It’s hard for couples to appreciate it at the moment, but recognizing that you’re stuck and choosing to do something about it places you in a small percentage of couples that are willing to take this step.

I’ve said this to virtually every couple that I’ve worked with and more often than not it’s met with shrugs and blank stares. They’re often suffering so much at that point that the fact that they recognized they needed help and did something about it doesn’t provide much solace.

The next step after recognizing that there’s a problem and doing something about it is to identify what both partners are contributing to the equation that’s keeping them stuck. Sounds straightforward, but when couples show up for therapy they’re mired in all sorts of defensive behavior and blame.

They’re so invested in their own narratives, in their own suffering, and in the other being wrong that they are stuck trying to see the universe through a keyhole. My job at this point is to help them to step back from the defensive behavior and to start working together to identify what’s going on.

They’re likely going to fall back into blame and self-righteous indignation and when that happens I normalize it and validate it and bring them back into focus.

Once we’ve identified the dynamics, we move into trying to understand where the behavior came from, why they are each acting the way that they are. We’re building bridges between their behaviors and the origins of those behaviors.

The next step is to make space to understand how each person‘s defensive posturing has been impacting the other, helping to elucidate the patterns that they have been stuck in. This leads to spelling out what both people are doing to self-sabotage, shoot themselves in the feet, preventing them from getting what they say they actually want and need from each other. This is essentially the consolidation of moving from blame to taking ownership, each of his/her own behavior.

Once we get to this stage, there is enough of a foundation to work with to start laying down new bricks. I always emphasize that there will be a tendency to revert back to the status quo. That’s normal and inevitable it can be incredibly frustrating, so again even when I’m applauding the couple for getting this far that too is often met with shrugs and blank stares.

Thus begins the process of forming new habits to replace the old ones. Old habits that have existed for many years don’t go quietly into the night. I told a couple this week that it’s like stopping smoking to the nth degree.

This is a critical and pivotal time in the development of the therapy. This is about momentum building, empowering and opening the landscape in the relationship. It is becoming more and more possible for both members of the couple to own the things that they’ve done to hurt each other, which adds fuel to the therapeutic process and brings them closer to each other.

Then it’s possible to step into a new future, they are no longer putting out fires. They’re no longer trying to figure out what happened and why it happened. They are setting goals for what they want moving forward. Again, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be regressions and fights and frustrations, but they have the tools to deal them.

It takes a tremendous amount of resilience and tolerance of frustration and pain to get to this stage. It’s not a linear process. It’s normal for couples to get stuck at different points in time. The important thing is to do something about it, as complacency is the opiate of relationships.

David B. Younger, Ph.D. is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.

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