A caller once asked us, "How do I know if my relationship really needs counseling?" An easy way to determine this is to ask yourself, "How safe do I feel?" This simple question is not solely about physical safety. Are you afraid your partner will leave you? If you answered, "Yes," you do not feel safe. Are you afraid your partner will criticize, belittle, berate, or humiliate you? If you answered, Yes," you do not feel safe. Are you afraid your partner is keeping secrets, has an addiction, or engaging in habits that threaten your emotional, financial, or occupational safety? Again...if you answered, "Yes," you do not feel safe. If sex feels dirty, shameful, or non-consensual, you do not feel safe.
There are many types of safety. Most of us know what it means to feel physically safe. We know that we should never endure kicking, hitting, rape, or other forms of physical abuse. But what about the implied threat of physical violence? If your spouse or significant other breaks property or throws things in your direction, the implication is that you could be next. This sort of danger is encoded by the central nervous system, which sends your body/mind into survival mode. Over time, trauma-based wiring develops in response to such triggers; this takes a significant toll on your physical and psychological health.
Sometimes traumatic triggers take on more subtle forms. Verbal abuse, subtle shaming, public criticism, and even the silent treatment can all trigger significant fear in an intimate partner. This is particularly true if your parents or childhood caregivers engaged in similar treatment. Telling someone what they think or how they feel is a a subtle but common form of emotional violence. Financial abuse and manipulation is another common form of abuse that often goes unrecognized. Subtle forms of abuse often the remnants of more pronounced forms of abuse left over from previous generations. Often, the perpetrator does not recognize that he or she is engaging in abusive behavior.
Are any relationships really free of all these types of abuse? The answer is simply, "Yes." As human beings evolve, our relationships are evolving as well. What once was considered acceptable behavior (for instance, beating your wife with a stick no larger than your thumb) is now considered abuse. As our expectations of relationships have expanded, so have our definitions of what is desirable and acceptable in a relationship. While some lucky couples fall naturally into supportive interpersonal patterns of interaction, most do not. Developing healthy patterns of interaction takes psychoeducation, self-reflection, a commitment to change, and a lot of good, old-fashioned hard work.
In the 21st Century, with its myriad of external stressors, people look to their primary relationships to provide a sense of safety, peace, and belonging. If we grew up in an environment that felt unsafe, unpredictable, abusive or cold, this does not come naturally. Couples can and do learn to create a sanctuary of their relationship and their home. This sanctuary, in turn, provides the foundation for success, happiness, and fulfillment in the outside world.
Attachment focused couples counselingis qn approach to therapy that focuses on a sense of safety. Micro-patterns of interaction, along with related attention to somatic and emotional responses are explored and redefined. Intergenerational family patterns of interaction that contribute to or diminish a sense of safety are examined. As new interpersonal transaction patterns are developed, the family narrative is rewritten and the intergenerational patterns of withdrawal, enmeshment, and abuse are interrupted. Attachment focused couples therapy utilizes cognitive behavioral therapy as well as interpersonal neurobiology to create a renewed feeling of safety within the family. Each family member is expected to do his or her part to make the family home a safe place of nurturance and belonging. If that sounds like something you would like to create, then perhaps couples counseling is for you.