As a psychologist who practices couples therapy, I’m always rooting for my clients to be in happy, long-term relationships. However, sometimes clients decide to end their relationship during the couples therapy process. I’d like to share a story with you about how one couple decided to end their relationship after pursuing couples therapy.
Jill and John (both pseudonyms) came to couples therapy to determine whether they should pursue marriage. Although recently engaged, their history as a couple had involved infidelity on both sides. Both Jill and John had suffered terrible trauma in their families, and were still dealing with the aftermath of these effects.
I decided to use Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) to teach Jill and John new ways to connect. EFT is based on the science of bonding and attachment, and teaches clients ways to connect on an emotional level.
At first, it was difficult for Jill and John not to hurt or offend each other when they shared their feelings. Because of their histories of being criticized, both felt upset and responsible when their partner expressed unhappiness in the relationship.
From an EFT perspective, when couples struggle in relationships, they are often unsure of whether they can count on their partners emotionally. At the heart of the issue, they ask themselves the questions, “Are you really there for me? Can I rely on you?”
In EFT, relationships are a dance, and one person’s behaviour impacts the other. Couples can often fall into the roles of pursuer or distancer. When a member of the couple feels that their bond is shaky, they may react with pursuing behaviours by clinging to their partner or becoming angrily critical of them. These behaviours often create impulses in the other partner to shut down or withdraw, leading to distancing. Unfortunately, the withdrawal of the other partner often exacerbates the pursuing partner’s responses. This pattern or dance becomes a negative cycle, and it can create a lot of distress in a relationship.
Jill and John struggled with this pursuer-distancer cycle. When Jill would ask for more of John’s time, he would become defensive and angry. This led Jill to feel upset and start to cry, which led to John feeling guilty and caused him to pull away. Jill would feel even more alone and would consume alcohol to cope with her emotional pain.
In their couples therapy, I started by helping Jill and John understand the negative pattern they had created, so that we could start to find a way out of it. After they could describe their negative cycle, I focused on helping Jill and John find ways to express their more vulnerable emotions to each other, using a technique called enactments.
Jill and John were able to learn how to connect on an emotional level they had never experienced before. John especially was a lot less angry and defensive, which helped Jill feel comfortable voicing her feelings. They gradually became more authentic and spontaneous in their communication, rather than falling into familiar, destructive patterns. In the end, Jill and John decided not to continue their relationship, but they were able to dissolve their relationship respectfully—even as friends.
In my work as a couples therapist, I want clients to be successful, but ultimately, I cannot make decisions about their relationship status. It’s also important to remember that one couple’s success may be another’s failure; we are all unique. My goal is to teach couples skills and new ways of relating, and through this process the trajectory of their relationship becomes clearer. Jill and John’s story may not seem like a traditional success story for couples therapy, but I consider their experience successful because they were able to make an important decision about their relationship, and both came away with valuable insights and new ways to express themselves for their respective futures.