When we married in 1999, Tonya and I were young and full of wide-eyed optimism that we could have a successful marriage. We both had gotten graduate degrees in mental health, had read plenty of books, and had attended several marriage conferences. We had this.
What we didn’t know was what we didn’t know. Good intentions do not a healthy marriage make. We didn’t know that trying hard is not enough. We didn’t know that we were both operating according to two very distinct and different relationship rulebooks.
Somewhere along the way I developed the belief that healthy marriages didn’t fight. So when Tonya said something that bothered me, I kept my mouth shut. When she did something that angered me, I didn’t let her know. Sometimes she could tell. I would get quieter and isolate myself. I would go for a jog or find something to occupy my attention away from her until the emotions passed.
With few exceptions we didn’t fight for the first ten years or so of our marriage. Neither one of us wanted to have conflict and I was making deliberate, intentional decisions to avoid it. So we never fought. Every time an issue came up, we swept it under the rug. Until one day the rug was no longer laying flat on the ground. It looked like it had been draped over a mountain; a mountain of our unresolved, unaddressed conflict.
We were not okay.
All of those issues that we had been avoiding couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be avoided any longer. We were in trouble. At one point, Tonya was wondering how she could survive as a single mom and I was struggling with thoughts of wanting to die. The relationship that we once thought was so healthy was plagued with anger, resentment, loneliness and despair. We had to start dealing with our problems.
Like many couples that are struggling, we waited much longer to get help than we should have. Couples who come to counseling often struggle for more than six years before they call to make that first appointment. By the time they see a therapist their marriage is on life-support. They often see themselves as roommates or say they are staying together for the kids’ sake.
It can be intimidating to make the first appointment with a counselor. Especially if you feel like the problems in your marriage are your fault. Who wants to talk to a marriage expert and get blamed for everything? Even though I was already a professional counselor at the time, I thought in our counseling sessions I was going to be confronted and blamed for my own negative behaviors, my emotional pain and my refusal to face conflict. I didn’t need any more guilt or shame about our problems; I already felt very responsible. But what happened instead was something very different. Neither of us was blamed and counseling was a very different experience than either of us imagined.
We met with a counselor that had been referred to us. He was more focused on finding the “what” than the “who” that was at fault in our relationship. He taught us that he didn’t view our issues as being the fault of one person. Instead he showed us how we get caught in a cycle of disconnection and how this cycle is the culprit. Our cycle looked something like this:
When a tense moment would arise, we both would realize it on some level. Tonya would try to talk about it and I would quickly start to feel overwhelmed. I would shut down and get quiet. This caused her to feel rejected and she would try harder to explain and talk with me. I would feel more overwhelmed and I would retreat further from her. She would feel more rejection and would try harder to connect with me to resolve the problem. Eventually, I would pull away from her completely. I would either stop responding or leave the room altogether. This was very painful for both of us.
Our counselor taught us that patterns like this are the real problem. He taught us that we were both working to protect our marriage. Tonya was reaching out to make sure we stayed connected and resolved the problem. I was retreating because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and hurt her. We both cared very much about our marriage relationship.
The pattern of pursuit and withdrawal seemed to appear in nearly every issue of our marriage. The more we explored the challenges and unresolved problems in our relationship, the more we recognized the pattern occurring. Our counselor taught us not only how to recognize it when it happens, he taught us what to do to develop a new pattern of response to guide us to closer connection. He also taught us that healthy marriages have conflict. (It was such a relief to hear that!) The difference with healthy couples is how they respond to conflict and disconnection when it occurs. Healthy marriages repair well after conflict.
It’s been several years since we met with our marriage counselor. We’ve had plenty of challenges in our marriage since that time and it’s not always easy to fight for a healthy relationship. But we are doing exactly that. We recognize our cycle when it’s happening (or soon after it happens) and we take the new steps that we learned to reconnect and repair. We feel closer. We feel loved. And we feel valued by one another.
That same style of counseling, Emotionally Focused Therapy, is the model of therapy I use with clients in my office now. I help couples, parents and children and even individuals strengthen their relationships by identifying the patterns that lead to disconnection and replacing them with patterns that support strong connection. It has been so successful that Tonya and I (along with some of our counseling colleagues) started hosting weekend retreats called Hold Me Tight Workshops that helped couples build healthier connections in their relationship. And in June 2019 we opened the doors to Relationship Solutions, a counseling practice of counselors and marriage and family therapists all working from the model of Emotionally Focused Therapy.
If our story sounds a lot like your story, or if you could use some help mapping your own pattern of response to conflict or relationship problems, call our office. We exist to help people build, repair and strengthen their connection with each other, with God and with themselves. And we would love to work with you.