A couple, I will call them Jane and Paul, first came to see me after about 3 years of marriage. Jane first called to seek marriage counseling stating that they were on the verge of divorcing. She said that they had been fighting a lot and didnʼt seem able to resolve their differences.
Upon meeting them I asked them to describe what it would look like if we were to be successful working together. Paul described that they would be “like they used to be”: they would be fighting less, having more fun and she would stop being so critical and angry. Jane said that she would feel more loved, have more attention and feel special. She blurted out, “Paul would act more married to me than he does to our dog, Fluffy”!
I led them through a guided meditation where they were able to reconnect to their positive memories of having met and fallen in love. I then had them express some appreciation for one another. They left, holding hands and eager to get started in therapy.
During the second session, each reported that they had experienced “a better week”. In this session, I taught them to express their frustrations with one another by using a structured dialogue process. I coached them to listen deeply to the other, mirror what theyʼd heard, validate their partnerʼs position and empathize with their feelings.
In this way, they were able to stop the escalating pattern of argumentation and really begin to understand each otherʼs worlds.
Over the course of the next 6 weeks, their communication improved and their affection for one another seemed to increase. They reported less fighting and a renewed commitment to one another. Then, on the 7th session, they came in with a crisis. Jane was enraged and unable to look at Paul. I asked him to listen carefully as she talked about her anger at him and I mirrored her words. It seemed that Fluffy had recently broken her leg and was needing more attention. Paul had gone back to his previous level of attachment and caretaking of her and Jane was feeling neglected again. She noted that he had taken off work to be with the dog (although he had refused to take the day off work to celebrate her birthday), that he was being overly affectionate and loving to the dog (whereby he was frequently unavailable and cold to her) and that he had even moved out of their bedroom to sleep with Fluffy in the guest room!
As I listened to her words and empathized with her feelings, her anger began to soften and the underlying hurt and fear came out. At this point, I asked if it would be okay for Paul to hold her. Safe in his arms, I asked her to tell him about how this situation with the dog reminded her of other times in her life when she had felt neglected and replaced. She sobbingly recounted for him the story of how her father had left her mother and abandoned her when she was young. He held her and comforted her and she relaxed.
In the weeks to come, Paul and Jane were able to continue expressing their needs in the safety of the dialogue process. Both began to see how their individual behaviors were triggering old pain and defensive reactions in the other. Jane became aware that Paul withdrew and “got cold” when he sensed her anger or displeasure. He was able to trace this back to his childhood and the way he learned to protect himself from his motherʼs potent rage. Paul was able to see how his ignoring Jane and lavishing love on Fluffy caused Jane to feel neglected and replaced. Together they engaged in healing one another in safe dialogue and empathy.
After several months, this couple moved to coming in about once per month. They report feeling “in love” again and more conscious about their relationship. They still argue once in a while, but have the tools to bring it back around quickly to a safer dialogue. Both are loving and taking care of Fluffy and Jane no longer feels that sheʼs in competition with her. Recently, Jane and Paul told me that they might just be ready to start a family….uhhh, with a human baby, that is.