The majority of couples come to therapy because one or both partners are unhappy with some aspect of the relationship. Jasper and Chris are one such couple. They came to therapy because they felt like they were simply co-parenting, that they had drifted apart and no longer knew if they should remain together. They stated that they were often irritated with one another and there wasn’t much intimacy between them anymore. Of course they loved each other and their children and in many respects felt that they had good lives, but they no longer felt that there was passion in their relationship. They both stated that they didn’t feel IN love and recognized that their needs in the relationship weren’t being met.
In PACT (a Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy), we explore a relationship through the lense of secure functioning. With support from a neutral therapist, Chris and Jasper quickly came to the conclusion that as a couple, they had not prioritized their relationship. In fact, almost everything seemed to take priority over their relationship - the kids, the jobs/careers, the home, individual needs. Their “Couple Bubble” (the pact term for the entity that is the relationship) was drab and deflated. After being together for 10 years, one would expect their couple bubble to be vibrant and strong, yet it was more like a sad, wet kitten on a cold rainy evening! At first Jasper and Chris were quite defensive, however, therapy encouraged them to get really honest with themselves and they had to admit that they hadn’t worked much to keep their connection strong.
Additionally, the couple never really explored their attachment styles. Oh, they knew that Chris’ family drank a lot and that Chris was alone most of the time during childhood and adolescence. Chris’ family rarely contacted them and didn’t have much of a connection with their kids. They also talked and joked about Jasper’s mother, who was quite “difficult but well-meaning.” They reported that she called daily to check in with Jasper and would feel very hurt if no one answered or responded to her calls. She would often come to the house unannounced, and frequently created significant drama in the extended family by gossiping and getting involved in other family members' affairs. At the same time, Jasper’s mom was a great support for them and the kids, bringing meals over and staying at the house when they both had to travel for work. But Jasper and Chris never truly examined how their early relationships with their parents and their family systems impacted their current interactions as a couple.
Although it was clear that this wasn't going to be easy, Chris and Jasper decided to re-orient themselves to their relationship, knowing it would not be a linear journey. They realized that the very best thing they could do for themselves and their children was to have a mutually supportive, healthy, secure functioning relationship and that they wanted make a concerted effort rather than give up and part ways. They connected with all of the positive aspects of their relationship and all that they had built together as well as the untapped potential they had yet to unleash. They understood that pressing the restart button would entail both understanding AND forgiving one another, themselves and their families. They utilized counseling and worked outside of their sessions to shift their dynamic. They developed realistic expectations that incorporated their attachment styles, fully accepting one another - faults and all (note: they didn’t accept abuse from one another - that is unacceptable and no one should tolerate or stay in an abusive relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship or aren't sure if you are, read this). They developed explicit agreements about how they would behave and held themselves AND one another accountable, which built new levels of safety and trust between them. They allowed intimacy to gradually emerge while thoughtfully, creatively, they reconstructed their couple bubble. When disagreements arose, they resolved to repair quickly and genuinely.
It took dedication and support, but Chris and Jasper were able to press the restart button and rebuild their couple bubble. They probably waited too long, but fortunately it wasn’t too late. For things to BE different, we need to DO things differently. That’s easier said than done, but well worth the effort!!!
Carisa Wilder, LCSW, is a therapist in Ann Arbor, MI providing PACT Couples Counseling, Individual Therapy and other services: https://www.annarborholistictherapy.com/