Often, by the time a couple comes to me, their relationship is close to gasping its last breath. Couples can be feeling hopeless, and sometimes are not even sure if counseling will help. I have written this article to help you understand some of the ways that I can help you get your relationship back on track, and perhaps give you some faith that there is still hope.
Sometimes couples come to me from a preventative or a “tune-up” approach. If you are seeking relationship counseling as a way of keeping on the right track, kudos to you! You could be saving yourselves a lot of pain and heartache, and I hope I am able to help you establish and nurture the best relationship you can have.
Why it's Different This Time
As you begin couples counseling, you might think “we’ve tried that,” or “that didn’t work,” believing that there is no point in trying again. I challenge that belief because it’s different this time. How? It is different because you are in counseling now. You have a third party here to hold you and your partner accountable, to make sure you don’t cut corners. A third party to help you tweak and adjust the plan as needed, instead of throwing it out when it doesn’t work. The difference is that now, you have a professional at your side.
Whatever it takes
can mean any number of things, but often it means that you will need to do
something different. And different can be hard. It can be uncomfortable and
painful. It can be annoying. It can seem pointless. Yet … I will assert that
you’ve got to do it anyway. Why listen to me? Because I am the person you have
hired to help you. I’m the green-thumb for your relationship plant.
When I am working with a couple, I view the relationship itself as my client, rather than any particular individual. I see the relationship as a plant, and each member of the relationship is responsible for the care they are or are not providing to it.
What are you doing to nurture your relationship plant? Are you watering it, feeding it, making sure it gets enough sunshine? Or are you ignoring it and shoving it in a corner? Or perhaps you are you over-watering it or exposing it to too much sunshine. To grow any healthy plant, you must determine, sometimes through trial and error, what is the best mix of all of the essential components, and every plant is different.
In the same way, every relationship is different. The things that nurture one relationship might not be appropriate for another one. So ask yourself, are you in tune with the needs of your relationship? Part of what I do is to help my clients identify what it is that their relationship needs in order to flourish, and help each partner be accountable for the care they are providing to their relationship plant.
I define infidelity very broadly as anything that is siphoning away energy that should be put into the primary relationship. These activities could involve addictions such as gambling, chemicals, or work. It can involve sexual infidelity, but also emotional infidelity and even cyber-infidelity through texting, chat rooms, and pornography.
In other words, if a behavior involves getting needs met outside of a relationship that ought to be met inside the relationship, then it is an act of infidelity. Sexting with a co-worker might seem harmless on the one hand. But on the other hand, it is sexual energy being sent outside of the relationship, making that energy unavailable to your partner.
The Begonia and the Orchid
Let me go back to my plant metaphor. Let’s say the primary relationship is a Begonia, and the outside relationship (the “infidelity”) is an Orchid. Lately the Begonia has been looking sort of pathetic, while the Orchid is looking great. But perhaps the reason the Begonia is looking limp is because no one has watered it for a long time ...
You both might have forgotten that there was a time when the Begonia was gorgeous, and that at some point, perhaps due to complacency by both you and your partner, the Begonia began to droop a little, quite possibly even before the Orchid came into the picture. And now you are left with a choice. The Begonia or the Orchid? You might not even be sure yet.
When a couple comes to me, I strive to help them both remember how fabulous their Begonia used to be, and help them to want to nurture it back to life. If you’ve ever tried to bring a neglected plant back from the brink of death, you know that it takes hard work and commitment, but also a delicate touch and patience. A neglected plant is quite fragile – much more fragile than a healthy plant. For example, over-watering a plant when it has been chronically under-watered can kill it. This is where I am the metaphorical green thumb, and I hope to guide my clients in identifying what their particular plant needs in order to flourish.
How is trust earned back? As I recall Dr. Phil saying once, “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved yourself into.” What does this mean? It means talk is cheap. You can promise a hundred times over that you’ll never do it again, but your partner will not begin to trust you again until they see a change. There needs to be concrete evidence that you are doing something different.
Sometimes you will need to give up your privacy. This could mean providing all your passwords and full access to your phone and internet accounts. It may mean you need to keep your partner apprised of where you are at all times. It can mean putting an end to certain relationships. This can feel intrusive and like a complete loss of privacy, and in some ways it is. But only in some ways. Many healthy couples that I know just do this naturally, because it is practical. For a strained relationship, it can feel like a huge burden. But in reality, it can be a lifeline.
Earning back trust also means demonstrating dependability in other areas of your life. This is often one of the most difficult areas to negotiate within a troubled relationship. Small lies, failure to follow-through on promises – these are things that erode the foundation of any relationship, especially a fragile one. Thus, each time you engage in a deception, no matter how small, it sends you right back to the beginning. Even if you have done everything right for a week, the one white lie you tell wipes out all the progress you may have made.
When there is a betrayal or loss of trust, both parties need to work hard in order to rebuild a healthy foundation. This can feel unfair to the betrayed party. Why should they have to work hard when it’s their partner that messed up?
Yes, the partner who broke trust must earn it back. But the betrayed partner must make room for that possibility to happen. Too often, the process of earning back trust becomes a case of one partner forever punishing the other for what happened. Your partner is unlikely to want to remain in a relationship where they feel like they will always be a second-class citizen.
Patience .... patience ... and more patience ...
One of the many challenges in repairing a damaged relationship is that it requires patience – patience with the process, with your partner, and with yourself. Often the work that is being done and the change being enacted is not visible on the outside. If your partner is working on their reactivity, they may be the only one who knows how many times they stopped and thought before they spoke. If you are trying to be less suspicious, your partner might have no idea how often you talked yourself out of blowing up their phone. Part of what I hope to do is increase your awareness of each other’s accomplishments, and encourage you to share and support one another as you strive to become both a better partner and a better person.
M. Brett Debney, MS, EdS, LCMHC, CCMHC
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3707 West Market Street, Suite D
Greensboro, NC 27403