In Translation: “Let me introduce you to your mate.” This is what I would like to say to my patients “on the couch” more often than not. Have you met before? I feel as if my job as their therapist is to be translator, interpreter, facilitator and teacher to two people who at times speak foreign tongues and live in parallel universes. The rest of the time, they seem to be familiar with their partner, even share spaces and offspring. Yet, though they have a wealth of information about each other, they often have a paucity of understanding, and an abundance of misinformation or misinterpretation. It is a wondrous thing to unravel the complex misfirings of couples’ relationships because what you see close up is a dispersion of profound attachment, relentless effort and agitated zig zags of hurt, anger and mutual ignorance.
Youngsters: Part of this “abundance of misinformation or misinterpretation” can be attributed to youth. Many of the couples who come to my office have been together for ten, fifteen, twenty-plus years and when they first signed up for companionship, passion and the shared life, they were young adults. In this group, the average age for mating ranges from early twenties through late thirties. Culturally that is right on the mark to begin to select out one’s mate for life, at least according to our biological clocks. And impressions made in those early years of courtship, co-habitating or marrying, stick fast and last long. Yet, they are limited to a time and era. No matter how profound or probing the conversations might have been between the new lovers or newly weds in those early years, life sweeps in and exchanges of soulful emotions and personal confessions get interrupted by the paraphernalia of daily living. On the positive side, many individuals still see their partner as the sexy, fun loving very smart sweetheart they were lucky to have found amongst so many unsuitable candidates. That memory of appeal can count for a lot of sustained bonding even as the image of youth gets compromised by the virtues of age. On the negative side of that same phenomenon is the fact that many of the original beliefs that dominated The Coupledom might have been based on idealization and glorification that youth and chemistry provide. And rather than having an updated version of the beloved, imbued with the brain’s increased capacity for conceptualization and complexity, there is only disappointment and often the belief that somebody pretended to be something that they were not. That someone was tricked, deceived or stupid.
No Masquerading Here: Amongst the couples with whom I have met over the years, it is rare that I see anyone masquerading as someone they are not as the source of the marital discontent. Nature demands that inspiring someone to fall in love with us requires a flaunting of our finest feathers. So is it really fair to say that your partner misled you into thinking they were nicer, more magnanimous, thoughtful and selfless than they turned out to be? Or were they nicer, more magnanimous, thoughtful and selfless when they were younger, simpler and newly and madly in love? Yes. But was it a calculated masquerade? Hardly.
Skillful Love: No, the story of the fraying away of love’s sweet bliss is a far less exotic script. It is actually a story of ignorance. Our societal ignorance. Educators and child psychologists are finding through their research that aiding in the acquisition of “emotional intelligence” via the training of both educators and children offers a far greater likelihood of successful social and emotional development and adult health than the simple passage of time and graduation into adulthood. Emotional intelligence about oneself and one’s partner is a skill that can be taught even late in life and that is the skill I teach in couples therapy that builds the foundation for the healthier Coupledom.
Assumptions and Projections: When I describe my work as translator, interpreter and facilitator to The Coupledom I am referring to a sequence of activities that involve my listening to each partner, both to their history, their current perspectives and their emotional under-voice, the sounds of pain, bewilderment, anger, hurt and confusion. Their belief systems need to be unearthed, about themselves, their partner, their families, events and relationships, religion and culture. Then my ear must be attuned to the interactions and communications, verbal and non-verbal, between the couple who sit before my eyes and ears. And from that potpourri of information, I can sniff out the assumptions and projections that each one is making about the other and themselves. And what packs the most powerful punch of all is how often the partner does not have a clue about what their mate is feeling, in what manner their mate experienced a transaction, historical or otherwise, and the messages they took away from these transactions, even dating back as far as courtship or friendship. Too often couples “assume” that they know the other’s feelings. And equally as often, individuals are ignorant about their own feelings, deficient in the skills required to probe their psyches and still woefully dependent on primitive childhood defenses that say “stay away from those emotions, we kids don’t know what to do with them, no one taught us.”
Be Curious: So my job in the room with the couch is to get individuals to be curious about what they are feeling and believing about interactions or behaviors that have transpired between themselves and their partners. Fixed beliefs about the intentions and motivations of one’s partner, once unearthed, prove to be glaringly off the mark though sadly held tightly as absolute truths for years and years. This painstaking unraveling of the notions accrued over the years, that are in fact misinterpretations or misunderstandings, is the art and the substance of couples therapy. Along with the equally critical process of providing a forum for individuals to articulate past pains in words that are true, not distractions and accusations, words that are heard both by the sufferer and the inflictor, for the first time, can be an education in itself: “I never knew you felt that way. I never knew you had the capacity for those feelings. I never knew that’s how you took what I did or said. I never knew that your parents, your schoolmates, your first wife, made you feel that way. I never knew so much about you.” And “I never knew so much about me.”
H.S. Reunions: Marriages and long-term relationships are like twentieth high school reunions. The person who was your friend, prom date or lab partner looks familiar across the room, maybe, or the nametag nails the I.D. A rush of associations follow the recognition: he was cute; she was hot; he was a nerd; she was super smart; he was a jock; she was a thespian; he didn’t like me; she hated me. Then you chat and find out what really went on in the mind and life of that H.S. chum and surprises pour forth. Couples therapy can mimic, in some aspects, the high school reunion phenomenon. Surprises. All these years I still saw you as that nerd, that flirt, that kid who doesn’t think I am worthy of a date or a discourse. Fixed beliefs tied to history, projection and assumptions when aired in the light of a mature day, can be shed, clarified, updated and healed. Wow.
Let me introduce you to your mate, the semi-stranger on the couch, stranger no more.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013