The Tipping Point
In the first half of this two-part series, I explained why couples who have been dating since their teens can struggle a decade or so later as they continue to grow. Though most times the relationship has stopped serving both partners, typically one partner begins to feel more urgency in examining the relationship. Often, this comes with individual work in therapy or sometimes a mounting sense of anxiety or frustration that feels amorphous, and not always initially perceived as directly linked to the relationship.
This “out of sync” development is often what leads folx into my office. Sometimes, a partner or the couple has identified that “something is wrong” together, but have had trouble investigating the dynamic and getting to the root.
Couples therapy helps partners tolerate the discomfort and the fear elicited with disrupting the relationship in order to name the dynamics at play. Specifically, couples therapy helps partners separate and validate the quite special aspects of the relationship from the more dysfunctional patterns or ways of relating. Partners can use couples therapy to re-articulate their needs and have more sophisticated conversations about needs (in contrast to blanket strategies like “compromise,” “sacrifice,” or “agree to disagree”). Through these conversations, unresolved pain points sometimes surface, wherein a partner intentionally or inadvertently has minimized a need or blocked the other’s expression of true self.
There is a hilarious episode in the final season of Broad City (spoiler alert! …never thought I’d be writing “spoiler alert” in a Tribeca Therapy blog, but …here we are) in which Ilana and Lincoln renegotiate their relationship over an elaborate five-course meal (of course they do!). The two are left sweaty, stuffed, and heartbroken because they’ve arrived at a “deal-breaker” truth that can’t be avoided. The scene is so successful not only because of the phenomenal writing and acting, but also the showcasing of a relational truth: that individuals in relationships have some needs that partners don’t want to support, and that’s okay. Individuals aren’t mean or withholding if they take ownership of the ways they don’t want to accommodate their partner. It’s also not a relational imperative to “keep fighting.” If this is the case, couples therapy can be used as a thoughtful and structured way to unravel two very intertwined lives from one another.
If couples decide that the others’ needs are something they want to grow toward meeting, couples therapy can facilitate an explicit opting-in from both partners to build a new system. Creating a space for direct conversation can alleviate any notion of pressuring, people-pleasing, or coercion. This active consent (“yes please!”) is embedded within a context that makes room for pain or ambivalence that inevitably comes with change; the process reminds each partner they are making a conscious choice to invest in one another because they have explicitly heard the other’s needs, and have chosen to build a new relational system that expands and supports changing and developing needs.
The goal of couples therapy is not to help partners stay together. There is no moral judgment attached to choosing to stay or choosing to leave. Couples therapy will give partners a chance to identify and articulate their needs, and explicitly decide how those needs will be met–either within the relationship or outside of it.