Can you remember what it feels like to see something for the very first time?
Given our unprecedented access to information, it would not surprise me if you had a difficult time remembering. Consider the example of traveling. When my grandparents describe their mid-life travels, they always do so with an intense mystery that swept me up into the sights and sounds that I was never really sure weren't coming from the kitchen.
My grandmother never told me that she researched every day of her trip and looked up every sight they would see before they went because that wasn't possible. There was no internet to blunt the edge of her curiosity. She simply wanted to go somewhere new and exciting, so they went. Imagine all of their opportunities to be awed, shocked, enthralled, repulsed, or invigorated. Imagine the chance to see something for the very first time, to recognize your place within that experience, and to be changed because of it.
This is what I hope step two of couples counseling is like.
By the time we've reached this step, couples have accepted that they are victims of a vicious cycle that has hijacked and stolen away their relationship. They affirm that the cycle exists, but they have yet to recognize their role in the cycle. Step two is an opportunity for awareness to foster action. In this step, I help couples understand how their personal defenses, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors help fuel the cycle. I also help them understand their crucial role in the cycle's life, that they are not solely responsible for it, and that it can be overcome.
Empathy is king.
Couples who are willing to take a conscious step away from anger, frustration, or withdrawal are better equipped to survive the second step of couples counseling to gain more intimacy. To do that, I help couples recognize their role by orchestrating conversations that bring up their anger or frustration. When they show up, I point them out and start to unpack the softer, more vulnerable experiences that bloat angry defenses.
Anger, frustration, and the misleading appearance of apathy tear couples apart. Authenticity, the ability to be more and more real about what you're feeling is like relationship a balm. When it happens again and again, individuals within couple relationships start to take a more active role in not only recognizing a nasty cycle, but taking steps to reduce their part in it.
The moment you realize that your partner is not your enemy, but is also suffering just like you are, the temptation to remain combatants weakens.
When couples start to recognize their own role in their conflict, my favorite emotion shows up: curiosity. Once couples become curious about their predicament, I know that they can make it. I know that because when it happens, it is the same kind of curiosity into which I was immersed in my grandmother's stories, when she would tell me about all the amazing sights, sounds, and smells that she had never experienced before. Couples who recognize their own role in a dangerous cycle are frequently moved to be curious about why their partner behaves the way she or he does. That curiosity often drives couples to realize that their partner also wants to be close, she or he also wants connection, but is also lost, lonely, and perplexed. This is like seeing a great wonder of the world that maybe you've heard of or read about but never experienced. Once this level of curiosity and anticipation for the next step shows up, I know we're ready for step three.