Cognitive Reframing is the Key to Counselling High-Conflict Couples By Robert Johansen PhD on 7/20/23 - 6:50 AM

It’s been my clinical experience that a majority of emotionally unravelled, destabilized couples present to treatment hamstrung by chronic, unresolved conflict. Some teeter precariously on the cusp of separation and/or divorce. In one recent case, the couple confessed to me, unsurprisingly, that “Our decision to come to therapy is a desperate, last-ditch effort to salvage our ‘war-torn’ relationship.” Sorrowfully, I’ve observed similar privations hovering menacingly over too many couples who come to treatment.

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Being a Clinical First Responder in Couples Therapy

Often, in my efforts to help prevent the worst from unfolding, I’ve found it helpful to shoulder the exigencies of a first responder and lift the couple’s weighty emotional load by reassigning new meaning to their suffering. To do this, I’ll first administer a double dose of empathy, couched in caring authority, while delivering what I hope is a consolatory, reassuring, and reality-based perspective on the rigorous nature of the intimate relationship.

Then, if the couple appears amenable, I’ll gingerly introduce this complementary tongue-in-cheek, but important, cognitive reframe: “As painful as your emotional upheavals are, they reflect the steep price of admission to ‘intimacy land’s’ unsurpassed rewards and fulfilments, despite its topsy-turvy, rugged ride through what can sometimes be treacherous emotional terrain.”

As you might expect, my preliminary biddings at cognitive reframing often require me to periodically double back and re-apply a salve of empathy to obviate any appearance of downplaying or minimizing the couple’s suffering. Then, I’ll again underscore intimacy’s unrivalled complexities and the towering challenges that the couple surely must have wrestled with for so long and with so much accumulated frustration, dismay, confusion, and hurt.

Once the empathy appears sufficiently attuned and absorbed, I’ll ask the couple something akin to this: “Do you suspect, as I do, that your lamentable turmoil and the profound emotional pain that saturates it, are the hugely troublesome but expected outcroppings of these problematic complexities and challenges that commonly plague intimate relationships? However, notwithstanding these forbidding hurdles, here you are, willing to try to rehabilitate your relationship — I commend you!”

While the couple digests my efforts to impose new meaning on their grapples, I’ll ask them to carefully consider what they think stokes their fiery conflicts. As I weigh their responses, I’ll gently elbow them down another cognitive path by suggesting this: “Thoughtfully unpacked, your impassioned, outsized emotions can provide valuable ‘grist for the therapeutic mill’ because they expose a nexus of fundamentally valid personal needs and feelings, and importantly, your abilities to manage both.” I’ll stress, “It’s even intimacy’s ‘job,’ so to speak, to continuously unearth — throughout the countless interactions you have with one another — what your individual need management patterns or styles are like, revealing those that are well-developed, or functional and those that require further development.”

Pushing on, I’ll carefully warn the couple that despite intimacy’s tall promises of unequalled, incomparable personal fulfilments, one of its conundrums consists of a subtle but sinister “dark passenger” that is notoriously commonplace for weakening, even dismantling the individual identities of its constituents. This erosion of partner identity can easily be viewed as the direct, insidious consequence of the non or mismanagement of individual partner needs. Uncorrected, this loss of identity can gouge deeply at the core quality of the relationship.

When Couples Clients Dodge Conflicts

In many of my cases, I’ve witnessed the biting irony of partners who’ll myopically dodge even the slightest prospect of conflict and thus sacrifice themselves by under-managing or not managing their individual needs. Done with “golden intentions,” partners ofttimes deploy this misguided, potentially debilitating tactic for seemingly the “right” reasons: To be considerate of their partner’s differing needs, or to keep from rocking the interpersonal boat by avoiding the risk of conflict sparked by disparate individual needs and the regrettable upshot of painful emotional fallout.

However, I’ll point out that partners who attempt to duck, dance around, or otherwise evade their potentially conflict-generating differences — especially those who do so chronically — risk a nasty, backfiring accrual of metastasizing self and partner resentment.

I often have observed that when conflict-diffident partners opt to use this quick and easy out of conflict for the short-term gain of reducing tension, they paradoxically — and most often unwittingly — induce a downstream, longer-term escalation of couple tension. This proverbial “kick-the-can-down-the-road” pattern of conflict avoidance can diminish partner affection because it most often magnifies rather than lessens couple animosities, making them more pernicious and thus significantly harder to manage. Left untreated, unresolved conflicts create a fecund spawning ground of couple-crippling antipathy.

Conversely, well-managed needs can reduce, even eliminate long-term tensions, even though partners are often called upon to move toward rather than away from potential conflict. Further, well-managed personal needs can cleanse the emotional atmosphere of tension-preserving, lingering feeling debris by prophylactically applying the brakes to self and partner resentment that might otherwise ooze toxically into the partnership.

However, what happens when partners trend in the opposite direction and mismanage their needs by force-feeding their partners non-negotiated demands, manipulations, cajolery, or in some other manner, coerce, blame, or pressure their partners into gratifying their needs? For example, commonly, I hear partners grumble that they don’t feel heard or understood, often voiced as, “We don’t communicate,” or, “He/she never listens to me,” or some fault-finding variant on this complaint-driven, non-constructive relationship critique.

While the need to have one’s partner’s sensitive, respectful understanding is indisputably valid, when frustrated, it’s easily mismanaged with angry accusations and demands which then pulls the targeted partner’s attention away from the need’s legitimacy. Or very often because of a need’s fundamental validity, its gratification can be perilously taken for granted, meaning it’s not actively or effectively managed at all. Partners merely expect, often flutily, that their need for understanding will be met, especially when it's perceived to be most needed.

I’ll reiterate that poorly managed or non-managed personal needs often become a couple flashpoint. For instance, a partner’s exasperated accusation, “You never listen to me!” most often immediately deploys the accused or “non-listening” partner’s defenses which can then lead to a galling and fruitless spinout in an emotional cul-de-sac of counter-attacking allegations.

Effective Need Management in Couples Counseling

By clear contrast, effective need management can look like this: “Your efforts to listen and understand me leave me feeling respected and cared for…thank you…this means so much to me…and I could sure use a dosing of it now…that is, if you have a moment.” Here, both partners are dealt an equal measure of respect. And while far less economic for time and/or energy, this investment in good need management can pay off in big emotional dividends, since it tends to pull partners toward one another.

Happily, neither partner is likely to be defensive. Instead, good need managers deliver a respectful compliment to their partners which, in turn, helps create a savory atmosphere of mutual respect. Surely, partners who respect one another are more likely to gratify each other’s needs.

Now moving ahead in a decidedly concrete fashion, I’ll encourage the couple to survey their shared history for “healthy exceptions,” that is, to search for instances when they may have effectively managed their personal needs and the feelings orbiting them. I’ll instruct the couple to meticulously and sensitively reference these noteworthy times, calling their attention to how they felt during this all-important personal obligation to themselves and the quality of their relationship, especially when it was done with little or no feather-ruffling.

I’ll encourage the couple to take a moment to reflect and comment on any residual or lasting glow of relational health they may now feel while recalling those moments of good personal need management. Equally important, I’ll ask the couple to try and identify the specific conditions which may have made these propitious partner exchanges possible for the clear therapeutic advantages of reinforcing, burnishing, or otherwise embellishing them.

Moreover, my hope is that this type of positive intervention will resuscitate at least a momentary tincture, if not more, of optimism in the couple. I’ve also discovered that periodic, well-timed infusions of hope can be an especially beneficial mode of intervention.

I’ve also found it helpful to dole out frequent reminders that effectively managing some individual needs may pose a temporary threat to the equanimity and stability of their relationship. I’ll frequently coach the couple to practice in session, with follow-ups at home, the calculated risks associated with the effective management of their needs. This entails summoning the courage to vulnerably enter the “emotional lion’s den.” I’ll promote this important step as key to effective personal need management, highlighting that it’s intimacy’s lifeblood — I risk therefore I am intimate.

Nonetheless, I’ll repeat, seemingly ad nauseam, that intimacy’s matchless portfolio of far-reaching, personally fulfilling enrichments are achieved in proportion to the couple’s efforts to acquire greater “intimacy intelligence” by intrepidly sharpening their skills of effective need management. Specifically, I’ll point out that these highly enviable rewards take their form in a gratifying uptick of self-esteem. Moreover, this uptick in self-esteem is usually accompanied by a flattering bonus — a commensurate boost in their partner’s esteem.

I’ll encouragingly describe how applying the orthodoxy of effective personal need management deepens the connection, or the integration, partners have within themselves, which is arguably a necessary precursor to a deep, meaningful connection between relating partners. I’ll be no closer to my partner than I am first close to myself. Again, I’ll stress that personal needs and feelings that are effectively managed ensure that partner identities are well-embroidered in a need-by-need, feeling-by-feeling fashion, a well-knit fabric of the self. I like to emphasize that the quality of the intimate relationship is a function of the quality of the partners who inhabit it.

As each session draws to its end, I’ll send the couple home with a small buffet of helpful maxims, like those just mentioned, “clinical love notes,” as it were. I’ll often remind the couple that the art of loving is rarely, if ever, perfected but it can be improved upon by taking on the lifelong prescription to hone the personal skills of effective need management. My intent here is to keep the work done in treatment fresh, alive, and well-practiced at home where it counts the most.   

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy