Communication problems are by far the most common reason that couples come in for counseling. However, learning new communication skills does not always address the true cause of their problem. For example, many people who have difficulty communicating with their partners have a much easier time communicating with other people. In cases such as these, a lack of skill might not be the real problem. It could be the person’s inability to use the skill with his or her partner. The following example shows a couple whose main issue was resolved in just one session by discovering its hidden emotional truth.
Julie and Greg lived in Sacramento and contacted me through my website for phone counseling. When I do phone counseling with couples, we either use a conference call or they are on two phones in their home. If possible, they will be in the same room.
Greg worked as a computer programmer and Julie was in graduate school to become a teacher. Julie’s mother had died three months earlier and she was struggling to do well at school, hold her job and deal with some pretty complicated feelings. After being together for a year and a half, she told Greg that she wanted to take a break from the relationship while she was under so much stress. When I asked Greg how he felt about this, he answered that he was scared and did not want to break up.
I wondered what they hoped to get from phone counseling, and wondered if they might have two very different goals in coming to see me. It is important for me to understand this first and get a lot of clarity about what each of them are hoping for. After asking each of them, it became clear that Greg wanted the relationship to stay together. Julie said that her first priority was taking care of herself, but that if she could find a way to do that in the relationship, she would want to stay. However, she said she couldn’t really imagine that happening and Greg sounded pretty sad.
We all agreed that if there was a way for Julie to feel that the relationship helped her with her stress rather than adding more, that would be ideal situation that would create happiness for both of them. However, if this was not able to happen, Julie will leave for as long as it takes for her life to feel more stable.
At this point, my job had been defined. I was to understand if there was a way for Julie to feel supported enough by Greg that she would want to stay. Julie was quick to tell me that she could not imagine Greg becoming any more supportive. She said that he had listened to her feelings for countless hours and always been there to help her. Greg was in agreement with this, but said that he would be happy to try anything new that might keep them together.
I began wondering about why some people want to be with their partner when they are under a lot of stress while others want to be alone. It seemed to me that Julie felt under tremendous stress and sought to feel better by taking a break from the pressures of a relationship. However, I know that it is possible for someone to find comfort in a relationship in her situation.
I began my inquiry by asking Julie to allow herself to feel all of the pressures and stresses and grief in her life. Then while she was feeling them, I asked her to imagine just for a minute knowing that she will never leave her relationship. She quickly began to feel her anxiety increase and was very uncomfortable. I asked her to stay with that feeling and to say to Greg, “I just can’t stay with you…” and let the sentence finish itself without pre-thinking an ending.
She said, “I just can’t stay with you because there is too much pressure.” I asked to continue with the sentence and she said, “I just can’t stay with you because there is too much pressure and I’ll pop.” I then asked her to stay in that feeling and finish the sentence, “There is too much pressure because…” She immediately exclaimed “Because I can’t be myself.”
I now had the begining of the story. If Julie feels that she can’t be herself around Greg, it makes sense why that would add pressure and stress to her life to be with him. What I still did not understand was why she felt this way, and luckily there was still about 20 minutes to go in the session.
In couples counseling, it is usually the case that both partners have a hand in creating their dynamics. I decided at this point to focus on Greg in order to learn why Julie might not feel comfortable being herself. I asked Greg to imagine a recent time when Julie felt particularly distressed. Once he had this in mind, I asked him just to keep visualizing this image of her feeling distressed and to imagine him not doing anything to change it. He told me that this was hard for him and it gave him a sinking feeling in his chest. I asked him to stay with that feeling and try saying to Julie, “If I don’t try to change you.” and let the sentence finish itself. He said that he didn’t feel like he was trying to change her, so we changed his setence to say, “If I just allow you to feel this way and do nothing, then…” He took a few deep breaths and said, “If I just let you feel this way, you will never get better and you will be depressed forever.”
I now felt like I might have a pretty good sense of what was going on, so I asked him to make that a little more explicit. I asked him to try out saying to Julie, “I just can’t let you be sad or fried all the time or you will never get better.” He said that it felt true to say it. I then asked him to go even further and try saying, “Even if it makes you feel pressured to change, I just can’t let you be sad or fried all the time or you will never get better.” He resonated powerfully with this sentence, although neither of them had had any idea that this was true prior to our session. Greg quickly recognized how significant this was. He said, “Wow. If I can’t stand to just let you feel sad and stressed out, then it makes sense why you don’t feel like you can be yourself around me.”
Julie started to cry, and said “I’m so glad you can see this now.” They were both pretty shocked and disoriented as we unpacked what we had discovered and I summarized it in two sentences that I would email for them to read each day. I asked them to correct me and make sure that the words we chose were complete true. We ended up settling on: “Greg is afraid that if he lets Julie be sad and fried all the time, she will never get better. But this makes Julie feel like she can’t be herself around Greg, which makes her feel even worse.” I asked them just to recognize that this was true and not to try to change it immediately.
In a follow up call five months later, Greg told me that he had realized how much pressure he had been putting on Julie to get better and that he had been able to start feeling more comfortable when she felt distressed. He said that they were still together, and that while Julie would still get overwhelmed by work and school and grief over her mother every so often, she no longer would push him away at those times. He said the relationship was more secure than it ever had been and felt that our phone session had been largely responsible for the change.