Words by Emma Lee Smit
Finding a consistent psychotherapist whom I felt a connection with and started weekly sessions coincided with the beginning of my relationship. I embarked on this singular journey in hopes of grasping my triggers and being able to hold accountability when needed, while also capturing all my grief’s messy tangles, and laying them down before me. I had hoped to deconstruct absences and connections, while discovering chain reactions between all I had lived and touched. Now, therapy has become a routine occurrence, just like getting the groceries and washing the dishes. I yearned to dig up memories muted and blacked out by my trauma, and tenderly unfold and explore them. Perhaps not a common thing people yearn for, but I was exhausted and consumed by my inner conflicts. There were palpable grievances, reparations, and barriers I had compartmentalized that needed, and still do, tending to. All this while simultaneously working on a sense of togetherness with my new partner. Because, as we know, intimate relationships provoke and agitate embedded wounds. And if not mended, this might turn into a cycle hard to grip.
Many people think couples therapy signifies the beginning of the end. But it could also signify the start of curiosity, self-reflectiveness, and an urge for honesty with both yourself and your partner. It could mean surrendering to consistent problem-solving and reconnecting in a way that might not have been possible or visible before. There might not be a specific ‘problem’, but there is always a doorway to a newfangled intimacy, connection, or communication approach. Lavinia Bucur, an Amsterdam based psychotherapist, counselor, and IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapist says that couples therapy is about getting to a place of curiosity and openness to investigation of how one gets activated. It is also about what we tell ourselves in those moments when we are reactive and combative towards our partner. What is the perpetual story that our inner system screams when we get triggered? Couples therapy is about slowing down to understand our inner and external dynamic configurations, it is not a linear route.
I find it extremely helpful when a therapist can hold the space and not hold me. What I mean by this is, ultimately you, as a duo or as an individual, sit with your complexities, converging and diverging, while being guided by your therapist. In tough moments or outbursts, your therapist can create an impartial, trusting, and nurturing space for you to get back together, intimating that regrowth is possible. Guiding and creating an understanding space for your body to metabolize pain, hurt or any conflicting emotions. This cycle, realized and fulfilled over time, can instill deep assurance in the body.
“One of the most difficult challenges for couples is getting them to see beyond their own entrenched perspectives, to acknowledge a partner’s radical otherness and appreciate difference and sovereignty. People talk a good game about their efforts, but it’s quite a difficult psychological task. It pushes us beyond assuming sameness, opening up the possibility of seeing our partner’s point of view”, states clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Orna Guralnik. Guralnik believes that therapy, at its core, is a way of understanding our emotional worlds and the ways we struggle as individuals. While she used to focus more on diagnosing symptoms and putting them into a constellation of a personality structure or a disorder, she now takes a lot more of an existential, zoomed-out perspective, deconstructing how problems stem from trying to find meaning and purpose in our lives. Now, one can see how so many things go unprocessed in our emotions and seem unrecognizable to us.
Being single for most of my life, couples therapy was not something present neither in my own life nor in relationships surrounding me. I was overwhelmed by the industry of therapy and self development. Self-help books were everywhere, narrowing down informative modalities and approaches, but offering mostly anecdotal advice. Verbose psychobabble, toxic positivity, and radical self-growth were the newest social trends. In all of this, I saw a growing obsession with healing and self-growth. Nevertheless, this influx of new terminology equipped individuals, including me, to explore legacy trauma and actively work through triggers to prevent their transmission to future generations. I found seeing a therapist a huge help in communicating with my partner, which facilitated connected apologies, intimate yet challenging discussions, and a compassionate understanding of my partner's triggers, ultimately leading to the healing of my old patterns.
It helped me unravel deeply ingrained protective mechanisms that frequently resurfaced during conflicting interactions. This process allowed me to comprehend the underlying issues, as well as identify the various aspects of myself that either aided or hindered my ability to engage. Such as those rooted in my childhood, focusing my tendency towards defensiveness, the profound impact of my dyslexia journey, and the development of my insecure attachments. Throughout my therapy sessions, my primary focus has been my relationship, exploring the ways in which my past experiences influence my present connections, and gradually shedding these complex layers to cultivate greater trust, empathy, and self-nurturing thoughts as I move forward.
As someone relatively new to therapy, I found it necessary to unravel my own complexities and to gain a deeper understanding of myself, before venturing into couples therapy with my partner. First, I need to fully accept and love all the parts that accompany me. Lavinia Bucur says that therapy can get us to be less blended with our protective parts, less reactive, more able to speak for and not from, and able to manage conflict and argue constructively. There has been an obvious shift in the way therapy is socially presented. From a cynical diagnostic approach to holding space for couples to deeply reconnect, reparent their triggers, and deepen their intimacy. Working through your deepest insecurities is triggering and attachment injuries can leave one feeling hopeless, helpless, and in psychological pain, but it also wakes you up to life and supports you in living it.