Are you trying to communicate or to control?
George and Lori consulted me because they were having trouble communicating. Invariably, both became controlling. Lori would become harsh and begin to blame and then withdraw, and George would get angry and defensive and then withdraw. George had a tendency to overtalk, and Lori had a tendency to be very negative. Both were triggered by these more subtle forms of control. They couldn't seem to talk about the simplest of issues.
After being married for 23 years, this had been going on a long time and they were contemplating divorce.
Both stated that they felt lonely and distant from each other. Both stated that they still loved each other but that neither felt loved. They had seen many marriage counselors but were still stuck in their dysfunctional system.
Defense mechanisms create distance.
As so often happens in relationships, the way that each had learned to protect themselves from pain triggered the other. George's father was highly critical, and he learned to react with defensiveness and withdrawal to protect himself from the pain of feeling so unseen and unloved. Lori had been either completely neglected or physically punished and was terrified of anger and of being unheard. When she was harsh and blaming, George was triggered into his old reactions, and when he was angry and defensive, Lori was triggered into hers.
They were able to communicate well when their issues had nothing to do with the other person—like around work issues or issues with friends and relatives. They had no problems if they were just giving information to each other, like when they would be home or be late. They had no problems if they had a funny story to tell or if they were sharing interesting information. But when it came to something that came up between them, they couldn't communicate.
Arguing with an agenda
One of the first things I helped them to notice is WHY they wanted to communicate when there was an issue between them.
They realized that most of their communications regarding their relationship came from an agenda to change the other person. Their intent, though it wasn't necessarily conscious, was to control the other person.
While many of us want to control, I don't know anyone who likes to be controlled. It was certainly true of both George and Lori—they both hated it when someone tried to control them.
They gradually became aware of what happened when their intention was to control the other person rather than to learn with each other.
They clearly saw that when they were communicating about anything other than their relationship, they were both open to learning, but the moment there was a conflict between them, their intention was to control and not be controlled.
Communication, not control, resolves conflict:
Lori and George had learned all sorts of communication techniques in their previous counseling, but none of them were working. None of them could work when their intent was to control and avoid being controlled. This was the bottom-line issue.
Moving beyond the intent to control and into the intent to learn about themselves and each other wasn't easy. But each time they managed to open up and learn, they not only resolved the conflict, but they felt closer to each other. Previously, neither had felt safe bringing up issues, but now, as they each opened to learning, both felt safer.
As they felt safer and more connected to each other, affection came back into their relationship, and with that, lovemaking came back into their relationship.
Now, if one of them gets triggered and isn't open to learning, they take a brief time-out to learn by themselves, and then they come back and learn with each other. They are no longer contemplating divorce.
Most relationships can heal when both partners open up to learning about themselves and each other rather than continuing to try to control and protect against being controlled.