In my outpatient practice, I often do marital therapy. Couples come in to work on improving, or perhaps saving their relationship. By the time they take this step, they have often experienced years of conflict or distance. Sometimes they are close to calling it quits and calling the divorce attorney.
My first task in marital therapy is an assessment of the situation. What are the issues? What are the patterns of communication? What are the trigger points of conflict? What are each participant’s personalities and motivations?
After this initial assessment, I will sometimes surprise the couple by telling them that they remind me a lot of my dog. This statement is met with some very strange looks, but at least I know that I have their attention. I go on to explain.
Several years ago, I was sitting on my front porch and my little white dog was playing in the yard. He never went into the road, but on this day he did. He ran into the road just as a car approached. The car hit him and ran over him. I watched helplessly as he rolled under the body of the car. The car drove on and my dog sat in the middle of the road, twisting and yelping.
I jumped off the porch and ran out to the road, while calling to my wife to get the car so we could take him to the vet. I reached down to pick up my dog to put him into the car, and he bit me on the hand.
It never entered my mind to be angry at my dog. I knew why my dog bit me. He bit me because he was in pain. I doubt that he even knew that he was biting me. He was just snapping at anything close because of his intense pain. His response was a reflex.
Most couples experiencing marital problems have been biting each other for some time. They didn’t bite because they were mean or because they didn’t love. They bit each other because they were in pain. They had been hurt by the other one and responded by biting back.
Unfortunately, each individual was aware of their own pain and their feeling that they had been bitten, but not aware that their responses had inadvertently bitten their partner. Not realizing that they had also bitten, they concluded that the partner bit because he was mean or because she didn’t care.
My first task in doing marital therapy is getting each member of the couple to focus most of their attention on what they have done to hurt the relationship, rather than focusing on what the other partner has done. By realizing that they have also contributed to the problem, they can begin healing.
By the way, my dog recovered completely, and lived many years after the accident. By learning from my dog, many couples have recovered completely as well.
Please share any experiences where you have recognized that you were not the only one being hurt in a relationship difficulty. What did you do about it?