In the early stages of treatment in couples therapy, what do you recommend that each individual has to do when everything is so wrong?
That’s a tough stage. I tell partners sometimes things get a little worse before they get better. The reality is that they are hour sessions, they’re coming once a week, sometimes every other week and they still have all of these feeling and emotions and resentment. We really spend a lot of time at the beginning talking about boundaries. I have each couple make a list as to what’s completely unacceptable that really needs to stop. A lot of times I find that individuals don’t even know what the boundary is and boundaries get very confused with control. The way that I describe a boundary is kind of like the screen on a window. We don’t want the window wide open with no screen so that everything can get in, all the debris and the dust gets in. We don’t want the window shut down so that nothing can get in. Boundary is basically that screen where it’s there. The purpose of a boundary is to protect me so when I set a boundary, it’s so that I feel safe and so that I feel protected. I’m not setting the boundary to control you.
I have to really kind of spend some time with couples explaining about to them that if I say, “It’s really important for me that when we’re fighting, if you want a break from the discussion that you tell me, we’re not going to talk about this right now. I’ll be back in half an hour and we could pick it up then. That’s important for me because when you don’t do that, I feel abandoned and I feel alone.” That would be a boundary and that’s something that’s important for that person. The other way that it would sound is, “You can’t walk away from me in a fight and that’s never going to work,” because the other person’s going to think, “She’s just trying to control me.” Keeping in mind during that time period of knowing what is it that I need to feel safe, I need to know that my partner is not going to run away or I need to know that my partner’s not going to scream at me or slam doors. Whatever it is that the couple is doing, setting those boundaries early on to be able to manage during those early stages of therapy is crucial.