Recently, my spouse and I were mired in arguing over everything. From quirky—sometimes-irritating—things we usually accept to far more serious issues, we just couldn’t climb out of the depths and onto common ground. Couples fight—sometimes fairly and sometimes, like this last one of ours, not at all. We pushed blame back and forth like a hot potato! Neither of us seemed willing to drop it, nor take possession of it. The vibration around us was definitely not good.
So, it was synchronistic that my assignment for this issue brought me to Donna Baker-Gilroy, PsyD, LPC and David Gilroy, PsyD, LPC, co-authors of Transforming Relationships: Come as You Are (Hatchet Hill Publishing, 2009).
Driving to their office in West Hartford, I couldn’t help but think about how things were (and were not) going in my relationship. I was truly aghast to realize that I sounded just like my mother/father.
Perhaps, like me, many of you made the promise to be different from your parents. You vowed to have a different – better – relationship with your significant partner than what you observed of your parents. Just as I have, you probably have discovered that it takes a lot of work to manifest a different relationship, one that is more joyful, fulfilling, passionate.
Why is that?
In the Therapists’ Office
“It’s an impossible promise to keep [to ourselves],” says David, “Because part of what happens in childhood is that we take in whole the climate in the home. This is the process of attachment.”
Donna elaborates, “This [attachment period] is the basis on which a person organizes themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually at the one point in time when they were most vulnerable and most dependent—childhood.”
“What does that have to do with the here and now?” I asked.
Out of my subconscious, the wisdom I hold as a mother shines a bright light: Children see things as they really are and some children are bold enough to give voice to what adults want to repress.
“As children, we [may have] learned that to stay safe and to feel a sense of belonging in the family we had to alter our view of things in order to see only what was acceptable [to our parents]. The desire to feel that we belong and are loved no matter what, goes with us from childhood into adulthood. Only now, we’re adults carrying around the ‘then’ of our early life experiences—what was safe to feel, express or even to see.”
“So, mentally, we carry around a child’s perception while tackling adult needs and responsibilities,” I suggest.
“Well into our adult lives, each of us is still deeply impacted by childhood—it’s where we learned how to be in relationship with others. The experiences, the feelings and behaviors that are just like our parents or what was acceptable to our parents are not just stored as memories in the mind but in the body and spirit, as well,” Donna clarifies.
David adds, “It’s not that our parents were ‘bad’ people; they carried forth the ways they were treated and what they learned about relationships. [There comes a point] when each of us needs help unhooking from those perceptions and patterns that no longer serve our highest potential.”
“No matter where you are in a relationship, you don’t have to change anything about who you are. People are always trying to disown, disregard, and depress parts of themselves and their past,” Donna shares, “David and I say, Come as you are—it’s really okay.”
The Philosophy of Transforming Relationships
After more than 20 years counseling individuals, couples and families, Donna and David developed a philosophy that embraces the tenets of Western and Eastern Psychology, in particular Buddhist Psychology, Body Centered Gestalt Therapy, and Attachment Theory. The principles of conflict management and emerging scientific theories also influence their work. They help clients step out of the cycle of blaming (one’s self, one’s partner or one’s parents) and step into to a place of loving compassion, understanding, appreciation and acceptance of feelings, dreams, perceptions and experiences—their own and their partner’s.
“Everything about who you are, who I am, is recyclable. We don’t need to throw out any of it. We do need to learn how to accept all aspects of who we are and to understand the myriad ways that we attempt to reject and defend old ways of feeling, doing and being.”
“It is possible to step out of blame into responsibility,” David chimes in, “When two people experience safe attachment in a relationship, the dynamic of that relationship changes.”
A dynamic, loving energy fills the space between the two therapists. It’s clear to me that they practice what they preach, even in the midst of their own fighting, as David illustrates.
“The other day,” he begins, “the fire alarm went off, even though there was no fire. It happens often in this old building. One of my administrative duties is to deal with the fire department. They weren’t happy to be here again, for a false alarm. In the midst of this, Donna approached me with a question. I snapped at her. All of us have these moments.”
“It’s what you do when you are in these moments and what you are able to bring awareness to as you move through them that matters,” Donna elaborates, “I felt hurt by David’s reaction. Was I not in a centered place myself at that moment, I most likely would have retaliated. And there we would be, verbally shoving at one another over nothing, really.”
Donna and David go on to talk about their own woundedness, a term they use to describe the negative childhood experiences, laden with fear, that we carry into adulthood and that influences adult behavior.
“How did the fight end?” I inquire.
“I was able to respond to David with awareness for where he was in that moment. I stepped out of the fight by not pushing back at him. This diffused the negative energy that rose when he snapped at me and triggered my woundedness. Later in the day, David apologized.”
“And Donna gracefully forgave me,” David laughs.
“You are saying when a couple—or, even just one of them—holds a place of loving acceptance, they should be able to respond to one another from a place of love (positive energy), rather than from fear (negative energy) and this changes the fight,” I modestly suggest.
“Whenever our hearts open to love, we can also feel whatever wounds our hearts have endured and that’s where fear resides,” states David.
“What is the most common source of fear for partners in a relationship?” I ask.
“The fear of losing the other,” Donna responds. It seems too simple.
“Most people share the same fear but for different reasons—reasons rooted in childhood. Children want to be safely attached to the family. This need for safety continues throughout life in all of our relationships, most especially intimate relationships. If the fear that we will lose the other whom we have come to love is strong enough, then we behave in ways that the child inside us thinks will prevent that most feared outcome.”
“So, we’re grown-ups acting within the worldview of childhood experience?” I ask David.
“Yes. We’re all capable of suddenly being triggered, fearing we’ll lose our most precious relationship. Sadly, out of our defensiveness, we actually co-create the loss we so desperately want to avoid.”
Tandem Couples Therapy
Unique to David and Donna’s approach is the opportunity to work in tandem with a couple. This unique arrangement increases safety for the clients. It also allows these two skilled therapists to see how various issues affect each person in the relationship. While the influence of childhood experiences is significant, the focus is on the present-moment.
“In the present, we explore the issues, that brought a client or couple to us,’ David explains, “Past experience surfaces in an organic way. At some point, one or the other partner usually says, ‘You’re just like your mother’ and it’s not a compliment.
“The past comes along with us, into the present, whether we are aware of it or not. If we raise our awareness, we can bring understanding and compassion to our fears, our need for control…”
“. . . and, we can change the choreography of ‘the fight.’” Donna finishes David’s sentence and they smile at one another.
“In every relationship, fighting serves a function. Typically, [during a fight] a couple pushes blame back and forth,” David says.
In my mind’s eye, I see my husband and me pushing the invisible ‘hot potato’ at each other.
“Regardless of the topic, every fight has the same choreography, the same negative energy or vibration.”
“It’s very toxic,” adds Donna, “The fight masks their real fears—the real issues.”
How to unmask the real issues?
The answer is in a process, Beginning Anew, which they teach their clients. Beginning Anew incorporates conflict resolution as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh with the knowledge that healthy couples, when they do argue, are still able to show an appreciation for one another and show a commitment to being aware of their impact on one another. In the example David gave of the fire alarm incident, the major elements of this process are evident (see side bar).
Beginning Anew allows the responsible adult within the client to support the places of hurt that exist in them from childhood. It involves bringing non-judgmental awareness and compassion to feelings that arise during a conflict and engaging their partner without blame. The process reminds us that each is responsible for his or her feelings and actions. Ultimately, it teaches us how to resolve conflict without blaming, and with positive energetic vibration.
Who Is In Therapy Now?
Over the past 15 to 20 years, the biggest change that Donna and David have observed in couples lives is the invasiveness of technology. It adds stress. Overall, though, the reason couples come to therapy hasn’t changed: They’ve reached an impasse.
“Also, there is more respect and this is especially true for men.” David adds.
“We see many older couples with long marriages coming for help. They are on the brink of divorce.”
“It seems that couples in this situation have been living parallel lives. Many have lived so much around their children, that they were distracted from the core issues, weak links in their relationship. They don’t know how to relate to each other to deal with those issues.”
Donna is called away for a client appointment. David and I chat for a few more minutes about successful relationships and parenting.
“We’ve seen people move mountains,” he beams.
“Some clients really surprised us. They rediscovered one another, were willing to learn new ways to cope and to be present for one another and their children. They learn to truly live a relationship.”
“Live a relationship?” I ask.
“Two people committed to making peace understand that good relationships will include fights, feeling bad and tapping one’s fears. Knowing that our closest human companion is willing to appreciate, love and try to understand us, is the greatest gift we can give a partner.
“When you live a relationship in this way, you also give your children the gift that matters the most: attachment to a loving model of relationship.”
That is the gift that my spouse and I most want to share with our children. Now, I know better how to do it, even when the potato is really hot.
© Karen M. Rider 2010