Strangers On The Couch: Couples Therapy

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

2 Responses to “Strangers On The Couch: Couples Therapy”

  1. kim

    Reading the paragraph Skillful Love took me back almost twenty years ago to my introduction of the book by Daniel Goleman “Emotional Intelligence.” Remembering well the nursery school director encouraging all the parents to borrow it and read it. She knew then the importance of his message.

    My curiosity and memories from all those years ago lead me to search for the book. I came across a blog written by Mr. Goleman on the subject of emotional intelligence. The book was published in 1995 and the blog written in 2005. A new way of thinking about the ingredients of life success, Mr. Goleman says electrified him. SEL (social and emotional learning) in 2005 was being offered to children in dozens of countries. Illinois set these specific standards, “ In the early elementary years students should learn to recognize and accurately label their emotions and how they lead them to act. By the late elementary years lessons in empathy should make children able to identify the nonverbal clues to how someone else feels; in junior high they should be able to analyze what creates stress for them or what motivates their best performance. And in high school the SEL skills include listening and talking in ways that resolve conflicts instead of escalating them and negotiating for win-win solutions.” The article goes on to state the improvement children showed in achievement scores as a benefit from the SEL program. Attendance rates rose, misbehavior dropped and GPA averages greatly improved.

    Mr. Goleman made this statement: “Perhaps the biggest surprise for me has been the impact of EI in the world of business, particularly in the areas of leadership and employee development (a form of adult education). The Harvard Business Review has hailed emotional intelligence as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea,” one of the most influential business ideas of the decade.”

    There is irony here for me. Given the work we have done which would is fair to say is very much emotional intelligence and the success of the academic work that I have done as of late, there is little doubt of the dramatic impact EI has on ones brain. The irony here is the timing of your blog with the mention of EI and the timing of my academia.

    The ingredients, Mr. Goleman said, of life success. Whether it be my coupledom or my newest academic venture, I couldn’t agree more. Proof it’s never too late.

    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Kim, thank you for that citation of Daniel Goleman’s work and connecting it with our work. How little of our potential for emotional intelligence is tapped in our typical educational experience, or in our family life, in our society as a whole. Thank you for underscoring its importance and that it truly can work.


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