Preventing Relapse in Couples Therapy

by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, R.PSYCH, RMFT

I once met with a couple who had made great strides in their relationship over several months. They were communicating with each other more effectively and were feeling better about their ability to handle the hassles of daily life. Then busy schedules took over and we did not see each other for a while. When they returned to meet with me they felt discouraged because a few setbacks had occurred. They felt like they were slipping into old patterns.

This couple asked me some questions that I have heard many times. How can we stay on track and how can we correct course after we have gotten off track? How can we invite discussion about our progress without putting the other person on the defensive? Here are my answers.

1. Make it safe

This is an important rule to follow no matter whether you are trying to get back on track or whether you are trying to deal with an issue for the first time. Make it safe for your spouse to talk openly with you without feeling the need to ward off an attack. The best way to do this is by avoiding a judgmental attitude. Describe your feelings, needs and wants instead of attacking or blaming your spouse.

Attacking and blaming statements often begin with the word “you.” If you approach your spouse with a sharp tone and angry eyes and harsh words, saying, “You didn’t plan a date this week and it was your turn,” or “You are not listening to me lately!” or “You know what your problem is?” your spouse will likely put up walls and not want to hear you. Angry statements such as, “Why did you do that? You know it bothers me!” often invites the other person into a self-justifying position. It’s difficult to respond in a caring, understanding, compassionate way when you feel blamed or judged.

Instead, define yourself, not your spouse. Express your underlying feelings. Identify your needs. Describe the situation and how that situation made you feel. Make what you say an expression of concern, not a judgment of your spouse. For example, “It seems like we are getting busy again with our schedules. I am not feeling as connected as I did several weeks ago. Remember when we were planning dates and focusing on each other? I really liked that. Can we talk about what might be happening so that we can get back on track?” This approach often makes it easier for your spouse to hear you and better understand where you are coming from.

2. open emotional space

Another principle of good communication is to honor your spouse’s ability to choose their own way. The more you honor your spouse’s right to make their own choices, the less likely you are to invite him or her into a reactive, self-protective stance.

Consider Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion which states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This law is about the motion of physical objects, but it has some interesting application to relationships. The more we try to force someone to comply with our wishes, the more that other person pushes back with equal force.

If you are a parent, you may have found yourself at some point saying to your child something like, “You are not leaving this table until you have eaten every last greenbean on that plate!” If so, what did your child do? The more insistent and demanding you become, the more determined your child is to prevent any green bean from entering her digestive system.

This kind of power struggle can happen in all kinds of relationships. How would you feel if your spouse said something to you like, “I don’t care how long it takes. You’re going to sit here and hash this out until we get it resolved!” or “Don’t even think about going out tonight. If you step through that door, its over!”

When we feel backed into a corner, when someone invades our personal space, we feel threatened. Our fight or flight mechanism kicks in. We start thinking of how best to protect ourselves and preserve our personal space. This prevents us from using our creative brains to solve the problem.

If you want creative, thoughtful and supportive responses from your spouse, then you need to open lots of personal space to allow him or her to maneuver. A different approach that opens space might sound something like this, “There are a few things that I’d like to work on today. I’m hoping you can help. I was thinking that the lawn needs mowing and that we really need to clean the garage out. Is there a way we can work together to get these things done? What were you planning for today?”

Instead of demanding that the other person turn off the T.V. or stop what they are doing right at that moment, try approaching them with options. “I would really like to sit and touch base with you. It seems like it’s been a while since we’ve checked in with each other. If now is not a good time, is there a time that would work better?”

Another way of opening space for each other and respecting each other’s agency is to ask open-ended questions instead of making statements about your spouse. Open-ended questions are ones which cannot be answered by a simple, “yes” or “no” or a single-word. They allow the other person to respond without feeling manipulated.

Try making more of the things you say to your spouse exploratory, open-ended questions rather than statements about your spouse. For example, “How are you feeling about our progress these days?” or “How do you feel about what I am saying?” or “What is the issue for you? What do you need from me?” or “Where do you see us heading?” or “What was that like for you?”

Making assumptions and jumping to conclusions about the way your spouse thinks or feels closes space around your spouse and activates defenses. Asking open-ended questions in the spirit of clarifying and exploring how your spouse feels about something is a helpful way to avoid invading your spouse’s emotional space.

3. communicate regularly and often

Change is not a constant process. In the course of growth, there are normal ups and downs, exhilarating breakthroughs and insights, long stretches of everyday routine, and occasional upsets. One way to monitor and evaluate your overall progress is to keep the lines of communication open between you. Make sure that you are talking to each other every day for at least twenty minutes. (That may not sound like a lot, but research suggests that the amount of time the average couple talks to each other about meaningful things on a daily basis can be counted in minutes!)

Establish a regular check-in time, perhaps once per week or once per month, where you both stop and assess what seems to be going well and where you feel that things need improvement. Set aside at least a half-hour for checking in with each other. Use the acronym ACT as a way to structure this check-in process. The “A” stands for affirm (or appreciate, admire, or affection). Affirm each other by talking about what you appreciate in each other. What seems to be going well? What are you seeing that is positive and how is that making a difference for you?

The “C” stands for challenges or concerns. After focusing on the positives, talk about anything that is a concern for you. Here is where you might mention your feelings about slipping back or your desire for more time together. Be sure to express your own feelings, needs and wants about the issue, rather than analyzing your spouse’s feelings and motivations. Speak for yourself and listen with understanding to what your spouse has to say.

Finally the “T” stands for time. Or touch. Or tenderness. In other words, find a way to end the meeting on a positive note that helps you reconnect and stay connected. End the meeting by planning ways to spend time together in the following week. Plan a date together. Touch each other. Show tenderness.

The acronym ACT is a useful way to remind yourself to structure these weekly meetings in such a way that you start and end on a positive note. It’s like a sandwich. Two slices of bread on either side represent positive, affirming contact. The meat in the middle represents the issues that need discussing.

Also consider not using your date time for these discussions. Your dates should be fun and pleasurable for both of you. Date time is for enjoying each other’s company, having a good laugh or doing something interesting that stimulates you. You might think, “But now I have his or her undivided attention. It’s going to be a while before I get that again.” But there is a time and a place for everything. Make a commitment to create time for communicating about important issues. If you have things to talk about that involve issues at work, family or with your children, save those issues for a weekly “business” meeting at a time other than your date time.

4. re-frame relapse and re-focus

It is easy to view relapse in a negative light. Slipping back into old habits can feel disheartening. You might feel like you should know better after making so much progress, and, therefore, feel like you’ve slipped back farther than you really have. You may find yourselves wondering, “Why is this so hard? Why does this relationship require so much effort to move forward?”

One way to deal with these feelings is to reframe what the setback means. Lapses and relapses are a normal part of change. Lapses help us learn from our mistakes and make adjustments that will ultimately help us to stay on course. Rather than viewing relapse as evidence of failure, learn to view it as an opportunity for learning and growth. What does this relapse teach me? What can I learn from it? What do I need to do differently in the future? People often need to hear the same message multiple times before change really sinks in.

Relapse may also be a signal that you have temporarily lost your focus. When you lose your focus the answer is not to expend more effort than you were before or to do more than you were doing before. The answer is to refocus. Being out of focus is why it seems so hard to keep moving forward. Once you get back into focus again it will seem easier. Think back to when things were going well. Did you have that same discouraged, despairing feeling then? Probably not. Because your focus was in the right place.

Have you ever tried to read a PowerPoint presentation that was just barely out of focus? You strain and squint and struggle to read the print. It’s hard to look at the screen. Your head aches. Then someone identifies the problem. They focus the projector lens so that the print becomes clear and easy to read. From then on you stop thinking consciously about trying to read and instead follow along with the presentation.

Refocusing in the context of a relationship is not as straightforward as merely adjusting the lens on a projector. It requires effort to stay focused, but staying focused makes it easier in the long run. Refocusing in this sense usually means making an attitude adjustment or changing your perspective on the situation. It may mean reminding yourself of what is important, honestly evaluating your role in the situation, or resolving to focus on more helpful perspectives. It might mean reviewing articles or books that you had read previously to remind you of important ideas that you had forgotten. It may involve reviewing past entries in your journal to see how far you have come.

Changing your focus might mean recommitting to making your spouse a priority in your life, to the principle of giving love unconditionally, or to seeing the good in your spouse instead of the bad. Ultimately, when our perspective – our focus – changes, then our options change as well.

5. practice, practice, practice

The principles discussed above take practice to implement on a regular basis. We tend to lose focus so easily because the emotional, reactive centers in our brain hijack the parts of our brain that are responsible for logical, rational thinking. When we feel attacked, threatened or hurt the way we react often undermines our goal of creating a connected, warm and caring relationship. It takes practice to continually re-focus ourselves in these situations so that we remain more objective, and think things through before reacting.

Remember that when it comes to relationship growth, change is both a gradual change process and a series of sudden changes or events. Some changes are dramatic and sudden, life-altering events. These change events are important and exciting. They fill us with hope.

Most long-term, lasting relationship change, however, is a process, reminiscent of what happens in our garden in springtime. We prepare the ground. We plant a seed. We water, we nurture, we tend, and we wait. We wonder if anything is happening. Then we make the first exciting discovery—green shoots reaching through the dirt. We realize that the garden has been growing all along, too slow at first to seem like much. Later, as we continue to water and nurture, we look around and realize that our garden has grown to maturity, almost unnoticed under our nose. As a result of our persistence, patience and focused efforts, we eventually yield the fruits of our labor.

You will do so in your relationship with your spouse as well, if you apply this same persistence, effort and focus over time. If you tend to your relationship with each other the way you would tend to a garden to make it grow, then your relationship will develop and mature into something that brings peace and delight to both of you.

conclusion

If you find that you are slipping back into old patterns, stop and take stock of your situation. Make it safe by expressing your needs and feelings rather than blaming or judging your spouse. Open space for each other to change by honoring each other’s ability to choose. Stay tuned to each other by talking and communicating regularly about your progress. Learn to view relapse as an opportunity for growth and a sign that you may need to re-focus again. And, finally, make a commitment to consistent practice at calming down and soothing each other when you become emotionally reactive or out-of-focus. Doing these things will help you stay on track.


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