When an unhappy couple initially comes to see me for a 90-minute intake session, I have already asked them each to fill out my intake form. I study the intake sheets and prepare with my many questions. I ask each partner how they see their relationship and to give me specific examples of the presenting problem. I spend about 30 minutes with each one on how they experience the relationship with the other partner present.

What is missing? What to try:

1. Their awareness of the “dance” or the pattern in which they communicate. Some couples experience this pattern as a vicious cycle that keeps them stuck in a relationship, which results in building walls, distance, loneliness, and frustration. See if you and your partner can track the dysfunctional pattern that keeps happening when things have calmed down. Make sure you blame the pattern and not your partner. Something like; the more he/she yells, the more I shut down. The more I shut down, the more he/she feels abandoned and gets angrier.

2. A clear understanding of the old learned behaviors from their family of origin and how these patterns keep repeating and feeling stuck. Both of you examine the relational pattern that your parents had. As you look at it, see if you picked up any bad habits from being around them. Remember, this most likely is your template for a relationship. Now own what you can as yours and have your partner to the same thing.

3. The couple’s lack of healthy speaking and listening boundaries. This method of communication takes practice so that there are only one speaker and one listener at any one time. When internal boundaries are consistently used, the communication gets clearer, effective, and authentic which creates truth and intimacy in their relationship. Learn how psychological boundaries work! There are two parts a protective boundary that filters information coming in, and a containing boundary for information going out. See my video on YouTube on Boundaries.

4. Choosing to move from habitual behaviors (relational patterns from past) to new learned and healthy functional behaviors. This decision allows the relationship to grow and become more about mutual sharing and intimacy and away from a vicious alienating cycle. Make sure you learn some great ways to intervene when the fight gets going again. Use timeouts for 30 minutes before you resume the conversation. This intervention brings your nervous system into regulation and will give you a chance to use all that you have learned.

These essential skills are learned as part of the couples work. It usually takes about three to four months to understand the “dance cycle,” awareness of old family of origin patterns, practice healthy psychological boundaries when speaking and listening, and experiencing new behaviors which give way for more connection and vulnerability.

There are times when this “top-down” approach, meaning teaching awareness and skills, to couple’s work is not enough. Couples keep sliding back to the old patterns of behaving. I recommend that “bottom up” work, which investigates childhood trauma, needs to be done. This therapeutic work is more experiential and investigates the beginnings of family of origin trauma. I usually recommend that each partner in the couple do an “intensive” workshop to help create awareness and growth through an experiential process of treatment. If these historical patterns are not addressed, they keep persistently erupting in a couple’s communication.

Your ability to be relational lies in your ability stay relational in the face of someone else’s disconnection. — Pia Mellody