Fix yourself, fix your difficult relationship patterns: How Individual therapy can improve your love life!
Often people come to Shift believing they need couple’s therapy because they “can’t communicate”. These are common relationship problems. Then they spend the next 50 minutes answering all of my questions in an articulate and thoughtful manner. So, it seems they actually can communicate but something gets in the way of doing so effectively in their long term relationship.
This is not to say that some of the basics in communication can’t be helpful (such as assertive vs. passive communication strategies), but most people actually have a good idea about what they want to say and how they would ideally say it. What stops them from opening up to their partner is fear of conflict, or pressure to be “perfect”, or incessant worries about how it will play out.
So, what is it that gets in the way of partners feeling connected, supported, and secure with each other? Surprise, surprise… it is often our limiting beliefs and their dysfunctional needs. We carry these into our relationships and they can play out in a number of ways. For example:
- The belief of "I am worthless" can lead us to claim the role of "Superhuman-Martyr" in relationships because of the need to provide value and make people like us. Essentially, it leaves us feeling like we need to hustle to prove we deserve a spot in our loved ones lives. In relationships this looks like people pleasing, inability to say no, doing everything for everyone, hesitancy with speaking up and asking for our needs to be met. Over time though, we feel crushed by the guilt that drives us to never say no, and resentment builds because we feel that our needs are being neglected by the people in our lives (even though we insist that they do not put themselves out for us). This can lead to a tit-for-tat dynamic where we keep a list of all of the things we do for everyone else but they are not doing anything for us! Eventually this leads to distance, fighting, and ruptures in the relationship that all could have been avoided if we simply asked for help in the first place or said no when we needed to.
- "I am going to be abandoned" comes with the need for reassurance that we are loved and the need to protect ourselves. This plays out through neediness and detective-like suspicion. Often our partners become exhausted having to reassure that they love us and they weren’t actually hitting on that stranger at the grocery store. Because we are always searching for signs that things may be wrong, we will find them and then want to protect ourselves. This can look like overreacting, angry blow out fights, and hurting them before they hurt us. Or, we can be too afraid to bring up any problems we have because we are terrified that they will leave us, which again leads to problems simmering underneath the surface. Basically, any time our partner has an off day or doesn’t give us their all, we retreat, ruminate, or attack.
- The belief of "I am not in control" creates the "Control Freak" in relationships because we strive to anticipate and be in control to calm our anxiety. When we feel stressed because we don’t have a lot of control in our life, we obsess over the kitchen being perfectly pristine, or the towels being folded just so. This can lead our partner to retreat from trying to help because you want it done your way and if they do it wrong then they will hear about it from you, so why bother? This can often appear with the "I am worthless" dynamics and so now we are left feeling once again like everything falls on our shoulder and no one helps out. Therefore, we are feeling resentful and overburdened while our spouse feels helpless because they want to help us but can’t seem to get it right. Control can also play out as a serious fear of commitment because we are required to give up control to another person. There is no certainty in relationships. So we overthink and worry about where every relationship is leading and often end them before we have the chance to get too invested and lose that control.
- "I am unimportant" creates the need to be important. In our relationships we filter all of our partners actions through the need to be important lens. So, when they forget to pick up our dry-cleaning like they said they would, or they leave their socks on the floor for the billionth time even though we've asked them repeatedly not to, we take it personally. If we were important and if our needs mattered to them, then they wouldn’t be doing those things. It becomes a personal attack against us, rather than seeing that they simply forgot because they had a lot going on that day. This can lead to mountains being made out of molehills because every situation is a test to see whether or not they really care about us. In the long run, it drives a wedge through feeling like you and your partner are on the same team. If we are single, it can also tempt us to go for the “bad boy/girl” because of a desire to be important enough that we can change them. That coupled with the need to provide value that comes with worth, and a fear of being alone, can cause us to become the "Stuck-Saver". We are with people who need saving because we want to be the one to save them, yet we start to resent them for not living up to their potential. We can feel taken advantage of and the relationship can even become abusive, but our fear of being alone keeps us stuck.
- The beliefs around "I am not good enough" and "I am a failure" create the need to be perfect or exceptional. This can have a number of consequences on our love lives. For starters, anytime our partner provides us with feedback that is anything but positive, we interpret it as criticism and that we are failing, therefore we become highly defensive. This can destroy communication in a way where the partner withdraws rather than starting the fight because it will just lead to a headlock. They know that we will not hear what they have to say because our focus will be on defending our self rather than listening. Or, our relationship will suffer because we constantly strive to be exceptional at the office, which leaves depletion and burn out for our partners. We take our stress out on them and feel like we can’t meet their expectations. Perfectionism can also cause a lot of anxiety in the dating game itself because we worry that we will never be “enough” - hot enough, cute enough, charming enough, etc. to win anyone over. On the other hand, it can cause us to exhaust ourselves because we pile on the pressure to be the hottest we possibly can be so we can get the hottest partner (even if the connection sucks), so we can demonstrate our perfect life. Who cares if underneath it all we are generally unfulfilled?
As you can see, we carry our limiting beliefs (LBs) and dysfunctional needs (DNs) into our relationships. Essentially, our love life can be a billboard for our DNs that we broadcast to the people in our life. I'm sure we have all been in a situation where that one couple is so awkward to be around because they bicker or get drunk and blow up. Or, we may have the friend who completely disappears when they get into a relationship.
Our friends, family, and especially our children can pick up on it. When kids are in the picture, they witness it, internalize it, and start to form their own LBs and DNs. These dynamics can be displayed on a continuum between blow out abusive relationships, to relationships that are pretty good overall, except for one or two dynamics that get in the way of it being fantastic. Many of us will likely relate to more than one of these patterns. We either see them in ourselves or our partners, our exes, or our friends. If you relate to these dynamics, you are not a bad person and you are not doomed to a life of these relationship difficulties. Quite the opposite actually. Breakup Psychology would that individual therapy could help you to improve your love life.
Well, change first starts with awareness of your dynamics. So if you recognized yourself in any of the previous examples, you’re on the right track. Next step is to get rid of the LBs, which at Shift we do through reprocessing.
Individual therapy that aims to get rid of the LBs that cause our DNs can transform our love life from the get go. First off, we can end up choosing partners who recreate our parenting experiences (ex. If we had a controlling father, we can end up with a controlling spouse, or have to be the controlling spouse) and even though we don’t like it, it feels like home and we get stuck in it. So, working on your LBs can help you in the partner selection process.
Next, all of the above dynamics result from our need to fulfill our DNs. So by working on ridding us of our LBs, we no longer have to strive as hard to have our DNs met. Therefore, the guy who got defensive at any criticism is now able to listen to his partner’s feedback. Or the woman who refuses everyone’s help is able to take a back seat once in a while and no longer resents her partner for not pulling his weight.
It’s not to say that couple’s therapy may not be helpful, but by starting with individual work, you will likely be better able to take on the homework provided in couple’s therapy because you won’t be as triggered.
Another thing that can happen when one person in the relationship enters individual therapy is that the relationship is thrown off balance. Often the DNs balance each other and if one person changes, the other partner can feel left behind. This is where both attending your own sessions could be beneficial in creating a shared language to discuss your problems, while also encouraging both of you to be better versions of yourself. Who wouldn’t love a therapy date night, am I right?!
When our LBs are in the driver’s seat, we make decisions based on fear and guilt. You can see how this can keep us stuck in relationships that no longer feel like a good match. Whether we don’t want to fail, we fear being alone, or we don’t feel we deserve a great relationship, we can be pulled to remain in a bad relationship.
By working on our LBs, we often become empowered to make decisions based on our wants and values, which can be the push we need to end that relationship. It can also help us initially chose a partner who is a complete person and matches us on values. Rather than picking someone because they are hot, or because we want to save them, or because we fear that no one else would want us. We come at it from a more intentional place.
Lastly, individual therapy can take a relationship that is already pretty good to an even more fantastic level! It’s like polishing up a relationship that may have gone a little dull. By removing your need to be perfect, you can lower your unrealistic explanations for your partner. Or you can let go of control and stop nitpicking about how they load the dishwasher.
Research has shown that our well-being tends to improve when we are in a happy and committed relationship. In addition, research has also shown that understanding and learning from our behaviors in relationships, along with being less emotionally reactive leads to greater relationships satisfaction. We have seen this first-hand time and time again in our practice at Shift. So, this Valentine’s Day, consider going beyond the chocolates and flowers, and do something to actually make your relationship stronger and more fulfilling! If not try a marriage and family therapist.