> Communication Failure in Marriage: Portland Couples Counseling
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Portland Marriage and Couples Counseling
Bernard McDowell, LCSW
Psychotherapist & Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  811 NW 20th Avenue, Suite 104, Portland, Oregon 97209

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When Our Best Communication Skills Aren't Yet Up To The Task

     Other articles on this site address general issues about couples such as the stages relationships go through, how our individual identities play out in common interplay between partners, and communication skills to handle conflict.  This essay focuses on just one narrow aspect of relationships-how to deal with intense feelings of loss when all our best communication skills have failed.  

    The popular book, Emotional Intelligence, outlines a great deal of research supporting the tremendous advantages of emotional skills for getting into college and later success in life. Some researchers categorize those in two broad categories:  1) interpersonal skills including communication and emapthy and 2) intrapersonal including the ability to identify one's own emotional state, self soothe, and persist in the face of frustration.  No matter how refined a couples' communication skills are, one or both will face feelings of loneliness, frustration, alienation, and hopelessness.

     The closest thing to a guarantee in relationships is that you will have big losses at times.  By loss in this context, I'm referring to unfulfilled needs or desires for the relationship.  To stave off painful feelings of loss or to hang onto hope of getting what they want, people commonly and reflexively blame their partner, withdraw, obsess, grovel, pester, etc..  All of those strategies cause many more problems than simply feeling the pain, the sadness, or disappointment.  As explained below, here “containing” refers to feeling the loss as one's own experience and responsibility without projecting our pain and frustrations onto a partner with blame. 

     Other articles on this site address general issues about couples such as the stages relationships go through, how our individual identities play out in common interplay between partners, and communication skills to handle conflict.  This essay focuses on just one narrow aspect of relationships-how to deal with intense feelings of loss when all our best communication skills have failed.  

     In my clinical experience, a very common illustration of these dynamics occurs in the courtship and marriage of a very extroverted woman and introverted man. When they first meet, his calm, quiet manner and humor attracts her while her openness and social flare energizes him.  During their first year of dating, they typically go out frequently and visit family members.  However, soon after getting married, he stops going to her family gatherings every weekend.  She highly values the connection with her family and wants to share that time with extended family.  On the other hand, he truly enjoyed time with her family initially because it was also a high time with her; but fundamentally, he needs a fair amount of time to himself or just one on one with her.

    In this kind of situation, if she pressures him to change with anger, it's like demanding an apple to be an orange.  He'll feel pressured but to be someone he isn't and unloved for who he really is. She may feel duped! But he's just being him--an introvert.  Normal courtship behavior in this culture involves “going out” and visiting families and friends as a couple integrates their relationship into each others' lives.  If he did go regularly, he'd likely get depressed because he's acting out of obligation to the point of ignoring his unique orientation.  Yet, just seeing the folly of blaming him still leaves her with a real loss--for her hopes and for how she assumed marriage would go.  There really is no law of nature that she has to blame him, get down on herself, catastrophize, deny that it hurts, or subtly cop an attitude that she doesn't love him.  Simply feeling the loss, the sadness or disappointment, addresses the situation-that's what I'm referring to by “containing” the loss.  It may be briefly tuning into disappointment or it may mean more extended grieving.  (I am definitely not at all suggesting ignoring important feelings or just explaining them away.)             

Differentiation-The most fundamental couples' skill
     There is no dogma about how couples need to relate to each other in order to be successful.  Some couples thrive on common goals, some on playfulness, some grow well in the ordinary course of life events--simply observing or sharing through life's changes in work or children.  It is also true that couples frequently need skills for handling problems with each other.  Without those skills, they'll often build anger, resentment, and/or a sense of powerlessness.  In many psychologically healthy conflicts, the ability to differentiate from our partner is crucial.  In rough terms, “differentiation” refers to the ability to simultaneously maintain a highly valued sense of self and respect for our partner at the same time-that's particularly challenging when important needs are not met.  

    We might speak of several sub-skills for differentiation: maintaining a sense of unique value (independent of our partner) with a sense of choice, keeping a feeling of connection even when disagreeing, and containing emotions over the loss of connection (rather than blame the other when our most skillful efforts to get what we want fail).  First, here I'm using “sense of choice” as shorthand for having a strong self from which to say a wholehearted yes or no.  Without a sense of choice, we act out of obligation as if our partner, parent, etc. is directing the show.  Then guilt, blame, anger, and resentment fester because we believe we are being coerced (have to, should, must, etc.). But with a sense of “choice”, each person has a sense of responsibility for their participation in the interactions.  When someone says “yes” to their partner out of obligation, they typically feel resentment; if they say “no” despite thinking  “they should”, guilt arises.  Secondly, healthy and effective communications usually demonstrate “breathable boundary” skills which include 1) the ability to hold one's own position yet freely empathize with a partner and 2) verbal skills to fend off hurtful comments by returning respectful communication to the other; then a continuity in the feeling of connection can be maintained simultaneously with the tension of possibly losing out on something quite important. 

“Containing” vs. Blaming
     Thirdly and the focus of this essay, dealing with our own feelings related to loss and hurt are vital.  Again, no matter how mature a couples is, one or both will have intense feelings of loss at times. While communication or assertiveness skills may be thought of as “external” and played out with others, “containing” our own feelings is more often “internal” or, at least, not played out with our partner.  It is certainly quite healthy to share our feelings with partners.  But in a primary relationship, expecting solace from the partner with whom we feel the loss can sometimes be disastrous--it is too likely to be taken as blame, a put down, an expectation, etc..  For example, a retired married woman decides to go on a solo trip for two months.  She had been discussing it for over a year with her reluctant partner of 15 years.  Her partner gets anxious and declares that her decision is “causing him problems concentrating at work and that he fears losing his job.”  That, in turn, could lead her to feel overburdened with responsibility for managing his life and feelings.  Of course, in such a scenario it is appropriate to discuss and “process” the issues, but after all is said, the trip will either be taken or not and there will be a loss for one of the partners.  

Grieving and Responding To Loss
     When we don't get what we want, we may be able to simply refocus (staying busy) or  reset our perspective (the glass is half filled).  However,  when the loss is great enough, it often requires bigger medicine-e.g., grieving can be a necessary and powerful healing path.  The essence of grieving rests in simply meeting the feeling of the loss rather than pushing the pain away.  Paradoxically, with a willingness to embrace painful feelings they dissipate, while forceful attempts to get rid of them subtly reinforces them.  Other ways to handle loss include “keeping things in perspective”, “staying busy”, and creative endeavors.  Each has its time and place, though no doubt in this culture, grieving gets short shrift.                       
Discriminating Thoughts From Feelings
     An important aspect of responding to loss in relationship is discriminating the feeling from the thoughts we spin around feelings.  If the man in the example above is hurt and says “I feel like you're just stole from me”, he hasn't described a feeling at all; he says “I feel” but follows it with a thought casting her as the unjust cause of what we're left to guess is a bad feeling.  But we don't know if he's feeling frustration, anger embarrassment, shame, humiliation, etc.. This lack of discrimination doesn't always lead to problems but often it does--further ensnaring both speaker and partner in unnecessary suffering.  .  If he had contained or owned his own feelings, he might instead acknowledge his own fear of loneliness or how much he'll miss her; or share how he feels (shocked, empty, inadequate) in realizing how dependent he is.  On a cognitive level, he might have recognized his assumption that they had a contract to never be apart for a month along with his feelings of anxiety to learn she isn't entertaining the same assumptions.  

     Consider another example:  a woman looks forward to her boyfriend attending a dance performance she has a minor part in.  For the most part he's a responsible person.  On the day of the performance, he tells her something else has come up and he's choosing to do something else.  A day later she might have perspective and simply feel disappointed.  But, on first hearing that he wasn't going to come, she had a raw sensation of pain.  Commonly in a situation like this, people automatically spin thoughts to make the pain go away and protect themselves from future pain. She might direct thoughts at his defects “He's not capable of caring about me so to hell with him”  or she might turn against herself, “I'm such a pathetic failure at relationships”, etc..  Of course, these types of thoughts are usually gross distortions; but if she grinds away with more such thoughts and then acts on them there's a good chance she'll withdraw or blast him with anger when he comes home.  In contrast, if she's simply willing to feel the disappointment, at the most she might have a cry with no need to blame or distance.  All of our desires don't get fulfilled and that's good reason for a sad or disappointed feeling-without adding the extras!             

     Below are some suggestions about learning to “contain” difficult, painful feelings on your own-rather than blaming, demanding, obsessing, feeling the victim, or beating a dead horse.  Again, in a relationship it is vital to have skills for talking over issues and feelings.  If that man had spoken to his wife about his fear of loneliness, she'd be much more likely to respond with empathy and concern..  That can actually build intimacy even though she still goes ahead with the trip.  But it is also true that we often don't get what we want--whether it's empathy, validation, appreciation, compromise, time to talk things over, or a specific agreement for a course of action.  In those instances, it is important to have ways to move through these feelings without pushing them off on others with anger, sarcasm, threats, sulking, or lectures.  In effect, these modes of behaving, may be taken as attempts to make the other person responsible for our bad feelings.  No doubt anger, blame, and sarcasm have their place, but in a healthy, working relationship, that place is very minimal.

Other "Experiments" in “Containing” Feelings
     Warning!!! The Following Experiments May Seem Ridiculous--but not half as ridiculous and not a fraction as repetitive as the typical couples' loops of blaming, obsession, resentment, etc..
      But is any relationship even worth going to all this trouble? or worth through these emotional contortions?  Well, you'll have to decide that--if things are going well in your relationship, no need to do anything different.  But most couples fall into destructive patterns in which both partners feel painted into a corner, bored, or powerless to make the relationship more fulfilling. And if it was just a matter of logic, people wouldn't repeat the same dead end strategies day after day.  And simply changing partners doesn't win the day either.  Again, the following 'exercises' aren't met as dogma nor as an exhaustive list nor as literal exercises: rather they are offered as thumb nail sketches of psychological skills described in an exercise format but only to invite you to gently jolt yourself out of some unconscious scripts, painful and repetitive, that you may be playing out in relationships.  
--Set time aside to experience/explore sadness for what is missing in the relationship now; this doesn't mean it will never be there [that is an extra thought]. If you're ambitious, you may even choose to set aside a predetermined amount of time , say, 45 to 60 minutes, for grieving.  The time may be used for crying over what is missing or just exploring sad feelings.  It is important to discern the difference between sadness and depression which is marked more by physical inertia, thoughts of hopelessness, repetitive internal dialogues, and, often, an oscillation between self-recrimination and blaming others.  None of those are necessary aspects of feeling sad.  Clearly, being sad over a friend's death doesn't absolutely have to involve blame or hopelessness.  Listening to sad music may be helpful.  Notice the beauty of it.  At the end of the session, you are to turn your attention to more immediate enjoyable or mundane activities. We might call this emotional yoga to emphasize that when people are in the emotional  habit of dealing with loss through anger, it is important  to exercise other emotional muscles.
Notice where feelings arise in the bodyA great deal of research confirms the benefits of mediation.  Many differnet techniques of meditation involve simply noticing when and where painful feelings arise.   Scan your body with your internal attention.  Monitor (notice) the tempo of your breathing.  Ask is it shallow or deep? fast or slow? Ask (notice) the level of tension in your face and your stomach.  If you feel a particular tension in the stomach, for example, notice how long the area of tension is; how wide it is from left to right and from front to back.  Do you associate a color with it or a sound?  Notice at this level that each feeling is really quite bearable.  Though these suggestions may seem too pedantic, consider that such a practice is, at least, one practical way of "accepting what is" in contrast to our usual reflexive habits to escape difficult feelings...by over eating, drinking, watching TV, jumping into another destructive relationship, or otherwise getting depressed.   
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--Distinguish the difference between the feeling and the thoughts that we spin around those feelings.  Writing may be very useful--giving voice to our own internal contradictions.  Rather than spin with the same old thought about how your partner is screwed up, write out your internal dialogue between one side of you that wants to leave and the other that finds the relationship quite meaningful; or between the side of you that is angry at the other person for stifling what you have to say and the other side of you that is tired of being angry; or the side of you that feels abandoned by the other person and the side that is truly exhausted and bored with your history of abandoning yourself. 

--Discern the difference between a bad feeling and the incorporation of the bad feeling into an identity.  When bad feelings arise, people often incorporate this into thoughts, such as I'm a bad person.  Even simple bad feelings like those of being physically ill are twisted into “I'm a bad person”.  Many cultural and religious traditions have ostracized people for being sick as evil.  But do you believe infants are evil when they get ill?  When a dog gets a thorn in a paw, it certainly feels “bad”, but doesn't add thoughts about being a bad dog or a bad father dog for not being as capable of a provider.  However, we as humans, do add those negative thoughts.  Those thoughts are an extra layer of identification with feelings that are often impersonal.  

--With regard to the writing exercise above, remember specific examples with your family of origin that meet these two conditions: 1) you've felt upset, lonely, unappreciated, etc. And 2) you had already made attempts to talk about the issues.  Notice the painful feelings that arise.  Notice where they arise in the body and then catalog the thoughts that arise into a few general categories, e.g.: guilt, blaming others, self blame, a story about how things will never get better, etc..  In efffect, you are cataloguing your early coping styles for responding to loss.  Ways that may not be adaptable to your current circumstance.
--Develop a list of phrases that help you maintain perspective.  In it's lowest harmonic this is pop-psychology's most popular first aid remedy and can be quite useful.  Notice that over your life time, if you're like most people, many catastrophic thoughts have come and gone without any of the reality coming to pass.  Perhaps the most sophisticated lperspective entails remembering that  both negative and positive thoughts are exactly and simply
mental constructions- starring an "I" and co-starring an "other" evaluating that "I". Gamblers do a lot of positive thinking and so do catastrophiles but most of those thoughts never paly out in reality.  A lot of meditation techniques advocate simply noting that thoughts are arising--mental constructions--and passing.  The idea here isn't that “perspective” will always win out, only some of the time.  You may wish to write down a list to keep in your wallet.

--More emotional yoga:  Using the same material as in the exercise above, deliberately evoke those painful feelings by going into the memories of the situations involved.  Then begin to deliberately intensify the feelings by consciously spinning the familiar thoughts of blame, etc..  Then just as those feelings are arising, but before you get totally swamped by them, switch to the technique of noting your bodily sensations or go into sadness directly.  This isn't a suggestion to avoid difficult feelings by redirecting attention.  Rather, it is a way to learn that you aren't your feelings:  stay with the feelings but at a level you can build an ability to contain/feel them or, in another view, feel them but without a need to identify.  It may be valuable to remind yourself that they're only feelings; they won't kill you and they do pass, just like everything else.  That's it!  Sad feelings are moving through.  It's so easy in contrast to how messy it gets when, instead, we take all that emotional energy and turn it into blame or self diminution.

--Create your own “exercise”.  No, I don't mean to make this some sort of craft/art project, but rather to urge you and challenge you to take a creative relationship with sufficient intensity to change your pattern of responding to loss with blame and projection--not because that pattern is “bad” but because it's neither productive nor adaptive.  The formalized structure of the above suggestions can seem awfully stilted.   But the old blame game is hardly spontaneous and definitely counter productive.  The simple  point of these elaborate suggestions is that there are viable alternatives.  The heart of almost all of the above is simply to be aware of feelings that arise and pass away; that is, in fact, also the heart of many if not most meditation methods (for which there is now a quite significant scientific support).
                                                                     by Bernard McDowell, lcsw  (c) 2003  Back to Top