“Ask Dr. Bukky” is ELIXHER’s bi-weekly column that offers advice to queer women of color on relationships and mental health wellness. Got a question you want Dr. Bukky to tackle in the column? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. During conflict, focusing on the content of the issue and searching for “evidence” to prove a point
More often than not, issues that partners fight about (especially recurring issues) are loaded for one if not both partners—and by “loaded,” I mean tangled up in intense underlying emotions, beliefs and unsettling questions about the self or self in relation to other… Am I lovable? Am I good enough? Am I important? Unfortunately, in attempts to manage conflict, couples typically bypass these experiences and get stuck at a superficial level of communication, getting lost in the search for what is “logical” and who is to blame. Ultimately, this leaves partners in the last place they actually want to be—exhausted, unheard and alone.
Instead, focus on the underlying emotional experience (typically vulnerable feelings) that makes the issue feel loaded.
Though it is harder, practice talking about your underlying fears, worries, sadness, shame, helplessness, and sense of “neediness” or “not being good enough.” Focus on the parts of your experience that make you feel vulnerable and that you would normally hide or keep to yourself. This approach is actually the faster and more productive way out of conflict and toward that place of feeling safe, understood and connected.
4. Blaming each other for problems in the relationship—“you’re the problem, not me!”
Too many couples do not realize that the problem is not each other but, rather, the cycle created by the impact each partner’s individual style of coping with underlying vulnerable feelings has on the other. One partner, for example, might mask her hurt or sad feelings with anger and then attack/criticize the other. Another might mask those similar feelings with shame or numbness and then withdraw into the self. Because we are all wired to respond to what feels threatening (including emotions) with an action tendency (fight, flee or freeze), each person’s specific coping style is an instinctual, engrained mode that has proved helpful repeatedly through one’s lifetime but is typically out of awareness. Sadly, this same action tendency is typically what serves as a trigger for the other, leading to an escalated cycle where partners attack or withdraw from each other, or where one partner attacks while the other withdraws.
Instead, join together and blame the cycle of escalation that takes over your relationship—“the problem is our cycle!”
Naming your cycle (e.g., “Uh oh, our stupid cycle has gotten the best of us again”) is the fastest way out of conflict. And yet it is one of the hardest things to do because, in the heat of the moment, your mind and body do what they know best—cope.
The consequence of not naming your cycle, though, is finding yourselves at war with the pain and loneliness that comes with it…again. Rather than maintaining a pathological view of your partner in the context of conflict, commit to understanding the cycle that takes over the relationship in these moments. You can even start a playful competition to see who can name the cycle first during the next few fights. Once you have named your cycle, focus on understanding the feelings triggered by each other’s behavior and the thoughts and action urges that ensued as a result.
3. Thinking an issue is “resolved” because they have discussed it
When an issue becomes hot really quickly, it is often sitting on an underlying vulnerable feeling. Unless that feeling is exposed and responded to directly in a comforting manner, the feeling does not go away. So guess what happens the next time it is intentionally or unintentionally triggered? You guessed it—the problematic behaviors that were allegedly “resolved” show up. It’s not because she did not care or did not listen; it is likely because the feelings behind the recurring issue have been triggered and she does not know a better way to cope with them.
Instead, find the underlying vulnerable feelings that make the problematic behaviors persist, whether fear, sadness, shame, or hurt, and respond to them.
Offer comfort and empathy in the way your partner likes to receive it: verbally, with words of acknowledgment and affirmation assuring her she is not alone; through touch, holding her or just grabbing her hand; or by doing things for her. If you are unclear about how your partner likes to receive comfort, find the courage to ask her about it.
2. Waiting till they are on the brink of separation or break up (divorce) before going to couple’s therapy
What do you guess would happen if a track star showed up to the Olympics right after running a marathon? The most probable outcome is that she’d probably lose or forfeit the race. It is the same with relationships – when couples wait till the last minute to show up to couple’s therapy, they feel exhausted, hopeless, and ten seconds away from checking out of the relationship emotionally (if not physically). This is understandable given how painful the relationship may feel. Unfortunately, by this point, their escalated cycles have taken over and created injuries and profound pain, depleting the critical elements needed for success in therapy—energy/mental effort necessary to participate, willingness to understand and respond to their partner, and hopefulness for collaborative change. The longer couples delay couple’s therapy, the more opportunities they create for their escalated cycles to exhaust them and ultimately win. (I will tackle the myth that perpetuates this delay in a future post).
Instead head directly to therapy during the early stages of the relationship when difficulties begin to surface.
Seek additional support the moment you notice repeating feelings of discomfort about the frequency/intensity of conflict or level of disconnectedness in the relationship. While the emergence of patterns, such as recurring fights, themes, or feelings of inadequacy or rejection are more obvious indicators, experiencing difficulty with being vulnerable in your relationship is an implicit sign that your relationship warrants couple’s therapy. Major transitions, such as getting married or starting a family, can also be opportune times to go to couple’s therapy proactively.
1. Saying we can’t afford couple’s therapy and doing nothing
When the level of disconnectedness or the frequency/ intensity of conflict is uncomfortable for at least one person in the relationship, doing nothing is a guaranteed way to lose the relationship or experience a lifetime of difficulty (if the couple is committed to staying together). Though finances can serve as a very real barrier to couples, the key questions a couple needs to answer are, “What is the value of our relationship?” and “What is the value of the quality of our lives together?”
Instead, ask yourselves the question, “How can we afford therapy?”
Join together in problem solving what lifestyle changes might enable you to afford couple’s therapy. Because many of the most skilled couple’s therapists do not accept insurance, it may mean paying more out-of-pocket to get the high quality care your relationship deserves. When finances serve as a major barrier, feel free to ask your desired therapist about any available sliding scale slots he/she might have. If weekly therapy does not feel possible, explore a couple’s relationship workshop or retreat. If none of those options is viable, do something as simple as picking up a self-help book on one of the evidence based couple therapy approaches (e.g., Hold Me Tight by Susan Johnson). Whatever you do, avoid doing nothing.
NOTE: You may have noticed that the things to do instead of the mistakes are quite similar. My redundancy throughout this post is intentional because, regardless of the mistake, the solution is the same…and often very difficult to do alone.
– Dr. Bukky
Dr. Bukky Kolawole is a NY-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping lesbian and gay couples cultivate the healthy and fulfilling relationships they deserve. She has offices in SoHo (Manhattan) and Park Slope (Brooklyn) and offers late evening hours to accommodate the needs of professionals. For more info about Dr. Bukky, visit her website at www.drbukkyk.com.