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Home | Couples in crisis: How couple therapy mitigates stubborn psychological defenses

Couples in crisis: How couple therapy mitigates stubborn psychological defenses

Guest article by Dr James Tolbin. Edited slightly and reproduced with permission.

Why does a couple typically seek therapy?

Research indicates that by the time a couple seeks couple therapy and arranges an appointment, the partners have been at war for multiple years on a range of seemingly unresolvable issues.

Often a recent event is characterized as a “crisis” that sent the couple over the edge, finally leading them to pursue therapy. But the couple typically has been in crisis for so long that both partners have grown weary from, and almost immune to, the ongoing conflict and persistent tension between them.

What does the average couple expect will happen in therapy?

For most couples who finally begin therapy, they often anticipate that the therapist will be a kind of mediator and/or judge who will assess the problems at hand and the strengths and weaknesses of each partner. And then, from his or her expert vantage point, the therapist will articulate a solution that involves a critique of what the partners are doing incorrectly in their relationship and what they need to do to “be better.”

In my view, this approach to helping a couple rarely, if ever, works.

This is so because, underlying the expressed problems the couple faces, is a firmly organized set of psychological defenses  each partner has developed to cope with the issues of the relationship.

What is a better way to conceptualize marital troubles?

A physical metaphor for how defensive processes in couples work is the way the human back responds to the trauma of a car accident, for example. Impacted by the force of the collision, the general alignment and expansive musculature of the spinal cord shift and lock into a new position designed to protect the vertebrae, tendons, and ligaments that were stressed or damaged in the accident. The shifting and locking into place of the spinal cord and its musculature is a defensive process that protects underlying anatomical structures from further injury.

And it is usually the case, medically speaking, that what the body does to protect itself from further injury results in symptomatic pain, chronic inflammation, and reduced flexibility which, taken together over time, actually prevent healing! Autoimmune diseases provide another example of how the body may inadvertently hurt itself in an effort to protect itself.

The defensive processes that have evolved in a relationship work in a similar fashion.

A husband, for example, who has been hurt by his wife’s ongoing ambivalence about having a child, may unconsciously respond to this injury through the protective strategy of, say, over-working, i.e., becoming overly ambitious or taking on too much responsibility in his professional life.

This defense, in turn, gradually becomes injurious to his wife; she responds to her hurt by becoming self-destructive in some way, an idiosyncratic defensive style that she unintentionally and unconsciously employs to find relief and buffer her from further anticipated disappointments with her husband.

And, as you might imagine, her self-destruction further intensifies her husband’s need to protect himself, thus reinforcing his prioritizing of his workOn and one these insidious, mutually reinforcing dynamics evolve, tangling the partners in a web of toxic psychological tendencies that only strengthen their grip as the couple struggles against them.

What is needed for positive change to occur?

For positive change to even become a possibility for this couple, the defensive processes employed by each partner must be identified and reduced or entirely supplanted. The couple therapist functions not as a mediator or judge but more like a chiropractor, strategically intervening to unlock each partner from his or her chosen defensive style.

As this begins to occur, each partner can think and feel in ways that are more flexible and less oriented solely toward protection. Once partners feel less vulnerable, less gripped by the need and compulsion to defend, there is real potential for the achievement of enhanced levels of communication, mutual respect and understanding, and new pathways for attaining the kind of love each partner desires.

Download a FREE Worksheet PDF file called “Areas of Change” that will help you develop the techniques discussed in this article.

James Tobin, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist based in Newport Beach, CA.