This time we will be looking through both the psychodynamic and Gestalt lens while considering interpersonal accountability within a couple where there has been a betrayal of trust. This time taking a deeper look but not just infidelity, the usual culprit, but when it is the level of commitment that is the felt betrayal. This occurring within a co-dependent dynamic when one party is over-committed and the other is under-committed and the tangles that often result. This situation requires an additional level of preparation in the counselling before we can get to the basic inspection approach. This first step is helping both parties to unpack some of how this is happening on their respective sides of the couple's dynamic.
To do this, when the couples' progress is stalled, in terms of making any lasting changes in their dynamics at home, where it just continues as before, a reflection of this dynamic is often useful and needed to re-define the problem within this dynamic instead of the stated goal that have not been reached as evidenced by no lasting changes in their relationship between sessions. So we have to identify that as the new focus and get curious about it out loud.
Next step is to do some individual sessions, to be brought back into the couples sessions by both parties. These individual sessions are really the opportunity to do the unpacking of both sides of this dynamic. I suggest starting with the over-committer as that will be easier to get at, given the strength of the emotions connected to that experience. Seeking out the potential FoO (family of origin) projections here can begin to make sense of this over-commitment position, raising the questions of 'Will I actually get what I am looking for from this current situation', as a reality check. This then becomes a new platform from which this client can do some self-esteem and personal agency work about what drives or informs their current commitment levels.
The work of the with-holding partner tends to be about their FoO patterns, or previous relationship history, that is also projected into this current dynamic and exposes them to some significant fears, probably un-explored, or perhaps just too raw,, or too exposing to be explored before. That may be the reason for the with-holding the sought after level of commitment in this relationship. The level of vulnerability this would take may be the barrier to engaging in this relationship. That choice is, of course, up to them to decide about, but now the dynamics of the decision-making process for each can now be into the counselling room. Once this is possible, then the inspection process can now be useful if the courage is there to ask their hard to ask questions of themselves and of the other when it applies. This looks different than the tradition affair oriented inspection process, where the questions are largely about the other person. In the co-dependent dynamic the questions tend to be more of themselves than the other. This is an increasingly commonly occurring variation of the betrayal theme. that I am seeing in working with high conflict couples.
Because of the prevalence of affairs as perhaps the dominant form of betrayals within couples, we may not recognize this other dynamic presentation as another version of betrayal that also causes problems within relationships, and it operates in a different. While an affair does not have to mean the end of a relationship, they are indicators of many things. When they happen, how they happen, how often they happen all begin to create the circumstances which have lead to them happening. While the immediate experience of feeling betrayed is often keenly felt by the person not having the affair, some just want to leave, while others want to understand what it means between them. Here we may find an important piece of their dynamic puzzle, the questions which underlie the over/under commitment levels questions. There often is an earlier dynamic within the relationship where the other person may also feel something that may resemble another kind of betrayal, or at least a significant loss of something very important to them. These feelings seem to be connected to self esteem and other highly intra-personal dynamics. Either of these experiences can open a personal void which is often the beginning of the decision to have the affair, or refuse to engage, often seen as a kind of a personal correction of this imbalance in their relationship. Yes this is a very complicated and convoluted set of dynamics in play at first glance, but how often, as counsellors, do we accept that the first glance tells the whole story?
As counsellors, we are often only invited into the a situation after there has already been considerable damage done between the primary parties in the couple. The extent of the damage to their trust level is a primary question to assess on both sides of the equation, and they usually need our help to be able to do this without defaulting into intensely held feelings following an affair like: feeling personally crushed, enraged, guilty, vindictive, desperate to hang on, numbed or retaliatory; or if the co-dependent dynamic is in play: feeling unworthy to be loved, desperate to please, terrified of being alone, believing they must just give and give until the other is satisfied and hope then they will be loved and possibly good enough. All of these intense feelings can be very difficult to manage in session, so we need to create enough safety to give both people involved the space to express these feelings and some hope that can carry them forward in some way, not just remain stuck in either ventilating or blaming. When they feel trapped in their unfinished business, they may bring us in as counsellors to fix it for them and assume a passive or frozen position in the counselling. This can be frustrating for us as counsellors as we are trying hard to be of help and may buy into the idea that it is our problem to solve this dilemma for them. Then what can emerge is they do not offer any of the work needed for them to engage with the change process of counselling, in stead they wait for us to create some magic solution. That is challenging, how to make counselling a safe enough place for them to risk vulnerability and then facilitate the expression of their hurts and protections/projections by sharing them in words out loud making them both visible and palpable.
Helping our clients to consider any potential overlaps between their current situation with their partner and any familiarity of these reactions to other previous hurts and protections from other times with other people in their history takes our work from counselling into doing the deeper work of psychotherapy. This is where it frequently gets much more complicated because some of these previous hurts, which occurred within either previous relationships or within their FoO, may actually be energetic replays of those earlier events and be mistakenly believed to be true and only in the current context with this partner now.. Our holding space for this often unconscious possibility, instead of their more in-the-moment belief that 'this current statements or actions must be truly what the other believes' can be crushing. But seeing a different possibility can create some new hope because it begins to make sense out of this very confusing recurring set of experiences. As these same patterns emerge on both sides, we can help them see and recognize how they and their histories each play a continuing role in the unfolding of this situation between them.
A willingness by each party to accept their personal responsibility for their actions as their own decisions is where becoming accountable to each other starts. The next practical step in demonstrating this personal accountability is to be willing to be inspected transparently about their choices going forward from their decision to come to counselling to make some changes in their patterns. This is a very demanding process at the start, but it feels more natural and safe as it continues because they can see a shift in their partner when they can ask all their questions, get answers and the answers support the new commitment to change. At the beginning, it is hardest on the partner who betrayed the trust to become transparent in all of their decisions to the injured party. After a few weeks, the dynamic begins to change, the hurt and mistrust begins to shift and the injured party is not so hurt and angry and not wanting to inspect every possible area of previous secrecy from before. They even become reluctant to ask, not because they are afraid to find out, but because the evidence is clear that the decisions of the past are no longer occurring as before, something else is now growing, seeing accountability is the beginning of re-building the trust instead of remaining in growing the mistrust between them. This outcome will only occur as the direct result of person who did the betraying being willing to be held to account for that decision by their partner, and the partner also being willing to demand the inspections when they have any suspicion of dishonesty or the repeating of dishonest situations recurring. When we can offer the couple this way of re-building that which was broken, the trust, it becomes possible to make it through these dark times. They need our clarity, compassion and a framework like this to get through their mistrust. Many couples do not have the courage to do this, but for those who do, it can offer them a way to move forward. Our being there along with them to frame how to do it, support each of their courage to do it and witness their coming back to life in their relationship. I find this very satisfying as a counsellor, even though I know it is their success, they were willing to do the work, It is my privilege to be able to offer them a way to navigate with some hope in these very challenging times.
This was a long one. I hope you find something of use to you in these ways of seeing and approaching this complex situation. Join me next time when I will be looking at Blind Spots that we all have and how to convert them to a useful awareness. Ciao. David