Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Couple Trouble? What's At The Root Of It?

Every year I have the pleasure of attending and often  presenting at the Annual Conference of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT). Although Marriage and Family Therapists work in many different areas of therapy, the heart of our work centers around relationships. After attending several workshops at a recent conference which dealt specifically with unhealthy family systems (family units), I was reminded of how and why it is so easy for any relationship - especially those of couples - to experience trouble. Although couples can struggle because of serious issues/offenses, chronic stresses, personality conflicts, physical or mental illnesses/disorders, addictions, and/or underlying psychological pathology, for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to address an area of causation not often identified or articulated. Thus, it erodes couples' relationships for months or even years, and frequently leaves them in crisis, with one or both partners contemplating a way out of the relationship. What's going on? Let's take a look at an example.

Couple Trouble?
Many years ago, a young couple who was in crisis came in to see me. I will call them Jacob and Jen. With three small children at home and Jacob spending a great deal of time launching his music career, Jen felt alone and neglected. Time and time again, Jacob and Jen talked this over, made promises to one another, and even agreed on compromises, but nothing changed. When they came into counseling, Jen was considering a separation.  She said, "All Jacob cares about is his band and his adoring fans. He is so selfish and self-centered. He doesn't have any time for me or our kids." Although Jacob admitted he was very selfish, he said, "No matter what I do, it isn't right or it's not enough." And then added, "I don't know why Jen married me. She knew who I was and what I wanted when we dated. I doing the best I can, but I can't satisfy her."

As with most couples, Jacob and Jen wanted a quick fix! They both wanted the pain of the relationship to stop! Most therapists and couples would love a easy resolution, but that is not usually what happens. After suggesting to Jacob and Jen that it took a while  for them to reach this level of discomfort, I gently shared that it was also going to take time and commitment on both their parts to cultivate a deeper awareness and understanding of each other and their respective needs. With their consent, we moved forward. Jacob and Jen really began to learn about themselves as we explored their backgrounds. And, as they tenderly discovered and revealed their unspoken expectations of one another, they began to understand the root of their trouble -  their individual life messages. What does this mean? This is important.

Life Messages?

Jacob had a difficult childhood.  His father was an abusive alcoholic, frequently taking his anger out on Jacob and his siblings. His mom was victimized as well. When Jacob became interested in music (as a refuge from his chaotic home and because he was extremely talented), Jacob's dad made fun of him - referring to Jacob as a sissy. Jacob left home after graduating high school, determined to make it on his own and make a career in music. When I asked Jacob what his life messages were growing up - the beliefs that he internalized about himself -  Jacob responded,

"I'm never enough. I am nothing. I shamed my dad."

Jen's background was painful as well. Jen's mom was chronically depressed and extremely needy, self-absorbed, and emotionally absent. Jen took care of herself and her younger sister; she also took on responsibility for many of the household duties. Jen's dad traveled for business and was not available most of her childhood. When he did return home on weekends, Jen's dad and mom fought. When Jen's dad filed for divorce, Jen's mom blamed Jen! Jen met and married Jacob shortly after high school, hoping to escape the loneliness and heartache of her home environment.  When I asked Jen what her life messages were growing up - the beliefs that she internalized about herself -  Jen responded,
"I'm not lovable. I disappoint everyone. I am to blame for other people being unhappy."

Life messages are powerful beliefs that we hold about ourselves. We receive our life messages from our childhood environments and our primary caretakers.We ALL have them.  And, depending on our age of development and the simultaneous occurrence/s of  trauma, abuse, or family dysfunction, individuals can be deeply impacted by the internalization of their life messages which they carry with them into their adult lives and their relationships. As we saw with Jen and Jacob, their life messages were extremely defeating and devaluing. 

Although the connection of life messages to couple trouble may be obvious to you, will will discuss that next time along with a few healing strategies!  For  now, if you are struggling in your relationship or even if you want to improve yours, I encourage you to take some time and complete the following life messages exercise. If you had a difficult childhood, go slowly and pace yourself. Remember, this is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and to understand your needs - your unspoken expectations - which are rooted in your life messages.

Get comfortable with your process of writing: a journal, a piece of paper, or on your computer. Make several columns with the following headings:

Life Messages Exercise

Age (Approximately)/ Life Messages / From Whom / How I Felt or Feel

Think back as far as you can and begin recounting your life messages, along with your approximate age, from whom you received this message, and how this message made you feelRecall as many as you can, being mindful your age and the impact it had on your feelings at that time. Taking an honest personal inventory such as this can be difficult. So again, take your time, but do make the time to do this.  Breathe and take breaks when needed. Return to the exercise when you are ready. If you have positive, healing, and affirming messages, include those as well! As you begin your work, remember ~

 These are your truths.
 Claim them now.
 By doing so, you are honoring them ~ and you.

Next time, Couple Trouble Series #2: You mean I have to change?


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