Skills and Connection

Posted on July 11, 2013


Whatever your profession, you can’t help but evaluate how it is portrayed in movies and TV.  You can watch a scene and think, “Yes, I would do x, but I would not do y.”  When I was a banker, it always struck me as absurd how often shows would portray the bank branch as having money stacked on shelves inside the vault.  It just is never that way.  It is even hard to watch any version of “A Christmas Carol” without noting that Scrooge really is not a good banker.  He loans to people who have neither the cash flow to service the debt nor the assets to support it.  No wonder he has a collection problem, he makes bad loans.  No matter what kind of interest he charged, Scrooge wouldn’t be wealthy; he’d be broke.  Whether you are in education, law enforcement, construction, or retail, you may have a similar reaction with how your industry is portrayed.[1]

When a show features characters working with a therapist, I automatically assess what I thought was effective about the therapist’s approach and what I would have done differently.  Those of you who have been reading me regularly may recall that I am a fan of “The Office.”  I finally got around to watching the last of the final season on the DVR.  In one of the last episodes, Jim and Pam are getting couple’s therapy.  We never get to see the therapy, we only get to see their interactions and hear them talk about what they have learned in therapy.

Since most of you are not in this line of work, here is a little background on marital therapy.  There are numerous theoretical approaches to marital therapy.  The two approaches that have had the most empirical study are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Emotionally Focused Therapy.  Both have been demonstrated to have positive results in helping couples improve their marriages.  The former is mostly concerned with skills and the latter with attachment (i.e. connection).[2]  In reality, both of these are important.  With regard to skills, it is important for couples to learn to actively listen to each other.  It is important to affirm each other.  Research has shown that it takes five positive comments to offset one negative.[3]  Partners need to learn to voice complaints without criticism or contempt.[4]  Partners also need to learn to hear that complaint without defensiveness or stonewalling.  Couples need to be able to resolve conflict in productive and healthy ways.  On the connection side, marriages are generally not business arrangements.  Effective negotiation skills are not enough to maintain a close connection.  It was an emotional connection that brought you together.  It was an emotional connection that made you decide to commit your life to this person.  It is that attachment that ultimately keeps you together.  We all need to feel loved and valued by our partner.  Distressed couples have general fallen into negative patterns of interaction that leave them both feeling disconnected.  Further, it is usually the unmet attachment needs that fuel the cycle.  Essentially, the negative cycle is a failed attempt to get one’s needs met.  Left unchecked, the negative cycle takes over the relationship.

So let’s get back to Pam and Jim.  What we know of their therapist, is that they were taught to affirm each other and they were taught to “speak their truth” (which we might call using “I” statements).  These are skills, and they are important skills for a couple to have.  But something is still lacking.  When Pam faces the camera by herself, she says, “My heart just feels so blocked up.”  They are making progress on skills, but the attachment is not the close, comfortable, easy connection they once enjoyed.  At the end of the episode, Jim is leaving for Philadelphia for his other job.  Before he leaves, he kneels down by Pam’s desk and says, “I think we’re making progress.  I am really sorry I have to go, but let’s keep at this.”  He walks outside to get in a cab.  Pam sits at her desk continuing her work and looking sad.  Then she notices that Jim didn’t take his umbrella.  She grabs it and follows him out.  She gives it to him and as she turns to go back, Jim pulls her back.  We don’t get to hear what he says to her, but he puts his arms around her and continues talking with her while he hugs her.  She initially doesn’t hug him back.  The scene flashes back to their wedding and a reading from 1 Corinthians 13 as they look at each other adoringly.  Flash forward to present.  Jim continues to hold her and whisper in her ear.  After a pause, Pam hugs him back tightly.  They kiss, as the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 continues.  When they pull back, Jim says, “I love you.”

I realize that these are actors, playing fictional characters, reading lines that were written for them, but it is still a beautiful moment.  And it rings true, because this sort of breakthrough moment of honest connection also happens in session with real people.  Couples who come to therapy distress, wounded, and wondering if they can find their way back, find hope and connection again.  Skills are important.  Feeling loved and valued by your partner, being able to turn to your partner for comfort and support, knowing your partner has your back, that’s beautiful, priceless, heaven on earth.

[1] I have always hated the plot device on police shows in which someone kicks in a door.  It simply can’t be done.

[2] I am simplifying greatly here.

[3] In my opinion, that number is way too low.  You need more than 5 positives to take the sting out of a negative comment.  Then again, I suppose it depends how genuine the positive comments are and how hurtful the negative comment is.

[4] See the post on the Four Horsemen.