A couple comes into my office for a marriage counseling session. The husband instantly begins to describe all the ways in which his wife criticizes him and demands things of him that he feels are unrealistic. His wife immediately chimes in and shares how her husband is never willing to discuss things, he always shuts down and is emotionally unavailable. After a few minutes, this very dynamic begins to present itself in the room:
The wife begins to feel more and more frustrated and appears increasingly more animated in her attempts to get her point across to her husband. All the while, the husband has completely retreated into his shell and appears to be finished with entertaining such a conversation.
The husband looks at me and says, “See why I shut down and walk away from her when she gets this way?”
Almost simultaneously, the wife looks at me and says, “See what I have to deal with? Now you know why I get so frustrated with him!”
While this might seem like a hilarious scene from a sitcom, it is an all too familiar dynamic that occurs with couples (and in all relationships for that matter).
Commonly, the couple comes in wanting some sort of declaration of who is causing the fighting and struggles. If you ask the husband, he will say his wife is too demanding, emotional, abrasive, and far too critical. The wife will tell you that her husband is passive, emotionally unavailable, and is stonewalling her.
I always tell couples I work with that I am not interested in playing judge or jury. More importantly, the biggest trap that couples fall into is seeking an explanation as to who caused the problem. Yes, the desire to find out “the cause” or “who caused what” is the biggest trap that a couple can fall into.
The Chicken or the Egg
The situation above is much like the never-ending question, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?”
Couples can get lost in their quest of attempting to identify the cause. In all my time working with couples, never once have I ever seen a couple settle on a “cause." Even more astounding, never once has this conversation led couples to a sense of connection, harmony, or resolution. In fact, it creates an endless loop of frustration.
What is really going on when couples are trying to identify “the cause”? Simply stated, they are endlessly trying to justify who is to blame and who is at fault. It turns into a courtroom of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. And we all know how this dynamic ends: the figurative courtroom turns into a literal one.
While searching for the cause of relationship problems begins as a well-intentioned pursuit, it seemingly always falls short because the paradigm is flawed. The premise of cause and effect is not how human relationships operate. In fact, human relations can be better understood by an entirely different paradigm altogether.
A Flawed Paradigm
Much of science and logic operates from the premise of linear causality. It can be explained by something like this:
A ----->B (A causes B)
This is how we’re taught to think. And we bring this same level of thinking into our relationships. We think because “Suzy said this, I react like that." However, when we check in with Suzy, she explains “I said that because Bobby did this." And we’re back in this never-ending loop of frustration that is sure to lead to greater disagreement and contention.
This is where we need a new paradigm to understand relationships. While linear causality is a hallmark of modern science, circular causality tends to be more effective in understanding human relations. Circular causality can best be explained by something like this:
You may notice this looks like a vicious cycle with no known starting point. I like to think of it as a “dance” that couples fall into almost automatically and unconsciously. And it becomes so habitual that they don’t even notice they’re in it (largely because they are so focused on trying to think about and solve their way out of it linearly).
Now that we can see how each person’s behavior prompts and reinforces the other’s behavior, we can finally do something about it. But what?
A Way Out of the Vicious Cycle
The first step is to notice that you’re stuck in the loop and caught in the vicious cycle. This step in awareness is often enough to break the cycle itself. Amazingly, awareness alone is curative. If you’re able to view it as a circular series of events without a known starting point or cause, you’re able to stop trying to search for the cause.
Stop looking for the cause (or who caused it) and begin to notice you both are stuck in the vicious cycle and this all too familiar dance.
Why this step is so important, is that it inherently allows the couple to let go of blame and fault finding. In fact, the couple begins to see themselves as a team and they no longer see the other person as the enemy or the one to blame. Rather, the enemy is this old and ineffective pattern that they often fall into and get stuck in. Yes, they align with each other against the cycle and that affords them the power to step outside of it and make a new decision about what they want instead.
Some of the most liberating moments I’ve witnessed in being with couples is that very instant when they notice they are caught in a circle (and are doing their old song and dance) and they simply point it out. Some can’t help but laugh as they say, "Here we go again!"
Move away from asking “why” and begin to ask “how” and “what”
Trying to find the cause is all about asking “why” questions. However developing a new way of being with each other, a new dance of sorts, is about asking “how” and “what” questions. If couples began to ask this one simple question more regularly, their relationship would surely improve exponentially:
"What is the experience we really want to begin to have together?"
You can see that this question pays no attention to the cause, to the past, or who’s to blame. It is a question that creates a new possibility. It is a forward-thinking question that allows a couple to break out of the old cycle and create a new one.
You may have noticed that nothing in what was written was focused on the content of the various problems that couples grapple with. Rather, what was paid attention to was the context. In working with couples, I help them work together in building awareness of the patterns and cycles that derail them from a deep sense of connection, love, intimacy, and trust. Next, I help them create a new context for their relationship so they can experience more of what they want and less of what they don’t.
Xavier Heditsian, MA, LPCC
Reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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About Sam Nabil
Sam offers therapy in Boston and Boston Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety. Sam Nabil was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English, The Washington post, The Boston Globe, Fatherly magazine, Women's health magazine, Cornell university, Yahoo News, USA Today, Marriage.com
Naya Clinics offers Marriage Counselors near me, individual therapy near me, and life coaching near me in various locations across the USA and the world. Naya Clinics also offers Online marriage counseling, online therapy, and online life coaching.
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