3 in a relationship: couples and their past

Therapists can often encounter problematic communication and patterns of behaviour in couples that are rooted in the past, yet, re-experienced in the present. Each party’s intentions and meanings can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted when past scripts, painful experiences and unmanageable feelings get activated.

Understanding how the couple’s experiences from the past can get in the way and trigger a cycle of rejection and defensiveness can help to make sense of repeated patterns of conflict and restore optimal closeness.

When both parties do not feel safe, or experience hurt and/or rejection, they can go on to engage in a cycle of attack/blame and defensiveness which results in building a pretty unassailable barricade. They can then become unresponsive, frozen, attacking, rejecting or retreat and become distant and unreachable. Whatever response (‘fight’, ’flight’ or ‘freeze’) they engage in, a barrier between them has been erected. The need for closeness and reassurance, the need to feel safe and loved can paradoxically activate a fear response that belongs to past experiences about unmet needs in the context of other significant relationships.

The couples’ basic needs for closeness and security may have exposed them to earlier unsafe experiences. They may have learnt that their needs can pose a threat to their safety or lead to shame if their needs are ridiculed or denied. This can trigger attacking/defensive responses which in turns can cause the hurt and rejection they are so desperately trying to avoid. Does this seem familiar? Do you find yourself getting in that familiar place but unsure as to how or why you keep getting there?

As therapists, we believe attachment plays a significant role in early life and continues to affect our relationships for the duration of the life span. In therapy, it may be important to focus on understanding attachment related experiences and how the couple might have come to develop defensive strategies. In order to do this, we encourage the couple to pay attention and aim to understand what may activate ‘the attachment response’.

Attachment’s purpose is to maintain proximity; if past experiences may have led the couple to believe that feelings and attachment needs may threaten that proximity and bond these will have to be de- activated as they may drive away the attachment figure. Avoidance instead of attachment comes to be in the service of proximity by disabling feeling, needs that may threaten the real or perceived relationship. This can cause internal split between what one really longs for and needs when in a close relationship and the beliefs these very needs will jeopardise it.

The task of therapy involves working compassionately with both parties to help them understand:

  • How the cycle of defensives gets activated.
  • Where it comes from.
  • What function/purpose served in the past.
  • What function/purpose may serve now.

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Written by Cinzia Altobelli (MSc RGN UKCP reg Psychotherapist/Counsellor & Supervisor)

Cinzia Altobelli MSc RGN is a UKCP registered integrative psychotherapist/counsellor and supervisor with additional expertise in families and addiction. Cinzia has 20 years' experience working therapeutically in the NHS, the charity and private sector, helping individuals, couples and families with a wide range of moderate to complex problems.… Read more

Written by Cinzia Altobelli (MSc RGN UKCP reg Psychotherapist/Counsellor & Supervisor)

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