A Story of Couples Therapy
I was working with a young couple, Ryan and Jessica (names and details have been changed to protect their confidentiality), for only a short time when we had a breakthrough session. They came in and told me about a fight they'd had the previous day: they’d been cooking together, baking a cake, and they disagreed about one step in the process: an egg had gone into the batter earlier than it was supposed to.
Before they knew it, Ryan and Jessica found themselves swept up into a huge argument, and they couldn’t understand how they’d gotten there. It was just an egg!
I asked them to pinpoint the moment where things started to turn. Ryan, who had been fastidiously following the recipe, told Jessica she’d made a mistake by adding the egg. “How did that make you feel?” I asked Jessica.
“Stupid,” she said.
“And before Ryan, who in your life made you feel stupid?”
This opened the floodgates. All her life, Jessica had been made to feel less-than. Less smart, less capable, less special — particularly in comparison to an overachieving older brother, the family’s “golden child.”
Ryan didn’t realize it, but he had inadvertently chafed one of Jessica’s rawest emotional wounds.
The fight escalated when Jessica, feeling hurt by Ryan’s correction, made a motion to throw away the batter and start again. This upset Ryan. When I asked why, he said he couldn’t tolerate waste.
Ryan and Jessica come from very different backgrounds: her family enjoyed an abundance of resources, while his family was accustomed to scarcity, to never having enough. Their histories — and their family styles — were clashing. Jessica inadvertently aroused an intense anxiety in Ryan, who suffers chronically from the conviction that he won’t ever have enough.
From the mutual understanding they gained in this session, Ryan and Jessica were able to find ways to alert one another when their wounds — wounds they acquired in childhood, wounds they brought into the relationship — were being chafed.
“When you say X, I feel Y.” This is the essence of the “I” statement, the first building-block in reconstructing healthy communication within partnerships where communication has deteriorated and trust has been eroded. Using this construction — and with a lot of practice — Jessica was able to alert Ryan when he was saying something that made her feel “stupid” without being accusatory or retaliatory. And Ryan grew his capacity to tell Jessica, very simply, "It scares me when you throw food away."
The foundation of my work with couples is about gaining greater understanding of the emotional truth of our moment-to-moment experience with our partners — particularly in cycles of conflict. With that greater understanding, couples can start to experiment with new communication tactics in order to rebuild safety and trust.
When I work with couples, I strongly encourage them to come in for 90-minute sessions. It makes an enormous difference.