couples therapy
imago therapy

First, Do No Harm!

from publication series REFLECTIONS ON RELATIONSHIPS    (Vol 1. No. 47, November 14 - November 20, 2003)

Even in the best of relationships, there will be times when partners are so furious with each other that there's nothing to be done for now. The fury can come out of the blue, just when things seemed to be going their usual, comfortable way. All of a sudden, old familiar problem patterns reemerge, nothing new, and nothing that terrible, but this time it feels like a worse affront than usual, you don't have the patience for it, and you let your anger loose. Even as you act on your emotions, you're aware that you're being self-indulgent, but this time, you don't care. Your partner doesn't care either and let's loose, too. You both dig your heels in, and you and your partner, usually loving, sensitive, and gentle, can't talk to each other because all you both want to do is complain, accuse, and defend with a vengeance. So, you're in for a longer bout than you'd like.The ironic thing about familiar and repeated episodes like these is that they are set off by behaviors, or even personality styles, that you both know about and basically, have accepted in each other. Chances are, that these very qualities infuriating you both right now are even what attracted you to each other in the first place. You've talked about the dark and the bright side of these differences, these ongoing problem patterns, and learned how to handle them when they come up. And, here they are again, but this time, totally out of control.

Take me and my husband, for example. One of the recurring conflicts we have has to do with the level of activity in our lives. I tend to want to be on the go constantly; I need chores, action, people, novelty. It's probably a way to cope with the existential anxiety of life, and I might be extreme in this way. My husband is content to stay put and tends toward the other extreme (really extreme if you ask me). I'm sure that one of the reasons we were drawn together was an unconscious realization that by joining our lives, we'd find a middle ground that would be healthier for each of us. With me, he'd have more action in his life; with him, I'd be able to find contentment without running around. Sounds good, and it is good when it works, but it's a very tricky balance to maintain. If the balance veers too much in either direction, the other partner begins to panic and revert to old behaviors. I become demanding; he withdraws. I feel he's not going to be a good partner to accompany me in the world; he feels it's hopeless to try to satisfy me. If we really were to explore the panic, it would go back to our families of origin and fears about relationships that we still carry from the past.

So what is a loving, committed couple to do during the times when they just cannot stand how the other is acting and feel that their hopes for a happy relationship are being dashed? What comes to mind is: "First, do no harm!" In relationships destined for the long haul, partners develop the ability to contain their reactions rather than act on them. Containment means that you allow the space for your partner to go through moods and old, dysfunctional behaviors without getting pulled into them yourself, almost as though you were the understanding parent, patiently waiting for your child's temper tantrum to pass. That each partner can and will do this for the other is an indispensable ingredient to a successful marriage. But when you both are having temper tantrums, and no one is in control, it takes much more will to contain those hurtful impulses. And, ironically, the impulses to act out predominate at the same time that you know that good times will surely return.

When the storm has passed, which means that one of you makes a conscious decision to let go of the anger and soften up, its time to make an appointment to have a talk with each other about how to anticipate and handle the next episode in a more successful way.

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