Couples Therapy in NYC

Seeing danger signs in your marriage

marriage-counseling-nyc

When a couple is stuck in a negative pattern, even the slightest action can turn into an explosive eruption. For most couples who come for marriage therapy, they realize that they are not able to get out of it on their own. This acceptance is a first step to identify the problem behind the pattern, and then develop a plan for change that involves creating a new way to connect with each other.

Patterns in marriages are similar

The ingredients of a conflict are mostly similar with most couples in a negative pattern. In most cases, one partner criticizes or blames, and another defends or withdraws. For some couples both partners go into an attack mode, with one or both eventually retreating. In the worst cases, both partners stop attacking, but in a withdrawal state, the relationship is on life support.

In effective marriage therapy, we help couples stop the damage, reverse it, and build a new pattern. Ultimately, we want both partners to learn how to manage conflict effectively. The more intimate you are with your mate, the more likely you are to have conflicts—but the conflicts don’t spiral out of control. Instead, both partners see them as opportunities for growth. You can learn more about yourself, and about your spouse, during and after a conflict, if you both know how to navigate the fight.

Communication skills can help

I work to help couples learn how to address each other better, and how to respond to needs that are often under the surface. While it is true that criticism and contempt don’t work in a relationship, a couple needs help to get out of that negative pattern, and telling them not to follow the same pattern is not enough. I help partners manage their conflict more effectively, in realistic and practical ways. Couples need to learn more than conflict management skills, but some skills are useful.

For instance, instead of criticism, masters of relationships start their conversation with a complaint. “I’m getting overwhelmed because the garbage is piling up” is a lot easier to hear than the critical counterpart of “Why can’t you even take the garbage out!” The more inviting start of the conversation could be followed by invitation that lets a partner know how much he or she is valued, basically communicating how the spouse can be a superhero. “If you could take the garbage out, you would really help relieve the stress that I’m in right now.”

Seeing the warning signs that can doom marriages

A pattern of criticism and contempt signal major warning signs in a love relationship, and should be addressed before a couple spirals into negativity. We have more warning signs to be aware of, including defensiveness and “stonewalling,” when a partner ignores and tunes out the other. These patterns combined, without an effective intervention, lead to separation or divorce in over 90% of couples, as John Gottman found in his research with thousands of couples. Considering how high the damage can be, if you and your partner can’t get out of your negative pattern, effective marriage therapy can turn the tide, even for relationships in severe distress. So often couples feel overwhelmed with hurt and pain, and don’t realize how quickly these patterns can change when both partners are motivated to make their relationship better.

 

Still Hung Up On That? Why Our Mind Has a Hard Time Forgetting

New York couples have been faced with extreme tests when emotional injuries may have occurred, including 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy

New York couples have been faced with extreme tests when emotional injuries may have occurred, including 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy

Have you felt an intense amount of pain from an event in your marriage or love relationship? An experience when one partner or spouse fails to respond at times of urgent need strongly influences the strength of the emotional bond between partners. Without an intervention, if one partner feels abandoned or betrayed, the fall-out from that experience can destroy a relationship.

Events that are still raw and bring up intense emotional reactions can overwhelm the injured partner. How the other partner responds to the injured partner can go a long way to either heal the injury, or to make it worse. If one partner withdraws from his or her partner at a key moment of need, and in the aftermath is unwilling to talk about the incident and address the injured partner's hurt or pain related to the event, the injury can easily overwhelm new, positive experiences together.

Negative events call for forgiveness, but forgiveness is not the grand prize. An injured partner's mind will not let go of the injury until he or she has the confidence that his or her partner would never abandon or betray him or her again.

What Counts as an Injury in a Relationship?

The subject of the injury matters far less than the meaning and significance of the event to the injured partner. An affair or infidelity by one partner is far from the only event that can lead to a relationship injury. An injury results from an experience when one partner is experiencing heightened levels of vulnerability and need, and is met with a response that is dismissive or absent from the other partner.

Why Does an Injury Hurt so Much?

Extreme levels of emotional harm in a relationship leads to isolation and separation between partners, and increases a sense of vulnerability. Even though relationship injuries may not have the same degree of effect as childhood traumas, they can cause damage to the relationship connection that may lead a couple to separate or divorce. Until the injury is healed, in times of stress, the relationship becomes a source of danger rather than a place a partner can turn to for safety and refuge.

If you and your partner are mostly doing well together, but have never recovered from the effects of a particular injury, you may notice that you continue to loop back into the injury automatically, or that a distance persists between the two of you that won't mend. Injuries cause intense emotional reactions that lead to constricted emotional responses and rigid patterns between partners. When the injured partner is reminded in some way of the injury, he or she either gets very angry, or withdraws intensely (this is not a passive withdrawal, but a very abrupt and "loud" reaction). The language of trauma is present in the relationship, as words convey life-or-death finality focused on abandonment, betrayal, and isolation. The injured partner takes a stance that he or she will never be in a vulnerable position with the other partner again. The reaction of the other partner is often intense anger or a strong withdrawal as well, reinforcing the pain of the injured partner. Without breaking this impasse, the couple is unlikely to create positive interactions and feel closer to each other, the way healthy, secure couples can.

For couples working with the Loving at Your Best Plan, a sequence develops that can cause pain at a certain point. The withdrawing partner becomes more emotionally engaged, and the more angry partner works to express his or her hurts and fears. He or she then slowly takes new risks with the other partner. During this stage, when a couple should be experiencing a renewed closeness together, the injury often flares up even more, and can be experienced by the injured partner similar to a traumatic flashback. Commonly, couples then argue about what happened during the injury, and how the event should be defined. A challenge for both partners is to express his or her vulnerabilities, and to engage with each other in a way that moves the event to become the top priority. If the couple doesn't do this, trust will most likely remain allusive, and the relationship usually remains in distress.

The Nightmare Scenario of a Relationship Injury

When one partner is in urgent need for support and caring that he or she expects from his or her partner, and the response from the partner is that he or she is inaccessible or unresponsive, a nightmare scenario occurs when the injured partner feels helpless and desperate. Trust in the partner can be wiped away, and the injured partner may plunge into emotional isolation. An injured partner's feelings of abandonment or betrayal are the key markers of an injury, not whether an outside person determines whether the actual event warrants the definition of an injury. Common events in the life cycle of a relationship are particularly ripe for injury, such as the birth of a child, physical illness, disorienting life transitions like retirement or immigration, and times of loss (miscarriage, death of a parent, child, loved one, or pet).

If a partner discounts, denies, or dismisses the injury, this response prevents healing of the injury in the relationship, and can make the injury worse. In Latin, trauma means "wound" or "injury" and stems from the Latin word injuria, meaning "to wrong." Not all painful events lead to a trauma, but if a partner is particularly sensitive to trust and abandonment themes from his or her past, he or she is much more likely to define events in the relationship as injurious. This sensitivity does not take away from the meaning of the trauma, or the impact it can have on the relationship.

New York Couples Have Faced Key Moments of Vulnerability

Partners usually expect their loved one to be attentive, responsive, and supportive, especially in times of crisis. In New York, traumatic experiences such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy may have been key tests of the strength of the marriage or love relationship. Vulnerability and comfort was essential during these events, and if a partner was unresponsive, the mind of the injured partner is unlikely to let that go and "move on." The sense of trust can be shattered in the relationship, and a sense of helplessness evolves, becoming the strongest feature of the injury. 

How Do You Know When Your Relationship has an Unresolved Injury?

When a person is without physical or emotional support, and at their most vulnerable, he or she most likely has the most difficulty regulating emotions. Injured partners often exhibit symptoms similar to classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including re-experiencing the injury repeatedly, numbing out whenever reminded of the injury, and becoming hyper-vigilant when associating with the injury. Memories and emotions linked to the injury often pop-up in the form of dreams, flashbacks, and intrusive memories (ruminating about every detail of the event and the reason the injury occurred). An apology from the other partner is rarely enough for the injured partner to let the injury go. 

What's Wrong with the Status Quo?

Is there a cost to an injured partner resorting to the self-protective responses of avoiding and numbing? Numbing stops emotional engagement and interferes with resolution of the injury. Intrusive images and hyper-arousal reinforce the belief that the partner is a source of pain and fear instead of safety and comfort. An injured partner usually swings between accusations and clinging behaviors toward the partner, and then numbing and withdrawing intensely from him or her. The pattern becomes chaotic and aversive to both partners. Even when the injured partner can elicit comfort from the other, he or she does not trust it. The pattern between partners perpetuates the distance and isolation between them.

Exaggerated sensitivities and hyper-arousal experienced by the injured partner are symptoms of impending dangers from the other partner. Commonly, the injured partner "tests" the other partner, who almost always fails the tests.    

Share Your Experience

If you've been injured in your marriage or love relationship, what have you done that has helped? Share your experience to help others cope more effectively.  If you found this post helpful, please share it on your favorite social network.

Reference: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Susan M. Johnson, PhD.  

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Travis Atkinson, LCSW, is the Creator and Director of the Loving at Your Best Plan in New York City.

Travis Atkinson, LCSW, is the Creator and Director of the Loving at Your Best Plan in New York City.


Is a Ghost from the Past Haunting Your Marriage or Love Relationship?

Ghosts from the past can be unwelcome intruders in your marriage or love relationship

Ghosts from the past can be unwelcome intruders in your marriage or love relationship

Are you or your partner or spouse experiencing symptoms in your marriage or love relationship that could be related to a history of trauma? A common dialogue between a couple where one partner has a history of trauma might go like this:

Chris: Don't you dare come up from behind me and grab me like that again! I can't stand that, and you did it anyway.

Pat: What? Are you serious? I just came up and gave you a love squeeze. Why are you freaking out so much? You're impossible. I don't want to be with someone who is so cold and frigid. Ice queen... that is who you are.

Trauma is like a ghost from the past, an unwelcome intruder that many times can be strongly affecting a relationship without either partner seeing it. With a keen awareness, you'll notice these ghots come up through specific symptoms that may include a partner or spouse re-living the past trauma without knowing the partner is going through a trance into the past, numbing and detaching after being exposed to the thing that reminds him or her of the trauma, avoiding situations that are somehow linked to the trauma (a common source of sexual problems in a marriage or love relationship), being hypervigilant around the cue of the trauma, and experiencing irritability when something is connecting with the trauma.

When a trauma survivor is able to turn to his or her partner or spouse and ask to be held and comforted during a flashback, rather that to detach or hurt himself or herself, a new trust and sense of hope can emerge for the survivor.

Traumas involving key caregivers are "violations of human connection" (Herman, 1992). More than anyone else, your partner or spouse has the ability to help you heal from past relationship traumas. A partner or spouse can have the most effective healing power over past traumas for the person who has experienced past relationship betrayals and abuse. Partners or spouses can become healers.

If you are in a safe and secure marriage or love relationship, your immune system is more likely to be functioning well, and your ability to cope during stressful life events is significantly increased. In a distressed marriage or love relationship, both partners in the couple likely experience more depression and anxiety symptoms. The sense of community usually decreases in a distressed relationship, so your body needs the help of your partner or spouse even more.

In a secure connection, you are able to face your fears and maintain a strength that helps you cope, regardless of the stress. If you feel isolated and alienated from the larger world, you are much more vulnerable to outside dangers.

When you or your partner or spouse have been subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, your health may be impacted in each of those areas. Re-experiencing physical sensations can be effectively treated through exposure therapy, known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Relationship symptoms do not respond in the same way to CBT, but are much more likely to respond to relationship therapy when a partner or spouse can serve as a source of comfort and safety. It is a partner or spouse that lies next to the survivor of trauma in the middle of the night, a time when anxiety is often peaking, as memories are being processed in the mind. If a partner or spouse doesn't know how to respond in key moments when threat is perceived, he or she may become part of the problem instead of offering key elements of healing.

At the Loving at Your Best Plan, the therapist works to address the symptoms of the trauma, and much more. A focus is to help create a safe and secure emotional bond between the couple in the marriage or love relationship, a connection that promotes safety and calms danger and threat. A history of trauma intensifies the need for a safe connection, and trust is the basis for a secure relationship.

Relationships where one or both partners have trauma in their histories are more likely to have intense negative patterns of interacting with each other, and without an effective intervention, these patterns can kill the relationship. Therapists at the Loving at Your Best Plan integrate top-rated interventions for couples with difficult and challenging histories, especially trauma. These therapies include schema therapy, emotionally focused therapy, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

Do you or the person that you love have a history that includes trauma on an emotional, physical, or sexual level? If so, have you found ways to effectively navigate the symptoms in your marriage or love relationship in NYC? Share your thoughts.

If you found this article interesting or helpful, kindly share it with a friend, or post it to your favorite social media source using the buttons included. 

Source: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Sue Johnson, PhD.

 

The Loving at Your Best Plan: It's How You Love That Counts

The Loving at Your Best Plan: It's How You Love That Counts