The Pressure Cooker

Posted on October 24, 2013


When I was in high school and college, I worked at Taco Bell.  Back when I started working there, we used to cook the refried beans in the store.[1]  The pinto beans came in big 50lb. sacks and we would cook them in these big pressure cookers.  I still remember the recipe, but I may be prohibited from revealing it by some agreement I signed when I was an employee.  Anyway, the way this worked was you put all of the ingredients into the pressure cooker.  Then you put the lid on and secured it with the eight big bolts with plastic wing nuts.  Then you heated it up until you had it at 15 lbs. of pressure and let it cook for two hours.  If the pressure inadvertently got too high, there was a release valve on the lid so that the steam could be released (much better than having the thing explode).  The release valve was also needed when the beans were done cooking.  It would be a bad idea to just unscrew the bolts that held the lid without first letting the pressure out.  So when the beans were done cooking, before you took the lid off and started mashing them, you needed to let out the steam to equalize the pressure.

Now you are probably thinking that I am going to draw some analogy to couple relationships.  Well, you’re right; that’s exactly it.  When your partner brings a complaint to you, there are generally both an emotional component and a problem to be solved.  Once in a while it is just one or the other, but that tends to be the exception.  Usually in therapy the bigger piece is the emotional component.  Not understanding that fact many times is what got you into the relationship distress that brought you to therapy.  In our analogy, the emotional part is the steam in the pressure cooker.  We all have that part of our experience, and we need a way to release it.  The release valve is empathy from our partner.  If our partner is able by reflecting our feelings to demonstrate that they get what this is like for us and why it is important, then the pressure is released.  You can’t move to solving the problem until the emotional component has been acknowledged (i.e. until the pressure has been let out of that cooker).  Once the emotions have been understood, then we can take the lid off of that thing and figure out what we need to do about it.

In addition to providing marital therapy, I also specialize in treating sexual addiction.  Though not all sex addicts are men, the ones I work with are.  Consequently, I will talk in gender specifics where the husband is the sex addict.  Often when the addict is early in recovery, he is getting some good sobriety established (i.e. he is no longer acting out), and he may be experiencing closeness with his wife that he has not had in a long time (or perhaps, has never had before).  At the same time, his wife is still coping with her emotional experience.  She is still hurt.  She is afraid that his changes may not be lasting.  She worries that there may be more that he has done that she does not know about.  She is also still grieving the loss of the marriage she thought she had, and coming to terms with the reality of being married to a sex addict.  When these feelings surface, it is not about how we are mashing and storing the beans, it is about dealing with the overwhelming emotional pressure.  The answer to “Just tell me what else you did,” is “This is really scary for you when you worry about what else I might have done.  The pain is so much.”  That is the release valve.  Denying or explaining doesn’t work until you demonstrate that you “get it.”  Apologizing (again) only works after you have demonstrated that you “get it” and therefore, know what you are apologizing for (i.e. the pain you caused your partner).  Discussing how you are working at your own recovery is only helpful after you have shown that you understand your partner’s emotional experience.[2]

You can apply this to many aspects of your relationship.  If you get into arguments that escalate in anger and volume and/or never seem to resolve, if you have arguments where you are repeating the same words over and over, it is probably not about problem solving, but about the emotional component.  If you are one who takes the position of “let us reason together,” this can be great in business.  It can be problematic in marriage until you have learned to use the release valve.  You have to let out the pressure before you take the lid off and start mashing the beans.

[1] Later in my tenure, the refries arrived frozen in cartons.  You really needed to plan ahead on ordering because they needed a couple of days to thaw in the walk-in.

[2] Incidentally, avoid the words “I understand.”  The way you show that you understand is by reflecting the feeling, i.e. stating to your partner what you understand her feeling to be.