Tools for Couples Happiness — 26 April 2009
Doctor, are we there yet?

Many couples seek professional help to heal distressing emotions such as anger, hurt, jealousy, fear, anxiety, grief or insecurity that hinder their lives. The behaviors they employed to quell these emotions have been ineffective and only exacerbated their pain. Sufferers seek quick reprieve from these feelings and few become impatient with the process. Some question whether medication could expedite their relief.

Everyone is used to the medical model of identifying the symptoms, diagnosing the cause and prescribing treatment for the remediation of the discomfort. However, even in medicine the immediate relief of symptoms may not be the full healing process, which may entail more procedures and additional time.

Our culture highly promotes immediate and quick remedies for mild to serious conditions. As the commercials advise us: “Ask your physician if (name of medicine or treatment) is right for you.” We are the pill-pushing society. “Oh, I have a headache” is automatically responded to with “Did you take something for it?” Rarely is the pain-sufferer questioned whether he or she is hungry, tired, upset, worried or low on sleep. Even mild pain needs to be instantly alleviated and those who are reluctant to medicate their discomfort are viewed as “enjoying their suffering.”

Pain is an alert system cueing the individual that something is amiss. Its origin may be physically, psychologically or behaviorally induced. Similarly, emotional discomfort is a cue that the psyche is out of balance. In both cases, it is the individual who must be the first to assess the discomfort and determine the course of action. There are many non-urgent medical conditions for which treatment timing is left to the patient. For example, patients elect when to have some joint replacement surgery, cataract and…..based on their pain tolerance and inconvenience levels.

A greater responsibility needs to be placed on the patient to exercise best judgment as to when to “sit with some pain” and when to seek immediate attention in regard to both physical and emotional malaise.

As a rule, distressed individuals and couples do so prior to coming to therapy. It is once they are there, that their time urgency is heightened. They want to feel better, have their connection with the partner cemented and have the difficulties of months or years dissipate in a few hours. This is very understandable, yet not very practical. For many, the complexity of painful emotions and ineffectual habits that began in childhood, were further compounded during adulthood and maximized in their interpersonal relationships. Treating these well-ingrained patterns is complex indeed.

Richard C. Schwartz, the originator of Internal Family Systems Theory, conceptualized the human psyche as similar to a family system consisting of various sections: The Self and the Parts. The Self is “the seat of consciousness… From birth this Self has all the necessary qualities of good leadership, such as compassion, perspective, curiosity, acceptance and confidence”. It is where people “feel confident, free, and open-hearted. They describe being in the present.” The Parts include the Managers and Firefighters whose job is to protect the Exiles, (traumatic emotions such as fear and shame), from escaping their containment. Therapy’s goal is to free the person to use the Self to successfully manage his/her life.

This model is only one example of the complexities of therapeutic interventions needed to help individuals change old ineffective programming and reach their healthy self. Couple treatment is even more complex.

Any form of therapy is a process, not an event.

• Realize that your emotional pain is complex and has been compounded over the years from childhood to date.
• Accept that in couple therapy there are two Selves and two complex systems that have evolved and intertwined over time to create the discomfort you wish to heal.
• Pills do not solve relationship issues or help guide one to the authentic self. They may stabilize one’s mood to enable the process of therapy to begin.
• There is no instant remedy for long-term emotional pain. It took you years to get to this level of discomfort and therapy is a relatively short process to extricate you from your distress.
• The goal of therapy is to help you use your individual Self to deal with your partner’s Self and be empowered to be empathic, authentic and effective about all your issues.
• Your therapist does not determine the length of treatment – you do!
• Be patient with yourself and take the time you both need to achieve the happiness you deserve.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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