In previous blog posts, I have written about the importance of understanding a couple’s persistence in seeing one partner as the identified patient. Quite often, couples will enter treatment with both partners having decided that there is something wrong with the other, and that they themselves are in fact “normal” or “innocent.”
Here, our curiosity is critical to uncovering the nonconscious emotions that are trying to be exposed by a relationship system that requires one partner to be “the bad guy”; “the sick one”; “the perpetrator”; or even “the victim.” On occasions when I have turned to the identified troublemaker and said, “There is nothing wrong with you,” the other partner gets quite upset that I have dared to not understand the “bad” person’s hurtful and outrageous behavior. It seems difficult for them to grasp that the hurtful and outrageous behavior of a “good” person can be necessary to usher into consciousness unmetabolized trauma from both partners’ pasts.
In a culture in which medicine diagnoses and treats illness and disease and the criminal justice system identifies the perpetrator and delivers judgment and punishment, it is no wonder that couples might believe that identifying and correcting what is wrong with someone solves the problem. That is precisely the job of those two societal institutions, but not of the therapist. Any form of colluding with a couple that there is something wrong with either partner seriously compromises the safety of the treatment.
There are many feelings which can be struggling to get out in a couple system focused on what’s wrong, but most often the predominate one is shame. Many people have experienced parenting patterns that are based on humiliation and punishment. How many of our clients have repeatedly heard, “There is something terribly wrong with you!”? And they believe it! It is understandable that couples might enter treatment thinking that part of what will be talked about and established is that there is something wrong with both partners that must be changed. What they discover is that the behaviors they have labeled as wrong are the very ones that their system has nonconsciously constructed to uncover and heal old pain.
Most of us therapists are quite familiar with the instant visceral dislike we can feel for the partner who appears impervious to the pain in the relationship–the pain they are inflicting and the pain they are feeling themselves. I learned through time that this was likely the partner with the most trauma in their history, and therefore the most fear of their emotions. My persistent position that there is nothing wrong with either partner eventually allowed them to feel enough safety to risk curiosity and exploration into their deepest pain.
Resisting a client’s continual “bait” to get the therapist to identify the flawed, correct their behavior, or protect the “victim” is necessary for treatment to not be derailed by the search for who has something wrong with them.
Next post: Interrupting derailing