I just finished a couples therapy course I attended on Saturday mornings with fellow therapists.
My colleague Marla Silverman, Ph.D, led this wonderful class with her gentle, firm, accepting and open-minded approach to working with couples.
I've been wanting to share the nuggets of wisdom I received about the ONE area of our lives that can give us the most satisfaction and pure bliss - AND can also lead us to feel like we're constantly hitting a wall.
dun, dun, dunnnn.....Relationships.
Relationships are always such a juicy, exciting topic because of the complexity, relatability and desire for love that we ALL have.
My personal takeaway from Marla's approach:
When couples are at an impasse - a huge fight, quiet resentment, shutting down or some other well-known pattern that occurs over and over again....
Their protectors go up.
Think of protectors as the defenses you use when you feel scared, anxious, sad or overwhelmed. You're protecting your heart and it *feels* like you're fighting for survival...because at some point - usually during childhood - you were.
Protectors are like emotional shields that help you navigate the world and feel safe. Traditional psychotherapy refers to them as "defenses," but I personally like the word "protectors" because it's a kinder and more fluid term.
Protectors have the intention of keeping your heart safe, but sometimes they fight a little too strongly and a little too boldly...even when they're not needed.
Case in point, when you and another person get together and decide on where to go to dinner, whose turn it is to do the laundry, where to spend the holidays and how to raise your kids - protectors might show up - and the next thing you know you're shouting at the other person or rolling your eyes in an effort to protect yourself from what's beneath it all: unresolved hurt and pain.
Couples all too often speak to each other FROM the place of these protectors, "You're always so selfish - you never eat where I want to" or "I can't believe you forgot to call me to say you'd be late AGAIN."
Attacking, blaming and reacting - like a big shield is going up in front of them.
Marla's approach is to talk to the other person ON BEHALF of your protectors.
Getting the info from your protectors, but communicating as your adult self.
For example, "I'm feeling sad that I don't have a say in where we eat on Saturdays" and "I'm noticing I feel hurt and abandoned when you don't call when you're working late."
You're acknowledging the FEELINGS underneath the reactions. And you give the other person a chance to see your pain.
This seemingly simple switcheroo when it comes to expression and communication is game changing, as I learned. Using this strategy is one of those life things that is simple, but not necessarily easy (at least all the time).
My personal trick to stay grounded is to simply BREATHE before speaking. You can even put your hand on your heart to CONNECT to yourself before speaking up.
That way, you're communicating with awareness of your protectors and not IN reaction to them.
You may even notice a shift in your mood or the release of tension in your heart. Relationships are after all, about the "other" person, but they're also about you forming an ever-stronger connection to YOU.
So what if we all committed to taking a moment before expressing ourselves? Speaking on behalf of our protectors, instead of giving them a huge microphone?
What if you gave yourself time to FEEL what's UNDERNEATH your defenses?
I imagine we'd feel more kind and compassionate....the bonus being our words would actually LAND with the other person.
You'd be left with the most potent forms of healing a relationship can offer: feeling understood and seen.
Here are some relationships books I was introduced to through the course and some I've read over the years. They're helpful whether you're in a romantic relationship, not in a relationship or something in between.
1) Getting The Love You Want (Oprah approved)
If you've ever been a relationship and thought to yourself, "This dynamic seems familiar" you a) are definitely not alone and b) would probably enjoy this book.
Harville Hendrix, Ph.D explores the opportunity for healing that arises when the person we choose as a partner brings up childhood or otherwise historical wounds.
Oprah says this is one of the most influential relationship books she's ever read.
2) The High Conflict Couple
Sometimes you just need to hit the pause button during conflict. This book offers practical exercises for remembering the good in your partner during heated moments.
Favorite tip - keep a "relationship box" with mementos, letters, etc. to remind you of the positive qualities in your loved one.
John Mayer recently said that he's in therapy to address his attachment style. So what's that about?
Attachment styles are the ways we connect and love, especially in romantic relationships. There are generally thought to be four major ones: Avoidant, Anxious, Secure and Anxious/Avoidant.
This book easily breaks down the styles and provides tips (and things to look out for) whether you're single or in a relationship.
4) The Course Of Love
I love this novel written by Alain de Botton. He provides a detailed, poignant and informative story on a real-life marriage between two flawed, beautiful humans.
You can also check out an interview he did that addresses the major points of the book here.
5) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
John Gottman is super famous in the coupledom world - and for good reason. His scientific approach (he's less touchy/feely and more - hey, I studied couples and this is what happens) is refreshing.
He also keeps you on your toes about what to say (and not say) to your partner. Preview - rolling your eyes is a definite no, no.
Let me know your favorite tip for keeping a harmonious, healthy relationship by commenting below or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'd love to hear from you!
From my heart to yours,
Devon McLeod, LCSW