Peter’s couple therapy blog

Lucy & Bart 3


This fictional couple have been struggling with self-limiting interactions for about six years. Mostly they have a great time with each other. Have similar senses of humour and share most of their leisure activities. Apart from his choice of franchise, they share many core values about family, work, love and life.

On average most couples wait about seven or eight years struggling like Lucy and Bart before they seek help. We know that the most ineffective couple’s therapy is a problem solving approach. While the most effective are process orientated, emotion and attachment focussed. Communication skills training modalities are among the most ineffective interventions in a troubled marriage.

Lucy and Bart decided to try a marriage counsellor who’s practice was based on a problem solving approach. That was all that was available and they didn’t know Gottman’s research that even the best of these are only 35% effective.

‘So what seems to be the problem?’ asked the counsellor.
‘He never listens to me and undermines me in front of the kids’, complains Lucy.
‘She disrespects me in front of our friends. Puts me down and pisses on our source of income.’
‘I see. And how long has this been going on.’
‘Since forever’, says Lucy as Bart nods agreement.
‘That sounds like a communication problem that we could resolve by my helping you understand each other better?’

You might already think this session is going down the complaints angle, which leads to remedying the complaints by solving the problem of ‘not listening’ and of ‘disrespect’. Both are symptoms of a deeper disconnection perhaps born of their attachment styles. Lucy’s is a bit of an anxious attachment style and Bart’s tends toward a dismissive attachment style.

Lucy and Bart attended this counsellor for five sessions and at the end of it they felt dissatisfied and told the counsellor that they thought things were better but privately both agreed that it felt like a bandaid. The real stuff wasn’t touched on but they didn’t feel willing or able to tell the counsellor what that was. After three months or so, they were back to where they were.

Their second couple’s counsellor by contrast went straight for the pattern not the problem, and started out with:
‘Can you describe the process of a typical argument. What are each of the steps you take from start to finish, and what feelings come up.’

‘Well she starts it from the minute I come back from work at the franchise’, says Bart.

‘No hang on’, says the counsellor, ‘what I want to know is what you know about your own steps and the feelings that come up in you. I don’t doubt you are both experts on each other’s steps, you have had plenty of time anticipating them.’

‘Okay’, Bart says ‘Let me try. It’s feelings you want. Before I even walk in the door I have played in my mind what I am going to say and how she will respond.’

‘So what’s the feeling underneath that,’ asks the counsellor.

‘Fear I guess. I am afraid that Lucy is going to react to whatever I say in a way that will piss me off and that upsets me so much that the best thing I can do is shut down rather than explode, which just gets us sleeping apart.’

‘I call that exploding a feeling of being flooded with emotions – when whatever comes up in you is so strong that you feel overwhelmed by it. Perhaps you feel a little of that before you even walk in the door.’

‘You mean I might come in anticipating my explosion or being flooded to use your word?’ asks Bart.

‘Exactly. And Lucy might sense that from your body language, and she might get an upset feeling in her guts from what she senses or imagines, before you have even closed the door behind you. Is that possible Lucy?’

‘Absolutely. I can feel a storm brewing in the way he pulls up in the car. I can tell by his shoulders and later by the absence of softness in his voice whether he was stewing on something on the way home from work. His body is like a flashing light to me. I end charged up ready to shield myself against whatever he brings in. It feels like we’re on the same roller coaster from one day to the next. Like a Groundhog day.’

‘I guess you putting up that shield might send a signal back to him?’ asks the counsellor.

‘Well when you talk about it like that is sounds like it’s a ping-pong tournament but I’m not aiming to win anything. I just want to feel safe and able to relax’, says Lucy.

‘I’m not thinking that it’s a win-lose thing. In fact it’s usually a lose-lose pattern, where neither of you end up with your needs being met. The pattern is the problem and it has a mind of its own. Our job in these first sessions is to try and identify the pattern and then de-escalate it so that we can start building nourishing connections between you two. I imagine that as each of you bat the ball back and forth it increases in velocity and force until you both end up exhausted and probably retire to your corners. Is that how it feels at the end of one of these arguments?

‘Right on’, they both say.

‘Can you give me an idea then of what you really need from each other when Bart comes home from work? What’s your hunch about that?’

‘I just want to be accepted’, says Bart. ‘I want to feel like I’m wanted and needed. Whoops, did I really say that?’

‘Is that uncomfortable revealing a tender place in you?’

‘He’s never said anything like that before. He’s always the one to be so independent, like he doesn’t need anything and I feel such a fool needing him’, says Lucy. ‘He never asked me what I felt about this franchise before buying it. He just went ahead and committed our family to it without talking it through.’

‘I hear how important that is for you Lucy and possibly for Bart too there are feelings underlying why he took that approach if indeed you did Bart.’

‘Damn right!’ says Bart

‘It feels to me like there might just possibly have been a mutual breach of trust in there. But can I ask you if it would be okay for us to slow this down a bit, and unpack the feelings and needs underneath the steps you usually take in the argument after work? I know that will help us build emotional safety for you as a couple, which we can then use to deal with the tougher issue of trust.’

‘There were trust issues from the very beginning’, says Lucy critically.

‘Oh, here we go’, says Bart defensively.

‘Guys, guys. I am sorry I just made a mistake speculating about a breach of trust. I will make time to go into the issues around the purchase of the franchise but first can I ask that we go back to where I was heading before I jumped in. I want us to get a handle on the feelings and unmet needs that are swirling around when Bart comes home.’

‘No,’ they both say in unison.

‘You hit the nail on head. That is exactly the issue we can’t deal with,’ continued Lucy. ‘It’s been hanging over our heads since Bart bought that business. The elephant in the room!’

‘Can you say more about that?’ asks the therapist.

‘Well I didn’t feel Lucy had my back on this thing. We couldn’t talk about it without getting int a fight. I felt I had to go it alone and make a decision for the good of the whole family.’

‘I felt he didn’t have my or the kids backs either and I felt I didn’t matter to him enough to be included in the decision.’

You might be able to tell from this exchange that the therapist is making a safe place where both Lucy and Bart’s deepest fears and poignant longings can be approached with compassion. Her duty is to build emotional safety before dealing with the issues. She is aiming to help this couple speak more directly about their core needs, and as a starting place, to simply approach what they are hoping for when Bart comes home from work. That moment is likely to be an example of a widespread pattern across many moments of greeting and parting. It is likely implicated in what appears to be a unilateral decision to take on a franchise, that led to these unresolved trust issues.

The most vulnerable times in a couple’s daily life is when they come together at the end of the day and when they say goodbye at the beginning. Gottman’s research tends to indicate that what happens in the first four minutes of coming back together predicts how the rest of the evening will go.

This therapist is aiming to create new bonding experiences at those times that will support Lucy and Bart to reach for the best in each other. With that built in they can then approach the attachment wounds that each inflicted on the other during the purchase of the business.

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