When Sarah first met Jonah, they fell in love easily and quickly. They were married within a year, and both felt very lucky and happy. They were together as much as possible, often neglecting other friendships and family. About a year into the relationship, they started to argue increasingly. Both felt confused and upset by their arguments. Wasn't this relationship supposed to be "the one", and if so, did fighting mean that they were somehow not meant for each-other, that they had been deluding themselves?
My answer to that is no. They were not deluding themselves, but there were some important things happening that needed to be addressed and integrated into their marriage.
First of all - no marriage is perfect. Many couples disagree, argue, and even fight regularly. Other couples are conflict averse, and become withdrawn when they are upset rather than argue. Then there are couples where one wants to work it out and process the disagreement, where the other prefers to run in the other direction. This usually triggers the first person to pursue, which activates the other to withdraw more because disagreement can feel threatening.
In all relationships, as in children, there are developmental stages. When you first come together, there is an intense bonding and sense of love and attachment, a deep sense of merging. The next developmental stage is the search for separation and differentiation that the relationship can contain and withstand. In many couples, this particular stage can cause problems both because it is simply a new stage, and because it can be scary. What often happens is that partners try to hang onto the merging that is a natural stage early in the relationship but cannot be sustained. The need to become more separate can feel threatening, so some couples, though they resist it, end up creating differentiation through conflict. Paradoxically, the tendency to hang onto a sense of merging makes true intimacy difficult because each partner has trouble seeing the other in a real, three-dimensional way.
The task at this stage in the relationship is to work on separateness in a healthy way. Accepting and celebrating your partner's differences. When you begin to recognize your partner's individuality and realize a sense of safety and space, the intimacy between you will increase. I'm not talking about the kind of separateness where you are withdrawing from each-other due to past hurt and resentment. I'm referring to an internal and healthy differentiation. A feeling that recognizes your partner as someone with completely different thoughts and motivations. The increase in intimacy comes from a more realistic view of your partner, a stronger sense of yourself within the relationship, and a feeling of safety within that.
Most of us have a little voice inside that talks us through the day. We often don't take note of what it's saying because we are so used to it that we no longer notice that it's there. Often when people are struggling with unexplained sadness, depression, or anxiety, the inner voice is quietly wreaking havoc.
The basic element of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a popular solution focused therapeutic approach, is that our thoughts can run our lives and in order to turn them around, we first need to bring them into sharper focus. We can begin by slowing these thoughts down by paying attention, in order to notice what they are saying. Through this, we can watch where they lead us. Often, negative thoughts can lead to painful emotions. In practice, we may notice and feel the emotions first, but the thoughts that led to them happened so quickly that they may have been missed.
A typical example of negative thinking leading to negative emotion is this - You leave work to have lunch alone and you suddenly realize that you are feeling a little blue and slightly tired. Sitting down to slow down what just happened and asking yourself where those feelings came from, you realize that you were just having an internal dialogue that went something like this: "I didn't get that project completed, I'm so disorganized...my colleague thinks I'm lazy and doesn't like me...now I am eating lunch alone again...nobody likes me..."
From this example, it's pretty understandable why this person would be feeling not only blue, but pretty discouraged during lunch. In that short amount of time, several thoughts have passed through that have become habitual and the emotions that follow are unwelcome but, most likely, quite typical.
The object of CBT is first to become aware of the thoughts that led to the emotions by paying attention and slowing them down. Second, once those thoughts have really started coming fully into awareness, they can be changed, reprogrammed in a sense. Often these negative thoughts come from our early years, where we internalized the sometimes judgmental voices around us, be it in school, community, or at home. It is helpful to understand this, but the real work is in the moment. In becoming aware of and learning to distance from negative thoughts while replacing them with positive, nurturing ones.
The process of recognizing and then replacing negative thinking is a profound, exciting, and wonderful process. It allows us to have much more control of our lives by holding a key to what makes us tick.
Katharina Sandizell, LMFT