Mutual Conflict Unto Death (with apologies for the missing umlat)

I don’t do a lot of couples counseling. I do some.

I first tell everyone who calls me that my husband, a psychologist, is actually much better at it. He was trained systemically, with the whole supervisory-team-calling-into-session-from-behind-the-mirror thing. I imagine he is more confident in his ability to break up the destructive brawls that inevitably erupt on his couch.

I don’t know why, sometimes I suppose, based on a referral from another therapist, or a friend I have treated, or some other couple I have seen – a few couples persist in wanting to see me, and we enter the second trial. If we make it through the ridiculous rounds of insurmountable scheduling obstacles and are able to find a compatible hour for three busy New Yorkers to meet I assume that there is something I am supposed to learn and am meant to provide while being temporarily triangulated into their relationship.

Inevitably, I spend the first several weeks feeling like a nine-year-old hostage forced to watch the grown ups battle, bicker, and struggle for dominance. Feeling my alliances, my empathy, sympathy and budding attachments to each one challenged, injured, and shamed. I feel emotionally split apart, as I struggle to understand enough about each of their perspectives and pain. Just as I am able to sense one partner’s vulnerability, it is then attacked, undermined, distorted by the other’s rage and pain.

At some point, my own powerlessness is intolerable to me, and I start to get angry at the fouls, the low blows, the unconscious manipulations, the belief in the supremacy of their own individual injuries, as I watch them both bleeding in front of me. I just need it to stop. The internal anger and impatience helps – it gathers my energies and consolidates my power – I am not a child, I am not an impotent audience member watching an ugly drama unfold, I OWN this couch damn it. This is MY office, and I have some say about what behaviors I will permit and enable in my own space.

I borrow Mr. Gottman’s invaluable behavioral tools: I teach about using non-inflammatory subjective “I” statements and fair fighting techniques. I confront and reframe expressions of contempt and toxic resentment. I express my deeply held wish that that all committed couples world-wide would be assigned heart rate monitors the moment they move in together and would be legally mandated to STOP TALKING when their heart rates become elevated. Adrenaline is as altering and intoxicating as any drug, and there is no chance of engaging in constructive discussion or debate with anyone who is in fight or flight mode.

I encourage some, usually heterosexual couples to visit Gottman’s site, and grab any tools, aids, DVDs or books that speak to them. ( although his longitudinal research has been on heterosexual couples – a lot of his data on conflict resolution is useful in any intimate relationship)

I feel a little better after taking some concrete action.

A little braver, less cowed. I’m off the ropes and into the ring.

Some folks toddle off a this juncture, after a handful of sessions, happier with a few, shiny, brand-new relational skills in their pockets.

Other couples find it all quite useful, but want to use the tools in service of something deeper.

Here is where I begin to love the work. I hear the voice of Mr. Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig and his mad, brilliant, if terribly dated 1970-something book with a horrifically translated title: “Marriage Dead or Alive.”

Seminal in most Jungian circles, I’ve never met a non-Jungian who has heard of him.

Since the book is usually out of print (there is a newer edition with a somewhat less cringe worthy title: “Marriage Is Dead, Long Live Marriage” that may be more available) I don’t agree with all of it, it remains somewhat trapped in its era, (step over the jarring references to “angry women’s libbers”) and god knows you don’t want to be caught reading it on the subway or at the playground in front of other smug mommies – I’ll summarize its key points, as I see them, here:

“Marriage” for purposes of this discussion is defined simply as a life-long committed partnership – legalized or not, between any two people. Such commitments may, or may not include actual or implied monogamy.

Guggenhbuhl-Craig suggests that people in western cultures currently enter into marriages for primarily two reasons: The first, and most common is to pursue comfort, ease, well-being, what he calls “mere happiness”. He suggests that marriage is actually a pretty lousy method for achieving happiness, and that there are many other ways to arrange your personal affairs to make your life easier. The most rudimentary forms of comfort and happiness can be more easily and reliably procured through other processes.

Marriage partners too commonly irritate each other’s raw spots, scrape, bang and stagger into each others spiky and brittle bits, making marriage an inefficient institution for insuring pleasure and well-being.

I often think of G-C’s “happy” couples as being organized around an avoidant contract: Love means never making me uncomfortable. Love means avoiding potential embarrassment, shame, exposure, judgement, rejection unhappiness in the relationship. Love means never telling your partner what they don’t want to know about you, or about themselves.

The second, (and the only real reason to live in a life long committed partnership in G-C’s view) is to pursue “salvation,” to reach for individuation, to learn more about what we don’t know about ourselves, to take more responsibility for our undeveloped aspects, to confront our own shadow and to press our partners to integrate their own denied, disavowed, unacknowledged bits.

This model of committed life long dialectical partnership, he suggests, is not a “merely happy” process.

Moreover, it is not the only or the best route to salvation and individuation. It is only one of many established paths up the mountain. No better, no worse, and not for everyone, and certainly not for the feint of heart or those who are looking for the easiest way up.

The call of committed dialectical partnership involves entering into generative, on-going wrestling match. A painful one at times, where we are certain to be confronted with nearly intolerable truths about ourselves and about our loved ones as we struggle to see ourselves, our partner as whole.

Mutual conflict unto death.

There will be necessary sacrifices. Sometimes profound ones. The pursuit of “wholeness” in this context doesn’t mean getting to do whatever we want, or living out all of our desires and needs. Wholeness means being aware of our needs, and having them acknowledged in relationship whether they can be fulfilled or not.

Especially when they are not.

The saddest cases I see are the utterly unreconcilable ones where one partner yearns for a relationship of mutual, intimate respectful conflict and the other wants to be kept as comfortable as possible.

I have also seen avoidant couples grown so disconnected and unhappy that they finally discover their capacity for mutuality and take the risk of intimacy together only through the process of dissolving their marriage. Dead marriages reborn as vital, respectful honest, divorce.

Courage, respect, intimacy, honesty, acceptance, inspiration, growth seem to me to be true purpose of relationship. Happiness is only a feeling, love is a way of behaving with courageous acceptace of yourself and others.

Happiness, comfort is of course a lovely thing, a wonderful by-product of intimacy earned, of trust hard-won.

And in the spaces in-between battles fairly-fought, we should accept all the rest and ease that comes to us along the way.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

11 responses

  1. I work with couples using an integrated psychodynamic & systemic model (no supervisors behind the glass, unfortunately, though).

    Your emotions read to me like counter-transference to the couple’s *relationship*. It might be interesting to form a trial-interpretation from your C/T, offered back to the relationship itself, to see if your C/T is accurate & it perturbs the couple’s way of relating therapeutically.

    Not wishing to teach you to suck eggs 🙂 but I thought it worth a comment with respect to your own model.

  2. I think its a great point – and I do invarilably feed it back to them in some form – Have to first spend some time sorting it from my own history – as I have a fair amount of generic dread in the early phase of couples therapy with all of them that I know is my own.

    and I do think as I withstand and move through that dread, and tolerate my own wish to avoid, and fight or flee, that it can at least model how to use aggression in service of closeness and intimacy and growth for all of us…

    I am amazed by clinicians who can work with couples all day. I can only see two or three a week.
    So many moving parts!


  3. really a great post– i really want to find that book– what a healthy way to think about relationships….
    p.s. I love to work with couples for some reason– find it very invigorating

  4. Thanks Robin!
    Its an interesting book – a little hard to find- but has much more to say than I’ve digested here.
    Some very interesting points about fantasy, sexuality, and individuation as well.


  5. In my early days – I used to interrupt the argument for (ehem) therapeutic reasons. It didn’t take much self-reflection that I interrupted due to family-of-origin matters.

    It was helpful to read Elsa Jones – I have a particular memory of reading something where the systemic therapist encouraged the couple to continue arguing (after they had begun to flag) because the therapist (so she said) wanted to see where the argument was going. Intervention purpose: perturb the system, invite curiosity.

    As a psychodynamic-at-my-core practitioner for over a decade, I could barely contain my enthusiasm for systemic work once I’d begun to get the hang of it.

    … and the first glimmer of ‘oh my god, I can do this’ came when I delivered my first ever interpretation back to the relationship, informed by my C/T – hence why I have a special love for this particular topic I brought up here.

    Have you assisted a couple in separating? I think most couples don’t realise that as therapists we can help a relationship come to an end, as well as help the couple put it back together.

  6. I can certainly answer this: I think that divorcing/separating well can be as sacred and transformational an act as making a committment – and is certainly an essential part of my practice.

  7. Okay, that wasn’t nearly as painful to read as I’d feared from your title. 😉 I saw a truly incompetent couples’ counselor through the process of trying to save my marriage a year & a half ago. Needless to say, she didn’t help us end it gracefully or do anything to ease or heal the situation but at that point I knew how awful she was and wouldn’t have stayed a minute longer anyway. My regular therapist won’t see couples and I was always curious why, but I definitely understand how tough it could be to deal with after reading this.

    Anyway, this was another thoughtfully written post on a tough subject and as someone who has been both the client and will (hopefully) be a therapist in another few years, I really appreciate your viewpoint.

  8. Thanks Alannah,

    My experiences on the couch, both positive and negative- in couples, group and individual therapy over the years, have been the greatest preparation for working from the therapists chair. I’m sorry it wasnt helpful to your marriage, but I imagine that even your time spent in the office with an incompatible therapist will give you great information about who you want to be as a clinician.

    Thanks for reading and for your kind comments.


  9. I definitely agree – in the end I think it was really helpful for me to have the awful experience with the couples’ counselor. I think the world of my regular therapist and we were an instant perfect fit so I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum and will be able to use both experiences to my benefit.

    I’m also fairly certain it wouldn’t have mattered who we saw as a couple… the counselor wasn’t the reason we couldn’t fix our marriage. She just made the process so much more difficult and painful. It all added up to one huge learning experience for me, though! Like most things I go through!

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