways that couples communicate and the first two are tied into primordial animalistic responses to threat. By practicing the third type, confiding communication, we model a safe space in which we can work to mitigate and reverse the damage created by the first two ineffective modes of communicating.