Brett and Tina, an attractive young couple who married five years ago, have been living separately for 18 months. They exchange their four-year-old son, Dylan, every other day because neither of them wants to be without him for more than one day. Dylan seems to have adjusted to this pattern, and Brett and Tina both feel this is the best arrangement for now.
They sought couples counseling to explore rebuilding a working relationship after years of conflict over the same fundamental issues. Both said they would like to live together again if these issues can be resolved. As I often see, disagreements will have different content, but the underlying dynamic is a repeat.
Tina complained that Brett would question her about things like where she had been and how much money she had spent. She reacted to this by getting frustrated and defensive when he pressed for more and more details. She said she felt interrogated and would withdraw and refuse to engage with him. This only served to raise the anxiety he admitted he felt, which came out as anger. She admitted she would then “walk on eggs” to keep this from happening, which only increased her resentment. She would then withhold any form of affection and go coldly silent, which only made him more anxious. He felt helpless when this happened, which would lead to more questioning and anger when she didn’t respond.
Tina acknowledged that she felt like the family caretaker growing up, and when Brett seems needy or demanding, she pulls away, out of fear that she will fall back into that caretaking role. When she pulls away, he gets anxious and “acts out” in ways that, to her, justify punishing him with that withdrawal.
Over the past few months, both report being able to pull out of this pattern more quickly by using the awareness and skills developed during our sessions. They can tell when they are triggered by one another and are able to tell their emotional truth at the time instead of devolving into the anxiety-fueled cycle that had plagued and nearly ruined their marriage. As is usually the case, each had to acknowledge the anxiety he/she felt and not let his/her conditioned self-protective behavior trump telling the truth to the other about what he/she was feeling.
So far, so good. Tina and Brett have been living together on the weekends, resumed an intimate relationship, and our sessions now include the agreements and steps that need to be made in order for both to feel secure and confident about handling co-habitation once more. Fortunately for them and their young son, they sought therapy before the resentments that had built up became a wall that even the love that brought them together could not have broken through.