Top Ways We Work With High-Conflict Couples
In an ideal setting, couples who come to therapy or marriage counseling would be able to leave their heightened emotions at the office door and embark on a calm, thoughtful and articulate exploration of their feelings and behaviors that have impacted their relationship. Unfortunately, real life is far different.
When Erica and Eric work in Co-Therapy with couples, it is quite common for their emotions to become overwhelming to them and they either shut-down or can explore with feelings. We call this phenomenon feeling or being "flooded." Therapy and counseling is an intense experience for all couples. After living with problems for months and quite often years, sitting down with two therapists like Erica and Eric can feel odd, uncomfortable or disconcerting.
All relationships have conflict – even with viewed by outsiders as belonging to "ideal" couples. When confronted with their patterns of interactions and past and present behaviors, it is natural for partners to feel defensive, frustrated, angry, upset, relieved, etc. However, when working with "High-Conflict" couples, these emotional reactions can be sky-high. These "High-Conflict" couples have become so used to their experiences and interactions being combative or conflictual, that they have lost the skill they once possessed to lower the anxiety and intensity to allow effective and meaningful communication to occur.
In this article, we explain some ways in which we help "Hi-Conflict" couples achieve their goals.
We Are Therapists - Not Judges or Referees
When we work with couples - regardless if "High-Conflict" or not - It is common for couples to try to pull us right into the middle of their conflict. Without explicitly stating so, they want us to serve as judges or referees to their conflict. Erica and Eric are not like therapists in their 20's or 30's - who often can feel overwhelmed or scared when faced with "High-Conflict" couples - and be "sucked into" their battles and interactional cycles. To the contrary, Erica and Eric - who have years of real-life experience as a successfully married couple for 22+ years - always maintain a sense of neutrality and fairness even when the gravity pull from either partner is immense. We view our role not as judge or referee, but as professionals who are there to challenge our clients thinking, behaviors and patterns of behavior. However, we do so while always respecting and honoring the "truth" of our client's experience.
We enjoy working with conflictual couples because we use their "High-Conflict" nature to their advantage as we work on change in the relationship. We firmly believe that working with trained, dedicated and understanding Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists such as Erica and Eric by their sides, even the most contentious issues can be worked on in a productive manner to produce the couple's goals..The therapist must be willing to take charge of the therapy session and guide the couple’s communication while avoiding getting caught up in the couple’s arguments.
We Won't Judge You; We Will Challenge Your Thinking!
We Don't View Conflict As A Bad Thing
All couples, but especially "High-Conflict" couples, benefit from learning effective techniques to experience, manage and resolve conflict. Conflict is not inherently bad. Many couples have learned from their past experiences or from society that conflict is to be avoided. Erica and Eric do not assign positive or negative traits to conflict. Successful long-term relationships do not wholly avoid conflict. In fact, it is the shared experienced of coping with and resolving the conflicts that strengthen the couple's bond and provides each partner with more and more safety to create and maintain a secure relationship.
Erica and Eric teach couples conflict resolution skills and, what we call, conflict experience skills, so that couples can experience their relationship in healthy ways.
We Help Couples Effectively Cope With Relationship Conflict!
We Focus On Joint Goals - Not Just Individual Ones
You might be thinking that such a shift requires both parties to be extremely cooperative, flexible and easy-going. While those characteristics certainly help the therapy process, they are not required. When working with "High-Conflict" couples, therapy and counseling is and can often be successful and productive – though it may take a little longer and travel a bumpier road. Eric and Erica, a husband and wife team married for 22+ years, have the experience, mindset and goals to listen past the couple's actual spoken words and instead focus on the person's intended meaning.
We are expertly skilled at helping couples, in general, and "High-Conflict" couples, in particular, set aside the anger, pain and resentment that often is the true culprit causing them lash out at one another. For these individuals/couples, effective communication is often challenging, especially when high-emotion is flowing throughout their mind and body. Research shows that when humans are faced with fear, danger or very strong, intense emotions, our natural “flight-or-fight” response takes over and suppresses our normal intellectual and executive functioning.
Therefore, we work diligently and respectfully to help couples refocus their mindset on what is really important to each of them regarding their relationships's future. Invariably, despite acrimony and hostility, for most couples, the answer is emotional stability and safety, and an end to their pattern of unresolved conflict and the negativity it tends to perpetuate.
We Help Couples Create & Achieve Co-Created Relationship Goals!
Using Private Time/Sessions With Each Spouse
Regardless of age, sex, nationality, race, ethnicity or religion, couples know how to push each other’s buttons. People we love and trust are uniquely qualified to find just the right words that cuts us to the bone, or that dredges-up every fear, insecurity, and humiliation buried inside.
Most people can restrain themselves before uttering such words. Yet, for some people, they simply cannot control themselves and constrain their behavior and words resulting from strong emotions. There is a story of a couple who were unable to bite their tongues. At every opportunity, they made those hurtful, stinging statements, and they couldn’t seem to stop themselves. The accusations cut deep – as they were intended to. She accused him of being a failure as a provider, a father, and a husband. He accused her of being a failure as a mother and a companion. They both accused each other of selfishness, wastefulness, and treachery of all kinds. It just kept spilling out. At every crucial juncture where settlement seemed close at hand, another shot would be fired, another dagger plunged. Many times couple's therapy was on the verge of collapse because one partner did not want to continue.
Erica and Eric will often separate the couple and spend alone time with each partner. In these sessions, a person's level of heightened anxiety and stress is quickly lowered and we are able to process a host of feelings and emotions that is quite difficult to do when the "High-Conflict" couple is together with us. In addition to being Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, Erica and Eric are also Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Law Mediators. We use our skills gleaned from a lifetime of personal and professional experience to navigate with couples the inherently emotional and oftentimes volatile nature of relationships and marriages.
Two of the core principles behind our process of working with "High-Conflict" couples are: (1) “a person cannot not communicate”; and (2) “a person cannot not behave.” For the lay person, this may sound confusing, illogical and utter nonsense. However, when understood from a systemic perspective, it is easy to comprehend what these quotes truly mean. In any relationship of two or more people, and especially in high-conflict couples, one person’s behavior and communication is a direct result of the other person’s behavior and communication. Think of it as the proverbial ‘chicken and the egg’ riddle. With couples, no one truly can dissect a relationship to find the one instance or one moment in time when the initial behavior caused the partner’s reaction. In truth, each feeds off of the other. By separating the couple, we are able to break that cycle of communication and behavior, and allow each person to calmly and clearly think about particular issues – and not about how they want to harm or hurt the other person.