Written By: Rebecca Hirsch, AMFT
It is probably no surprise to you that many couples seek couples therapy to work on their communication skills as well as to learn tools on how to argue better and more effectively. However, what is not talked about as often is how difficult it is to break old patterns of communication. How we communicate and process, especially during an argument, has been deeply ingrained in us from childhood, past relationships, and so forth. Do we become defensive? Do we shut-down? Do we do everything in our power to avoid the tough conversations? Do we try to raise our voice the loudest to be heard? All of these responses, among many more, can almost seem like involuntary and automatic responses. While they may be automatic, they are not involuntary, and we can change them.
When attending couples therapy, one of the first and most important things to identify is the pattern or cycle that the couple is in. The therapist will ask questions about how arguments get triggered and how each partner responds to the other as emotions escalate. As the therapist gathers more data about the couple’s cycle, the therapist has a better understanding of how the cycle started, and more importantly, how to break the cycle. A powerful tool that a couples therapist will often use is to physically draw or map out the couple’s cycle for them in session. A common cycle that is seen in couples therapy is what is known as the “pursuer and distancer cycle”. This cycle, just as it sounds, is when one partner will bring something up, the other person will not want to discuss it, the other person will keep pushing the issue, and the other person shuts down or avoids even more (and round and round we go).
What I will often do when mapping out a couple’s cycle is to show them where each of them has another option. For example, instead of telling him we’ll talk about it later, you have another option of validating how important this is for him, but now is not a great time for you to talk about it because you want to finish a work e-mail. On the flip side, instead of following her around the house raising your voice because you didn’t think she heard you, say what you have to say, and let her come to you. When showing the couple what options they have, I will compare it to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. If you want to follow your partner into an argument down the dark tunnel, go to chapter 7 (and we all know how that ends, which landed you here). If you want to choose another option, such as apologizing or giving the other space, go to chapter 12, which may be new territory for you two (you may run the risk of confronting the monster head-on, but sometimes you have to in order to get to the end). When each partner understands that they have a choice in how to respond, which may therefore change how their partner responds in turn, it can be empowering, but also daunting.
The best way to be able to choose your response in the moment is to slow down. Notice physical sensations in your body that tell you that you are getting angry or frustrated (such as an increased heart rate and racing thoughts). Ask yourself, do I really want to go back to the dark tunnel in chapter 7 where I continue to raise my voice until I’m heard, or do I want to try a different approach. We always have a choice in how we want to respond to our partners, we just have to be aware and mindful of when we become so escalated that it feels involuntary.
Couples who are coming into therapy for issues such as these often know how arguments will usually end. In other words, they have been on the same “adventure” for a long time. Tools taught in therapy show you that there is a whole other adventure in their story that they have not been able to access yet, which can ultimately lead to better communication and better intimacy. Couples cannot avoid talking about their issues, or avoid “fighting the monster”, forever. Through learning better communication tools, couples can tackle their issues together while each feeling heard and understood.
If you and your partner are interested in learning better communication skills, reach out to Symmetry Counseling to schedule an appointment with a couples therapist.