When I first started out as a therapist, I had a pretty staunch resistance to working with couples. In my view at the time, couples therapists were the ultra enlightened ones because who else would be so insane as to willingly march into the tense storm of a couple at the height of their dysfunction?!
Back then, I didn’t trust myself not to be super biased, because frankly I had my own traumas around relationships and wanted to remain steadfast in my conviction that I was wronged by my exes. Being a couples therapist would mean I would have to consider both sides, which means I would have to acknowledge that I played a role in the problems I had with my partners. And further, this means that I wasn’t the all-knowing, all-healing therapist-woman I thought myself to be. Why would I sign up for that again?
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When I first moved from New York to the SF Bay Area, I met someone and fell in love hard and fast. It was fun and riveting–I thought for sure he was The One. But very soon into it I felt myself start to shrink with dismay and despair: within the first month I saw all the dysfunction of my previous relationships– which I had effectively run away from–splattered across my reality with nowhere for me to hide. HOW?! How did I find myself here again, after all the intense work that I have done and continue to do? It was disheartening and a little shocking to me. I felt myself wrinkled up and thrashing about in all the same issues as several of my previous relationships, but this was definitely a different person. The only thing that was the same was… me. I felt super bummed out, and actually bored and annoyed with myself.
I began to pour myself into re-reading and studying all the books I had on relationships, and came across one of my old books on attachment science. It was also around that time that I met Figs and started working at Empathi. I began to realize that the same fear that fueled my resistance to working as a couples therapist was also fueling my challenges in relationship.
I was massively afraid that anyone who saw the real me–which didn’t seem to fit the calm and wise woman me–would turn and run like a bat outta hell. How could I possibly help couples sit in their relationship or attachment pain, if I hadn’t yet figured out how to sit in mine?
I am not always contained and compassionate–in fact, when poked, I can become cold and sort of mean. When I am hurt I shut down, and in a seeming attempt to de-escalate the problem, I end up shutting down my partner’s voice. And that I learned is the cruelest thing I can do, even though cruelty is the farthest thing from my mind. It was eye-opening for me to see that my attempts to neutralize the conflict were actually pouring more fuel into the fire, and causing as much pain to my partner as they were causing me. I thought for sure that since they were yelling and blaming while I was quietly listening, they MUST be the guilty one. But no, my cold shutdown was as violent to them as their heated and aggressive tone was to me. We were both contributing to the problem. In truth, this was hard to swallow, but I realized that if both partners are contributing to the disconnection, that means both partners can equally contribute to getting back to connection. And this is exciting news!
So here’s the thing: we all have patterns of how we deal with conflict, and they take shape through the nuanced filters of our personality. But really the themes to such patterns are quite common and identifiable. Getting acquainted with them and working with a clear understanding of them takes us to new levels of presence and connection with ourselves, and in partnership. It is TOTALLY doable. I know this for a fact because I am doing it myself, and I see the couples I work with doing it weekly. This is learning to love better! And it is a worthy cause.
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And if you want to know more about doing the Empathi process as a single person, stay tuned, more insights to come.