In last week’s post, I laid out a framework for understanding how therapy actually helps to create more satisfying relationships:
When you have relationships where you trust that:
1. You and the other person can both share what you feel, need, want, and value,
2. You and the other person can both feel your emotions without getting overwhelmed by them,
3. You will be able to work together to find flexible solutions to problems that don’t require either of you to sacrifice or compromise your wellbeing (emotional, physical, social, spiritual, sexual, financial, etc.,)…
You will feel better.
In this post, I want to go into greater depth on the first part of that (“You and the other person can both share what you feel, need, want, and value”) highlight some examples of the kinds of challenges my clients are often trying to navigate when they first come into therapy, and give just a brief vision of how therapy helps to address that (although there will be more focus about how therapy addresses some of those issues in the posts about parts 2 and 3). So, with that, let’s dig in.
Sometimes as I start talking with my clients—or even with potential clients during a consultation call—it becomes clear that they’re carrying a lot of stress and discomfort… and they feel like they’re carrying it on their own. The lines of communication between them and their partner are closed… at least to certain topics. There are lots of reasons why this might be the case.
Sometimes the reasons are about the relationship: The relationship is under a lot of stress, so adding one more thing to fight about seems silly. Or, maybe the relationship is actually going well, and the hesitation is more related to worry that this might be the thing that suddenly throws everything out of balance. How can I talk about this when it’s just going to lead to tons of stress??
Sometimes the difficulty in bringing up issues in a relationship is connected to a client’s individual experience: anxiety, trauma, their experiences in past relationships, relationships in their family of origin, hurt, shame. How can I talk about this when it’s just going to bring up all of those experiences I’d rather not even think about??
Other times, certain topics feel off the table because of social stigma or taboo: sexuality, kink, non-monogamy, infidelity, mental illness. Stigmas and taboos are so powerful in part because they amplify the feelings of shame that keep people isolated, and they silence alternative ways of understanding things that can serve to connect people. How can I share this with someone else when they’re definitely going to think I’m a terrible person, or at least a weirdo?? What’s wrong with me that I can’t just be fine with the things that everyone else seems happy with??
Other times, there are societal reasons—not necessarily related to stigma or taboo about the specific topic, but more related to the messages the person has received about themselves, their identity, and the role(s) they’re expected to take on, or what they should expect from their relationships: gender, culture, race, spirituality, sexuality. What I want doesn’t matter, so why even bring it up?? I can’t trust what I want, so I’ll just fight against it. I’ve experienced dismissiveness, argument, or outright rejection so many times I’ve brought this up, so why should I expect anything different now?? If I bring up this area where I’m feeling discontent or uneasy, that must mean I’m ungrateful for the parts of my relationship or life that are going really well.
And sometimes, client’s are having difficulty sharing their experience—particularly in relationship—because it feels like they’re wrestling with such foundational parts of their relationship or identity that even naming it (let alone acting on it) feels like it would cause an irreversible shift in the relationship. It’s worth pointing out that irreversible shifts aren’t necessarily a bad or harmful thing… but even irreversible changes that might be positive or result in greater connection or satisfaction can feel scary because they’re unfamiliar, so understandably my clients don’t want to take those decisions lightly. If saying how I really feel might completely change the way my partner thinks about our relationship, would it just be better for me to keep quiet and work through this on my own??
Feel, Need, Want, and Value
Sometimes, my clients are seeking someone to talk with because those four things—what they feel, need, want, and value—are somehow not aligned. They feel pulled in multiple directions, trying to balance seemingly-competing dynamics (within themselves, as well as within their relationships). They’ve found it difficult to make headway in conversations because it’s taking so much energy trying to sort through everything. This is something that I want, but is it really something that I need?? Or, consensual non-monogamy makes sense to me logically, and I can see the potential, but it just feels so overwhelming sometimes. Or, I really value this relationship and my partner’s happiness, but is this the only thing that’s going to make them happy??
How can I share what I don’t even know?
Maybe you were reading though those examples above, and a part of it resonated with you; maybe it named an experience you’ve been having, or highlighted a way that you’ve been holding back and not addressing parts of your life or relationship(s) that are feeling… a little off. Great. But not all of my clients come in because they feel like they’re holding something back, or because they’re feeling pulled in different directions.
Sometimes, clients are coming to me because they genuinely don’t know for themselves what they want or need. For these clients, a lack of clarity can lead to feeling like they’re just going in circles… perpetually trying to figure something out, but eventually feeling like they’re ending up back in the same spot weeks, months, or even years later. It can be incredibly frustrating for them, and for partners. I would tell you if I could, but I. Just. Don’t. Know.
For some, this not-knowing (and the discomfort) that comes with it is similar to the challenge of asking any existential question (like, What’s the meaning of life??) It’s a kind of not-knowing that’s both universal (everyone asks the question…) and deeply personal (no one else can answer it for you).
But in other circumstances, this not-knowing might be wrapped up in personal experiences. Unfortunately, sometimes emotional, relational, or even physical safety might be dependent on not expressing a differing view, or voicing a need. Sometimes not-knowing is a survival skill. But here’s the thing: survival skills are really important for helping people get through crisis… but they’re not a very solid foundation for intimacy. In fact, in many ways survival skills and intimacy are opposites.
So How Does Therapy Help Here?
Well, one of the goals of therapy is to help open up the lines of communication. But it’s not just about starting to say things that haven’t been said (although that can be a part of it); it’s about helping my clients understand why they felt they couldn’t share in the first place, and making sure that the ways we’re talking about it in therapy are actually addressing that issue (or issues). Some of it can maybe be addressed at an individual level, whereas other challenges might need to be addressed within the relationship.
For instance, if someone I’m working with is hesitating to share what they’re feeling because past partners have responded with criticism, it might be enough help them see how their current partner/relationship is different and that they can experience a different outcome if they share what they’re feeling now; or, if they genuinely don’t know what they want, therapy can be a place where they really engage with that uncertainty so that they develop clarity over time. Both of those would be examples of how individual-level changes can lead to positive changes within a relationship.
Relationship-level changes—which we’ll talk about more in next week’s blog—might be something more along the lines a person holding back because they’ve experienced their current partner responding with criticism when they’ve shared their feelings previously, so that pattern of criticism needs to be addressed before they feel safe sharing more with their partner.
Until next week, take care.
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