In 2009, the South Carolina governor reportedly “disappeared” for a few days. It was later discovered that he had been with his mistress in Argentina. In one of his former wife’s interviews on a news talk show, she described their therapy together after his return. She said that she could recall the moment in their treatment when she knew their marriage was over, as she began to realize that he was not going to take any responsibility for his part of the problems in their marriage.
In essence, this is the defining characteristic of all unsafe partners–the inability or unwillingness to take responsibility. Unsafe partners refuse to accept responsibility for their own feelings, thoughts and behaviors. To them, troubles–and even their own internal experience of those troubles–are always someone else’s fault. They have not developed past the truly helpless position of a victimized child, and they see those with whom they are in relationships as the all-powerful parents, even in cases of domestic violence. The perpetrator who feels no remorse is taking no responsibility for controlling his or her impulses and believes, “You made me hit you.”
In couple treatment we are regularly helping our clients access their traumas and accompanying feelings derived from that helpless position of the victimized child. However, the unsafe partner is stuck on blaming their partner for their pain, instead of being willing to struggle with the fact that the pain they are experiencing in the present is attached to traumas, wounds, and permanent losses from their own past.
Initially, the therapist assists the couple in exploring and developing an understanding of what they are nonconsciously attempting to expose through one of them being an unsafe partner. Often, the unsafe partner represents an inability to tolerate shame, which can be a primary unmetabolized feeling in both partners. Also frequently seen are the couples in which an unsafe partner is a direct repetition of the behavior of one or both partners’ parenting figures. If both partners can utilize therapy to move to the position of self-responsibility and therefore equal responsibility for creating an environment of conflict that holds a potential for healing, then both partners have become safe enough to engage in couples work.
However, if unsafe partners cannot use the therapeutic atmosphere to transform their previous notion of their conflicts into a mutually and equally constructed opportunity to heal, the therapy will fail. And, more than likely, so will their relationship. Neurodynamic Couples Therapy discourages the therapist from taking a position regarding whether a couple’s relationship should continue, unless there is lethal threat involved. When therapists succumb to being the one to decide the fate of a relationship, they are usurping the couple’s responsibility and reinforcing that they cannot decide for themselves. The process of struggling with the couple through the issues involved in deciding can be long and painful, but the growth of responsibility and safety is a worthy byproduct.
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