Sooner Would Be Better

Posted on October 29, 2015


October has been a busy month for me.  I have not gotten to the point of needing to turn clients away, but there have been a few weeks that stretched me.  That’s okay as at any time a certain amount of my case load is close to finishing our work together so there is an ebb and flow to my schedule (as there should be).  As a therapist, my mission should always be to work my way out of a job with my clients.  When you can do for each other what I do for you in session, you don’t need me anymore.

When I am asked how my practice is going and I share that I have been particularly busy, sometimes the reaction I get is that that is too bad.  The thought is that this must be indicative of more marriages in distress.  My response is that it is less indicative of more marriages in distress and more indicative that more marriages are getting the support they need.

Sometimes when a couple comes for therapy, there has been a sudden shock to the marital system like an affair or other betrayal.  More often, the relationship pain has been present for a long time, sometimes years, sometimes decades.

Here’s the thing.  Human beings are made for attachment.  Isolation can kill us.  From cradle to grave, we need someone in our lives to whom we can turn for comfort, care, and support.  When we are children, that is usually a parent.  When we are adults, it is usually a spouse.  When we are experiencing secure attachment, we function better in virtually every area of our lives, from health to career.

When we feel disconnected from our attachment figure, there is a pattern that we follow.  For children, when mom or dad is not available, the first response is protest.  When mom leaves and the toddler starts to cry, that’s attachment protest.  When the parents are not paying attention to the child and the child starts acting up in increasingly more extreme fashion, that’s attachment protest.  There is a point of disconnection at which any response is better than none.  Having the person we most rely on for care and comfort not responsive is that distressing.

But what if protest repeatedly doesn’t produce the response we seek?  The next step after protest is despair.  If we cannot get our attachment figure to connect with us in a meaningful way, we fall into despair which obviously is very painful.  Since we cannot endure that pain forever, a continued lack of response leads to detachment.

In adult relationships, the same thing happens.  It just looks a little different.  If you feel that your spouse is not there for you, you protest.  If you feel unimportant to your spouse, the same thing happens.  The problem often is that the protest looks and feels like criticism, or worse, contempt.  It doesn’t come out as “When you are gone a lot I start to not feel important to you and I need reassurance.”  Rather it comes out as “You are never here.  You don’t care about me.” or “You only ever think about yourself.”  Consequently, you don’t get the desired response or comfort and care.  If that goes on too long, despair sets in of ever being able to turn to your partner for comfort and support.  That is such a dark place that eventually, you detach.

A further issue is that if you turn to your partner for comfort and support at critical times and your partner does not provide it, it creates injuries to your attachment.  You may go into “never again” mode.  “Never again will I count on you.”  If these don’t get healed, they can accumulate over the course of the relationship.

I forget the exact number from the Gottman research,[1] but I believe the statistic is that the mean time between one partner saying “we should get counseling” and the couple actually coming in for counseling is something on the order of seven years.  Think about that.  Seven years of hurt, fear, loneliness, and sadness.  Seven years of your attachment bond being damaged.  Even seven years of more frequent illnesses.[2]

Additionally, the two factors that have the biggest impact on the success of therapy are 1) the quality of the therapeutic relationship, and 2) the wife’s belief that the husband still loves her.  While somebody is still protesting, it is much easier to get back than if someone has moved to detachment.

If you and your partner are stuck in negative patterns of interaction, it is better to get some help sooner rather than later.  If there have been incidents and events that have injured your attachment or made you say, “never again,” it is good to have help to heal from that.  It is good to have that help sooner rather than later.

[1] And at the moment I am not going to the trouble of looking it up.  Isn’t blogging wonderful?

[2] Research has observed that the number of illnesses one has is inversely related to the quality of the marital relationship.