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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Relationship Repair

“You can’t fast-forward heartbreak and you can’t rewind love — and that’s just one big bummer.”(Chelsea Handler, comedian)

It’s true — sometimes pain is unavoidable. You can’t just ignore it, rise above it or get around it. Or, as poet Robert Frost puts it, “The best way out is always through.” That said, I’m all for a speedy recovery and I certainly want to avoid any unnecessary suffering. And, sometimes it is possible to rewind love and avoid the big bummer altogether.

What would you say the chances are of a love rewind, when a busy physician is so disconnected from his wife and kids that he doesn’t even know the name of the family dog? Amazingly, it wasn’t too late to rewind, repair, and rekindle that relationship.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how much I appreciate all the solid research that’s been done on what works and doesn’t work in relationship therapy. I like being able to rely on evidence-based practices that have debunked some of the maxims I was given during my original training in counseling psychology. For example, I was instructed to warn my clients that seeking relationship counseling without both parties participating increases the likelihood of divorce.

Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Here’s why I eventually went rogue: When I started my practice, the vast majority of my clients were women whose husbands refused to participate in marriage counseling. Many of these women were experiencing what marriage researcher John Gottman calls “the classic marital impasse — a wife seeking emotional connection from a withdrawn husband.”

With some trepidation, I began to work with these women individually. My lightbulb moment came when I realized, “So… if she can’t get him to open up with her — his own wife — what makes us think he’s going to open to two women in the room with him?”

So, my mantra became, “I’m willing to work with whoever shows up.” I began to tell my clients, “Just do your own work.” Working on yourself is your best chance of helping not just yourself, but also the relationship. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll start doing better and feeling better. The cool thing is that in the process, you’ll be inviting him to do better. No guarantee about the relationship, but it’s your best chance. And, that’s all we’ve got.

Then one day it dawned on me: “Oh! The husband is getting his therapy through his wife.” For a moment I wondered, “Is that okay?” It didn’t take me long to conclude, “The whole thing is working better, so who cares how he’s getting his part done?”

Nowadays, about 50% of my practice consists of men, so I can share that same information with them, too.

Emboldened, I began to trust my instincts more as I continued to rely on evidence-based practices, and as a result, I found myself getting more creative and effective in working with the unique interpersonal dynamics that every couple brings to counseling. Even when both partners are participating in counseling, I sometimes find myself breaking another cardinal rule of marital therapy: Make the couple talk to each other, not to me. I understand the reasoning behind this approach — if you’re not listening to and connecting with your partner, one way to restore the connection is to put yourselves in a situation where you have to look at each other and listen to each other.

It can work great to help couples who are already pretty good listeners get through a rough patch, but what I call “prematurely imposed intimacy,” can backfire in the early stages of relationship repair, especially if one or both of you are conflict-avoidant, and just for the record, a lot of us are. It’s just about impossible to let yourself be vulnerable when you don’t feel safe. So, we’re trying to find a way to make it safe to share some straight talk with each other without killing each other and without fear of losing our loved one’s affection. Isn’t that the whole point of counseling anyway? To make it safe enough to confide what bothers us or what we really want or how we really feel?

And, what if one or both partners are rather volatile? When emoting safely lets off steam or releases pain, it can truly be a turning point in relationship repair. Yes, the Roseanne approach to relationships actually does work for some couples. But, what if it degrades into two people yelling at or insulting each other while I watch them spin out of control, and maybe say that one thing that puts the relationship beyond repair?

The reality is that by the time a couple gets to counseling, they are usually highly sensitized about the issues and feelings involved. Yet somehow, they’re supposed to dare greatly and talk openly about issues and concerns that are loaded with strong emotion, all the while feeling so sensitive, raw, or exposed that it’s like sitting there without any skin.

When it’s just too vulnerable or potentially volatile to communicate directly, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a number of indirect forms of communication. For example, part of a session may involve letting a partner talk to me about their own stuff, while the other partner is essentially listening in. Rather than “triangulating,” which has become another taboo in therapy world, I see it as one of several ways to provide a safe and stable conduit through which highly sensitive information can flow. I’ve also seen it generate empathy for your partner when you’re not having to fend off his or her attacks. It allows me to act as a translator or advocate or hold you accountable without taking sides, passing judgment, or making demands.

If it makes “straight talk while staying emotionally connected” possible, what do we care whether it’s direct or indirect communication? It’s kind of like shuttle diplomacy, with everyone eventually in the room together. Sometimes it works when nothing else will.