By Elayne Savage, PhD
(Honestly, I had no intention of commenting on the presidential debate. Then I began receiving messages from some of you wanting to know my reaction so here it is . . . )
I realized right away how this presidential debate reminded me of working with disrespectful couples as a Family Therapist!
I was painfully reminded of how, as a fledgling couples therapist 30 years ago, I sometimes lost control of sessions when the couple would begin screaming at each other.
As I watched moderator Lester Holt lose control in the early part of the debate, I could certainly empathize. He seemed to be having a hard time as the candidates began to lose control, raising their voices and interrupting him and each other.
Many years ago, before I learned how to handle out of control couples, I would easily feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the anger in the room.
Once I learned to state ground rules of respectful engagement which included refraining from interrupting, and when I got good at stepping in and reminding couples of these rules, sessions rarely got out of control.
And, yes, I’m aware that my own early experiences with out of control anger can interfere with my work. Huge anger made me anxious. Then I learned how to avoid tripping over m own feet during sessions: I made sure I was keeping one foot in and one foot out.
It’s all too easy to lose ourselves in the dynamics of our clients so it’s good if we can find a balance. If a psychotherapist keeps both feet out, he or she may not be engaging enough. But by jumping in with both feet, the therapist runs the risk of becoming entangled.
If we notice we are starting to lose a sense of which feelings belong to us and which to the client, it helps to comment that we sense certain feeling in the room and want to check out with the client whether this might be something they are experiencing. I do a lot of checking out.
OR if need be, we can excuse ourselves from the room (maybe to get a drink of water) and take a short breather to get grounded and maintain our own boundaries. I have only had to leave the room twice in all my years of private practice but it’s good to know it’s a workable option.
Another great option for me has been the sage stick I keep on my bookshelf in a beautiful magenta bowl filled with sand. After a difficult session I light the sage and smudge all corners of my office to clear the air of toxic energy.
I hope someone in the cleanup crew came prepared with a sage stick to after the presidential debate!
The Gruesome Twosome
Are you curious about the kinds of behaviors I find most difficult to work with in couples sessions? Here are some examples of damaging relationship behaviors I’ve experienced over the years. Sometimes there might be two or three of these behaviors, sometimes more.
- Behavior that is feels rejecting: dismissive, Insulting, mocking, accusing, criticizing. Sometimes this is not in words, but rather by certain tones of voice or looks, like smirks or eye-rolling.
- One or both have a need to make the partner ‘bad’ and ‘wrong.’ There is a lot of blaming and shaming and guilt-tripping, and finger-pointing.
- One of them puffs him or herself up at the expense of diminishing the partner. This might be self-aggrandizing behavior or it might be bullying, but it often feels dismissive.
- In early sessions they might try hard to be on good behavior or they might describe trying to appear ‘loving’ at a social event. But truth be told, on the drive home they return to their mean-spirited sniping.
- Repeated lying to each other which includes lying by omission.
- I notice how things seem to go quickly from condescension to contempt.
- Inability to take responsibility for their words or actions. Even if they are able to squeeze out an “I’m sorry,” it is too often casual and is not the same as acknowledging mistakes or their part in the situation.
- Anger and resentment toward each other is thick in the room. I find I can hardly breathe.
"It's My Time to Speak"
Watching Hillary and Donald go at it, I was reminded of a couple I had seen where one of them kept interrupting whenever the partner spoke of concerns about their relationship. Time after time he managed to deflect the subject back to his own needs.
I really don’t think he was aware of how often this happened.
“It's my time to speak" she would say repeatedly, but he continued to talk over her.
Whenever I stepped in to suggest space be made for her to speak, he would become upset, raise his voice and accuse me of interrupting him.
Whenever I reminded them of the way we agreed to structure the sessions – with respect – he would talk over my words.
Whenever one of us pointed out his tendency to interrupt, he became angry and verbally abusive, to his wife . . . and sometimes to me, too.
When he was able to give her enough space to describe how her traumatic childhood may be contributing to some of the problems in their relationship, he never once looked at her while she spoke. Instead, his eyes stayed on the upper shelves of my bookcase, seeming to read each book title one at a time.
When I wondered if her story might be hard for him to hear, he dismissed this idea with “I’ve heard it all before.”
Just before the next session he fired me as their therapist, saying it was purely his decision and he had not discussed with his wife how she felt about continuing sessions. The reason? He felt I had not been able to stay in control of the sessions!
You may be wondering if I burned sage after these sessions? You bet I did!
© Elayne Savage, PhD
(Sections here are excerpted from Don’t Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection and Breathing Room – Creating Space to Be a Couple New Harbinger, Authors Guild/Open Road)
Elayne Savage is the author of ground-breaking relationship books published in 9 languages.
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