When I am working with couples it helps me make sense of the challenges they face by using song titles to create categories to understand the stages and challenges of relationships. It adds an element of play and helps break the sense of isolation that couples feel when they think they are the only relationship that is struggling.
So here we go:
1. “I Saw Her Standing There”
This is about falling in love. The “Love at first sight” experience that is the staple of so many romantic comedies. The beginning of relationships is the exciting part where all is bliss and we are in synch with our partners wants and desires. We like the same music, movies or they find us endlessly fascinating, funny, witty, etc. Anyone who has been in love knows this stage. It is wonderful and many people yearn for their couple-hood to return to this stage. And like Adam and Eve we are all destined to be banished from this paradise.
At best we can be there for eighteen months to two years and that is it. I help them make sense of how they felt at the beginning by describing the flood of feel good chemicals their bodies release that promotes a sense of blissful oneness with our partners. It is part of our biological heritage that helps us into relationships but does not keep us together. In fact, the work of the relationship begins when we notice that our partner does not laugh at our jokes or finds fault in our housekeeping skills or the way we chew our food.
2. “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”
This is the stage where things get real. Each person starts to see their beloved as a complex human being with contradictory wants and needs. The work begins as they start negotiating their relational needs and co-author their own “Book of Love.”
We work on what are their non-negotiable needs and where compromises can be made. The goal being that each partner gets some of what they want and let go of getting their entire list. Anything that causes conflict needs to be put on the table and discussed: From taking out the garbage, cooking meals, childcare, sex and anything else. Feelings are worked through as a sense of loss, betrayal or long simmering resentments come to the fore. Stormy seas are ahead as we work on staying the course to resolving conflict and grow closer.
3. “Highway to Hell”
Here we look at what couple’s expert John Gottman called “the four deadly horsemen of the (relational) apocalypse.”
1. Contempt: (He called this the worst of the four) Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her.
2. Stonewalling: Withdrawal from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Here one or both partner retreats behind a cold wall of silence which conveys disapproval, distance, and/or smugness.
3. Criticism: Attacking your partner’s personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong.
4. Defensiveness: Seeing yourself as the victim, warding off a perceived attack. Making excuses, cross-complaining, yes-butting, etc.
The work here is to head off the four horse by calling them out as they show up in the therapy and dig underneath to see if these were modeled in their parent’s relationship, what other feelings, such as any vulnerabilities are underneath the anger, etc. I often have them agree to not engage in those hurtful behaviors and if they do either party can call a stop where they need to disengage, take a walk, talk to a friend, calm down and agree to meet again at a mutually decided upon time. When this part of the journey is successfully navigating we move on to the next stage.
5. “You Make Me Feel (like a natural woman)”
After working through all the projections (the way we can easily project our parents or past partners on our beloveds) own up to our hurtful behaviors and taking non-defended ownership of their parts of the conflicts coupes can get to a place of genuine and battle tested appreciation of each other and know and love the real person they have chosen to be with. This stage is not easily gotten to and it can begin to co-exist with the difficult parts as they gain more skills and insights to resolve their conflicts.