Couples' Quicksand | Marriage Counseling 101
Updated: Apr 28
“Why do we treat each other differently when we fight?”
“Why don’t you listen to me when I really need you to?”
“How come we don’t communicate well when we disagree?”
“Why does our relationship feel so difficult when we talk about certain topics?”
If you have asked yourself or your partner any of these questions, read on.
When couples are in a negative conflict cycle with one another, they are or become dysregulated. When any human being is dysregulated, they behave differently than how they would in a grounded state. This is why so many couples have moments of behaving in otherwise unrecognizable ways when they are in a moment of stress, conflict, or discord.
The Losing Strategies (utilized in RLT therapy) categorize the common ways in which human beings behave when they are dysregulated. The common denominator between each of these Losing Strategies is, well, exactly that- they won’t lead you anywhere productive or more connected. On the contrary, when both partners in a couple fall into their Losing Strategies, couples almost always either escalate, disconnect, or both.
The Losing Strategies:
1. Being Right
Terry Real says “you can be right or you can be married”. I agree. What I think he’s getting at is that when a couple is in a state of empathetic connection with one another, objective reality becomes irrelevant. The part of a person that is playing tug-of-war over objective reality, trying to convince their partner of their perspective, is not the part of them that can connect to the person they love. When someone is using this losing strategy, they forget that when couples are in a state of harmony, there is room for both people’s subjective reality.
Space for subjective reality sounds: “my favorite ice cream is chocolate and hers is vanilla”
Being Right sounds like: “chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream, period. I don’t understand how you can possibly like vanilla”
It may sound silly to start with favorite ice cream flavors, but start small and build up. It’s harder to honor subjective reality in more complex relational issues.
Instead of being right → try looking for the validity in your partner’s perspective
2. Controlling your partner
In “The New Rules of Marriage”, Terry Real highlights the hopeful place that control comes from as an effort to minimize the discrepancy between what you want and what you have. The easiest way to stay out of control is by remembering that difference can fuel intimacy and conformity destroys it. Where it’s safe to be different, it’s safe to belong.
The other way control can sneak into relationships is one I have been guilty of many times in my relationship- that is, helping someone who isn’t asking for help. Many people wouldn’t associate trying to help with trying to control, but the truth is, if the person you’re trying to help doesn’t want your help, it is control. Simply asking “would you like a suggestion?” and being ready to honor it if the answer is “no” is an easy way to avoid control.
Instead of control → try asking your partner if they want your feedback before you offer it
3. Unbridled self-expression
Avoiding unbridled self-expression and good boundaries are one in the same. To fall into unbridled self-expression is either to be in a state of a diffuse internal boundary, or to be disrespecting someone else’s external boundary- or both.
Things to remember:
-Venting to a partner is not the same as being vulnerable with them
-Venting to a partner is not the same as repairing with a partner
While I believe there is a time and place for partners to vent with one another in a healthy way, practicing good boundaries is crucial. Good boundaries around shares sounds like “can you hear me out about this?” and if the answer is “not right now”, that must be a perfectly acceptable answer.
Instead of unbridled self-expression → try “I want to talk with you about _____, when is a good time?”
Terry Real defines indirect revenge or retaliation as “passive-aggression”. By definition, retaliation is a way of showing your partner how you feel or how you want them to feel instead of telling them directly.
The most reactive and dysregulated place of a person will convince them that their retaliation is deserved and justified. Retaliation simply creates another rupture to heal from on top of the rupture that has already occurred, adding more stress and disconnection to a relationship. It can also be extremely trust eroding because of how differently a partner acts in their retaliatory state than how they would normally behave. This can destabilize the trust of the other partner.
Instead of retaliation → try telling your partner how you’re feeling using the RLT Feedback Wheel or with the help of a therapist
There are various flavors of withdrawal. Withdrawal can be a form of retaliation (slamming a door and walking out without warning or in a state of anger) but it can also be somewhat or completely unconscious/involuntary (dissociation, freeze response, or other trauma response states). Regardless, it is important to acknowledge the relational impact of withdrawal so that couples can accurately learn to identify and cope with it. Sometimes simply stating “I’m starting to shut down” or “I’m feeling so angry and need a break from this conversation” can be the difference between withdrawal and what RLT calls responsible distance taking.
Instead of withdrawal → try taking a break from the conversation and coming back to it later
The things you might learn in marriage counseling are wide-ranging, but I go over Losing Strategies with just about every couple I work with. By avoiding these strategies, you are setting yourself and your relationship up for success.