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Couples Therapy Intervention: Altering Your Patterns

When working with many couples in my practice, I often ask them the following question(s) and record the answers on a sheet of paper for each partner:

“When you feeling your worst, how do you act with each other? What does this look like?” 

I work with couples to create a detailed/descriptive list, which might look like this:

  • “I get critical.”
  • “I blame my partner.”
  • “I get defensive.”
  • “I yell.”
  • “I stonewall or ignore my partner.”

“Which emotion at these times is the hardest for you to show when things get tough?”

Oftentimes, when we are having a difficult moment, we use other emotions to cover our more vulnerable/true feelings. As an example, sometimes when we are hurt or scared, we act in a defensive, angry manner. One client once told me during a session “…when I get angry and defensive, I am actually covering up fear. When I break things in my apartment I tend to be hiding the true fact that I feel embarassed and shameful. When I yell it’s usually covering up the true feelings of being helpless and out of control. When I act this way, I don’t want my wife or children to see that I am full of fear and vulnerability.”

“What might you like to do instead of engaging in these same old behavioral patterns?”

When they are feeling they are in a tough spot, what can they do to shift their behavior that can make a more positive difference in their relationship? This same client answered this question by saying “I want to tell my wife that I am scared and to be able to admit that something I did may have been wrong. I want to be accepted even if I am not perfect. I also want to take a step back and try to calm down, instead of escalating in the usual way that I do.”

I sometimes ask clients to take this information home and think about their responses. It gives each member of the couple a helpful tool when they come back to sessions and they discuss having a difficult interaction.  I often ask them to consider “Where does it fit on here? Were you able to change your behavior in any way? Were you able to do something differently? Were you able to show your true emotions, instead of masking them?”
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