Dealing With the Ghost in Your Relationship

Things just aren’t right and you can’t get your relationship on track. You love each other, but somehow you feel like you can’t seem to win for losing. No matter how much you try the distance increases and the frustration builds. You may have been to see a counselor or even several. You may have gone week after week or maybe only one session yet the difficulties continue. You say you can’t communicate, but what if the issue really isn’t communication? Maybe that is just a symptom of something else.

Not uncommonly how we were raised, what we experienced in childhood, how we were treated growing up has an impact on how we get along in our intimate adult relationship. How we managed in our childhood sets the stage for how we manage and what we expect in adulthood.

Like an arrow set forth, our life has a trajectory and we carry our childhood experiences, expectations and coping strategies right into our grown up relationships. However, what may have worked for managing in childhood, may serve as the very problem for how we get along in adulthood.

Counseling tends to focus on the here and now; current behavior and patterns of communication. As such, it is not likely to uncover the more deep seated and long standing issues that are at the core of present day problems.

Marital therapy is designed to go deeper and further back. However as practiced by many, the process can take months to years as the therapist provides the opportunity for couples to develop rapport with the therapist to eventually and spontaneously disclose deeper hidden truths long kept secret.

A lot of couples drop out feeling that their discussions in the therapy room only mimic their circular arguments at home. In other cases, the couple feels like just when they are getting somewhere, the time is over and they lose the momentum from one meeting to the next. They feel like the experience is useless and this creates a greater sense of frustration and distrust in the very concept and process of therapy.

This is when people call me. They read about my approach and how my first session is a good three hours long. They recognize that to not lose momentum, to have an extended opportunity to get their story out in one session is of tremendous value. The other difference in my practice is that I ask questions. People aren’t just expected to chat freely while the therapist only listens. It’s not that I don’t listen, but I am listening to the responses to very important questions, questions about their lives and childhood experiences.

I routinely conduct an extensive individual and family history taking procedure, trans-generational in nature and probing for issues related to mental health, physical health, addictions, violence/abuse, quality of relationships, developmental histories, personality styles, etc. I am looking for or assessing issues that may be either contributory or intervening variables to the presenting problem.

Like the physician who certainly asks how you feel, yet goes on to examine and gather information, my approach is active and less dependent upon the hope that over time you may disclose something of relevance from your past. I ask and gather information directly just as the physician would surely take your pulse, temperature and blood pressure as opposed to letting you only talk on about your symptoms.

It is amazing how freely people will talk about their past and experiences kept secret for years when in a supportive environment. It is also amazing how couples learn so much more about each other, history to better understand present day issues. The process helps build empathy from once was frustration.

Couples are then provided strategies to mitigate the ghosts from the past to learn and manage their adult lives more reasonably.

A common refrain from my clients is that they learn more in one meeting with me, than in years of therapy with anyone else:

Jacob and Janice had been married 14 years. They had three children despite a very intermittent intimate life. They had been to numerous other therapists and Jacob had also been in individual therapy for years.

Asking a myriad of questions, it seems that Jacob’s parents weren’t very involved in his upbringing. His father was a womanizer and drinker. His mother suffered depression and spent days at a time in bed.

When asked if either Jacob or Janice had ever been touched in a way that might be deemed inappropriate, Jacob froze and then nodded his head. I quietly asked if he could speak about it and he did. Janice looked on silently with amazement.

Jacob disclosed having been molested when about 5 or 6 years old by a neighborhood boy several years older than him. Jacob sobbed as he disclosed some details. Janice, who had grown distant over the years because of Jacob’s lack of intimacy drew closer to him and took his hand. She said she was so sorry that she didn’t know. This was Jacob’s first disclosure of this incident.

I talked with Jacob about this experience in the context of his broader childhood family issues, his vulnerability and lack of support. Despite his feelings, it wasn’t his fault and even if the attention felt special for him then as a child this was to be considered normal in the context of limited parental attention. There was plenty to discuss and the time available provided the opportunity. We addressed several ghosts in their relationship and how to manage differently than they had. Jacob and Janice expressed their appreciation for the meeting. We met two other times, also extended meetings. It was sufficient to resolve their intimacy issues.

Therapy is a bold choice by couples seeking to improve their relationship. What couples may not realize is that there are many approaches to therapy, some more suited to their needs than others. We want couples to make informed decisions as to their choice of therapist. These days many companies offer therapy services as an employee benefit, and while the cost may be favorable, the approach of the assigned therapist may not be helpful. Value is not in the cost, but the outcome. While no one can guarantee the outcome, couples are still advised to ask questions about one’s approach to choose wisely.

The sooner the ghost in your relationship is laid to rest, the sooner you can get on with life together. Some approaches and therapists will help you deal sooner rather than later.

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