Most couples therapists feel quite comfortable when the pace of a session slows and partners move into a respectful and vulnerable state. It’s the reactive and combative partners, who get stuck on protecting themselves and dismissing each other’s experiences, that can put us on edge.
As the couple’s failure to connect intensifies, you know it’s just a matter of time before you find yourself pulled into their vortex of confusion, hurt, and defensiveness. It was a case I consulted on that devolved in just this way—and with profound consequences—that changed the way I work with reactive couples.
Bridgette and Doug were a couple who’d been seeing Gerald, one of my supervisees. After Gerald told me he felt immobilized by their unabating volatility, I agreed to a live consultation. Doug was a soldier with multiple deployments and Bridgette a sales rep. Married seven years and with two young children, they lived a life of near constant fighting and were contemplating separation. Their long list of stressors included previous affairs on both sides, financial discrepancies in how much money Doug made and Bridgette spent, Doug’s PTSD, and a long history of both partners using alcohol to manage their distress.
Gerald hadn’t been able to get the stoical Doug to engage, while Bridgette ruled the sessions with her long list of complaints and angry outbursts. Each outburst fueled Doug’s further withdrawal, and every one of his retreats triggered more rage in Bridgette.…