With many years of work dedicated to helping couples overcome a 'stuck' relationship, I have found the most common problem with couples is the communication style. Many couples come to therapy expecting to provide "their side of the argument" and seeking a validation that they are right and their partner is wrong.
This will never happen! Those arguments become power struggles and represent 'walls' that go up and often escalate to loud voices and hurtful sarcasm. No one wins. Sarcasm strikes blows that alienate, and couples polarize and go to their corners.
Many times couples cannot stay on the subject they once brought to the couples session and begin to interject "old baggage" from the past. Many couples make automatic negative assumptions about what their partner will say or what their partner will do next. Most of the time they are not giving the other the grace or opportunity to "put down their wall" and actually communicate authentic feelings and beliefs. In fact by adding "You" statements, ie. "You need to, You should or You ought to..." creates a more defensive position and the argument either shuts down one of the partners or escalates the disagreement.
One example of a couple who comes to session argues about who provides the most thoughtful gifts to the other on holidays. The wife makes an assumption, "you never listen to me, I know you are going to pick the first and easiest thing you find at the store." Husband retorting, "I am never going to please you, I think about this for so long and no matter what I chose for you it is not right. Why bother?"
As the couples talk over each other, arms begin to fold across their chests, and the body language to each other informs both of the "unavailability" and non--listening positions.
I am experienced in identifying the process of what is occurring with couples and their communications. Most often that communication process or pattern is the enemy, not each of the partners. Many times the 'defend/blame' begins and the couple gets lost in their old pattern of behavior and the cycle goes around and around until someone stonewalls (shuts down) or one becomes very angry and yells. Another pattern of behavior can be 'purse/withdraw' or 'pursue/pursue' and deadlock occurs. Once the pattern of behavior is identified and the couples realize their habit or pattern, their awareness and language skills learned in session can stop the behavior. They can learn how to speak to each other differently outside of the old pattern of stuck behavior.
One of the most important factors is what "the wall" represents. Often anger, resistance, frustration shows up - these emotions hold up the wall. However, in working in couples therapy the secondary emotion, is vulnerability. This fragile emotion cannot be accessed when a partner does not feel safe.
Judgment and criticism is a tool used to protect a self. When children have witnessed parental fights and parents model to us how to fight and how to resolve or not resolve differences we take on those patterns ourselves in our own partnerships. One of the worst outcomes to our past is that many of us witnessed avoidance, sweeping issues under the rug, or a hierarchy of gender where one partner dominates and makes the rules and decisions. Now is the time to challenge our old beliefs and develop a new means of relating to our partners.
Developing a positive outlook about our partner, resuming a friendship, making complains gentle, asking for needs to be met, learning vulnerability and safety within the dyad, all of these skills can be learned and developed and implemented. The cost is some dedicated work in couples therapy, the outcome is learning to love and respect our partner and really understand what they are asking for in their requests for love and emotional connection. One of the most important questions couples seek is, "Are you there for me?"
How do you answer?