Therapy lesson: Why trying to establish intimacy sometimes has the opposite effect, as shown by couples therapist Angelika Eck.
Charlotte and Martin come to their 15. Couples therapy session. I look into weary faces. What is bothering the two? My work with the couple began a year and a half earlier in an acute crisis. The reason for this had been a three-year-long secret parallel relationship of Martin with a colleague named Claudia, which Martin had ended and shortly thereafter confessed to Charlotte. The two came to me in a state of shock. I got to know Charlotte as a heap of misery, Martin as a contrite, ashamed man who had underestimated the force of his confession.
The relationship was at stake. In therapy so far, both partners have bravely worked their way forward, which essentially meant working through the stress symptoms – loss of sleep and appetite – and emotions of the acute crisis and not making hasty decisions. Enduring the fear that the life we had built with the two children would fall apart. Char-lotte faced the challenge of enduring the fundamental shattering of all trust. For Martin, it was about taking on the inner turmoil and shame for his behavior.
Then came the phase of coming to terms with what had happened, which is often therapeutically challenging because two perspectives want to be maintained at the same time: what the parallel relationship had done to Charlotte and what it had meant to Martin. The two of them had night-long arguments in which Charlotte asked again and again details of the relationship with Claudia in the hope of being able to understand it. Martin, not a man of many words by nature, made an effort to provide honest information, but kept reaching limits when Charlotte woke him at night and continued to question him. Clear appointments for times of confrontation and times of calm brought a structure into their process that was experienced as helpful by both of them.
Everything done, felt, said
Martin let Charlotte’s pain about the betrayal of loyalty get to him. He even dared to name in therapy what his motives and valuable experiences in the relationship with Claudia had been. From her he had experienced unconditional acceptance and with her light as a bird. Both had nourished him enormously in a phase full of professional challenges and quarrels with his wife. Hearing this hurt Charlotte, but Martin gained more contour and became more tangible for her again. Gradually she regained confidence. Not in her husband’s fidelity – I clearly advised her against that, too, since she had only recently learned that he was capable of cheating – but trust in his current sincerity and his adherence to their relationship. Martin breathed a sigh of relief.
Today, Martin opens our session with bitter words, "I feel like I’ve done, felt, and said everything I can to make Charlotte and us feel better, but her rage knows no end, even after all these months and all the clarification and all the tears. Your accusations go so below the belt. I don’t know how to go any further here."Charlotte is also visibly enraged at this moment: "First of all, you’re stonewalling like you always have since I’ve known you. You’ve decided you’ve said it all now, and I’m supposed to deal with the eggs you laid for me, which I didn’t order and which have changed my whole life, all at once on my own. That is unfair. I am the one who has the right to decide when enough is enough."
"The eggs you laid for me"
This phase is not unusual in itself: The betrayed partner often needs the confrontation longer than the partner who has cheated, has concluded this for himself and now wants to focus the energies more on the future. However, the intensity of Charlotte and Martin’s dynamic is particularly. What is behind it? The two get caught in a vicious cycle of crisis processing that is as old as the relationship itself: Martin in retreat – Charlotte in pursuit. The more he withdraws, the louder their criticism becomes. And the further away he goes. Both already suffered for decades from these escalations, which seem hopeless.
"Why does this pattern break out again in such a way just now, when many things have cleared up and you seem to have become so close to each other?", I ask the couple with a slow ductus, which is supposed to invite them to calm down and think about it. Charlotte responds wisely: "Maybe I wished we could have come out of the crisis differently. In the first time Martin opened up to me like never before. I think I fear that this intensity will be lost again, he will disappear behind the wall again and I will feel alone again as I have for many years. And it could happen again that he cheats." "Hm. This makes sense. The only sad thing is that the attempt to create this intensity is having the opposite effect at the moment…", I reply. "Yes, I know that, but it is very difficult for me to let that. Maybe I’m also afraid that if I put the sword down, it will come out that too much is broken or it’s not right between us after all. According to the motto: as long as they bang their heads, they are still connected."
I very much welcome Charlotte’s thinking out loud and gently deepen it: "So perhaps underneath your anger lie other feelings that might be all the harder to bear: Grief for what might have been broken, and fear that the relationship might not be livable any longer… And showing him that would be very vulnerable, or?" I support Charlotte saying that to Martin directly. He hears it and it comes to him. He responds more softly, but also makes it clear that he considers this pattern so strong that he does not believe it will change quickly. He wants to stay, but not like this.
The deep doubt of one’s own value
At this point, the therapy takes an interesting turn: Charlotte feels that she wants to understand and change her own reaction pattern. She pauses and changes her perspective. Yes, Martin got her into this. But she senses the chance to move forward on the occasion of this crisis with herself completely on her own responsibility at a point she has avoided all her life.
From this session on, in addition to couples therapy, we will continue to work with each other in individual sessions. Charlotte will continue to suffer from her husband’s withdrawal tendencies. Piece by piece, she will explore the question of why she is habitually so quick to react angrily, and work her way to a core issue: her very deep doubt that her worth as a person is there and is being awarded to her by her loved ones without her having to fight for it. Expressing to me this very deeply hidden doubt that has existed since childhood, along with the shame, will be a new experience that will be the beginning of many helpful processes: Charlotte will learn to feel the need for appreciation within herself and at the same time to observe and be less dominated by the reflexes with which she tries to protect this concern not to be seen.
She will practice not to react so strongly to her man, but to see: This is how he has always been, this is how he is, this is how he will stay in the trend. She will still suffer from the old deficiency as a consequence. But she will feel more clearly how much Martin likes to be with her in his way and how important she is to him. She will learn to give herself value and support when he is not as she needs him to be. She will falter briefly at the point where she feels, "I can take care of myself so well now that I could go on my own. Now I could. Should I separate? I’ll congratulate her on the fact that she seems to finally have a choice now. Only now she will be able to decide for or against her man. She will choose him, the man she loves.