Lessons from the Couples Therapy Couch:
Insights into how couples relate, for better and for worse; and how they can be helped
By Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling and Couples Therapist
“People settle for a level of despair they can tolerate and call it happiness”.
Marriage, like all forms of couple relationships, is for grown-ups. But very many couples tend to fight like bad-tempered babies, or sulky babies, or vengeful parent figures, when things go wrong in their lives. Many individuals, both male and female, expect their marriage partner to be like a sustaining mother to them, so they can act like an omnipotent baby.
This book describes a series of encounters between a psychotherapist and his troubled clients – both individuals and couples – who wanted help with their marriages or sex-love relationships (in the period 1998-2016). It also includes all those theories and models that the author has used with his clients to help them improve their relationships.
It is intended to be helpful for individuals who want to know what goes on in the couples therapy room; or more about love and relationship; or how to build a happy relationship; or how therapy can help to improve couple relationships. It should be most helpful for self-help enthusiasts, and for couples therapists who want to broaden their approach to include some of the latest ideas from affect regulation theory; interpersonal neurobiology; and personality theory.
The book is written as a set of stories selected from the historical account of the author’s journey through the lives of more than six hundred couples in therapy. The case studies are selected to teach the most important principles of successful and happy relationships.
After oxygen and water and food, love is probably the most important ingredient in the life of a happy human. If work binds us to sanity, then love makes life worth living.
Love springs unbidden from the good side of the human heart; just as hatred grows like a cancer from the bad side.
And every one of us (including you!) has a good and bad side to our heart.
There are no “good people” and “bad people”, at root. A “good person” can slip back and become “bad”. And a “bad person” can reform, and become “good”.
Goodness and badness compete within each of us for dominance. And the kind of person we become – and the kind of lover or partner that we are – is an outcome of that inner battle, and which side the conscious part of us takes and supports.
In the main, we love those who please us, delight us, serve us, and contribute to our happiness.
Most often, we hate those who displease us, challenge us, deny us our desires, and frustrate us.
But what happens when the ‘pleaser’ and the ‘frustrater’ are the same person (which is inevitable in any long-term relationship!)?
Then we have to be skilful in keeping our inner source of love open, while dealing assertively, and/or acceptingly, with the frustration or lack of instant gratification.
How do we learn this balancing act? We learn it, if at all, in our family of origin, by observing and copying our parents’ relationship. (But we can learn how to be loving and assertive, and grown-up in our behaviours, at any stage in our lives, with the right kind of guidance and support; and some personal hard work!)
The hundreds of couple clients who have consulted me over the past twenty-four years came from homes in which unhappy marriage was modelled for them by their parents. They were wired up in childhood to behave in ways that do not work as a means of generating happy family life!
I came from such a family myself! A loveless, arranged marriage of bitter recriminations and distant relating.
Beyond the essential lifting and carrying that my mother had to do to care for me as a baby, and beyond her interest in me as an engaging doll to be washed and dressed, I received no physical love – and no symbolic love of my soul. Only diligent care of my body and personal appearance.
The first person who loved me – the real me – my soul – was a carbolic-scented nun who embraced me (when I was ten years old), just once, as if I was the essence of humanity. (She actually knelt down to do this, and had to beckon me to move towards her, over and over again, before I could cross that floor!) She saved my heart from freezing over; and possibly saved my life!
What kind of husband – in later life – could such a broken boy become?! My prospects were not great!
My mother hated me for giving her a difficult birth experience. And she discarded me “onto the dusty floor”, at the age of eighteen months, once my little brother had arrived. Some of my clients were sent away to boarding schools. Some were abandoned at birth; and some were symbolically abandoned later. Some were abandoned by the death of their mother in the early years of life. Others were beaten and/or scolded harshly. Some were subjected to mental cruelty; tormented; or were frightened and crushed. Many were subjected to damaging levels of neglect. And some had to endure the stress and strain of hearing their parents fighting, verbally, and sometimes physically.
However, many of them had no childhood memories that they could recount, because they had walled them off to avoid the pain of lovelessness. And some vehemently denied that their childhood contained any pain (even though it is widely recognized that “childhood is a nightmare”!) None of them was loved sufficiently to allow them to find the source of love within themselves. None of them could love, because they had not been loved.
And what they now called “love”, wasn’t!
And what they called “relationship” was really more of a “struggle-bond”. An unhappy struggle-bond.
For twenty-two years, I trekked through a loveless landscape of incomprehensible social encounters, which were superficial and cold. Then I fell into a brief and torrid affair with a woman slightly older than myself, who then cuckolded me (after six weeks!), just as my mother had cuckolded my father. (This is known as the ‘compulsion to repeat’ patterns of relating which were observed and modelled in our childhood! We are creatures of habit. Whatever we learn in childhood, we tend to enact in later life!)
Most of my couples therapy clients have behaved in their relationships as if they were repeating patterns from their past. It is very difficult to understand why they would stay in such miserable “entanglements” (which they mistakenly call “relationships”) on any other basis than this: they are trying to complete in the present moment, some emotionally messy “unfinished business” from their family of origin! Or they are following the template modelled for them by their parents.
To me, coming from my unhappy family of origin, “relationships” were a dark mystery, for at least thirty years. I did not learn anything about love until I met a wonderful woman – in Bangladesh, when I was thirty years old – who set out to teach me how to love. (And for those who may be confused here, this did not mean “teach me how to copulate”. Copulation and love are not one and the same thing!) Actually, what she did was to take an interest in me; in my story; and she questioned me deeply about my childhood, over a period of weeks, as we sat together in a quiet room, drinking tea. Then one day she presented me with a poem she had written about my childhood. I did not recognize the boy in the story. The emotional fireworks that went off in my heart and my guts, as I read her poetic words, reduced me to tears. I had been “revealed” to myself for the first time. I had been “fully felt”, which allowed me to feel myself, for the first time. (Perhaps there was a small echo in there of the smell of carbolic soap from Sister Louise; and her soft hands holding my little torso against her warm body!)
Carla, who wrote the poem about my childhood, succeeded in opening the door that would eventually allow me to find the source of love inside myself. But Renata, my lovely wife of several decades, would be the one to broaden and deepen that learning into a rich and warm sense of being both a source of love, and a loved soul.
In 1984, I went through six weeks of marriage guidance counselling, along with my wonderful wife, Renata. This was the start of a long learning process – including encounter groups, relationships and communications courses, and individual counselling, as well as training in rational and cognitive therapy – which resulted, in 1998, in my setting up as a rational therapist. My first four clients included two with couple-relationship problems; and one with an intense mother-hatred complex. The fourth was a single man living thousands of miles from his cold, forbidding mother; and living with a woman who was old enough to be his mother. (But he saw no connections or implications in this pattern!)
My own parents had a horrible relationship. They were brought together by a match-maker. My dad was 34 and my mum was seventeen. Neither of them had any capacity to love, themselves, other people, or the seven children they eventually produced. (And the later three of those children were not my father’s progeny!)
My first sex-love relationship, mentioned briefly above, was a combination of two things:
– A repetition of my unhappy relationship with my sometimes cold and distant – and sometimes angry and physically aggressive – mother.
– And my re-enactment of the relationship I’d seen modelled by my mother and father in the ways they related to each other.
This relationship was short and brutal. It ended with me feeling seriously wounded by Annabel’s unfaithfulness.
Nevertheless, four years later I allowed some mutual acquaintances to “set me up” with a woman who I hardly knew, and with whom I had little in common; but who I married nevertheless. (This then was an arranged marriage; and it was about as unhappy as my parents had been; with me being the passive-withdrawn model of my father; and Marianne being just like my bitter, recriminatory mother). The marriage lasted six years, and ended by my being cuckolded again, just as my father was. It was a brutally unhappy marriage, with an enormously painful end period.
Moving backwards: In 1968, I had found myself in the office of a white-coated psychoanalyst, who told me all my social and emotional problems stemmed from my relationship with my mother. However, given that, at the time, I had no idea what a “relationship” could be, and no conscious recollection of anything “going wrong” (or “right”) between me and my mother, I could not make use of this potentially life changing insight! (Insights are useless unless we can grasp their significance, and unless we take some action as a result!)
Beginning as a rational therapist was a reflection of my own distance, or alienation, from my deepest feelings. Rational therapist over-emphasize thinking, and downgrade the value of feeling. But we actually need to integrate our capacity to feel and our capacity to reason. And it takes protracted experience to lay down the neurological wiring that gives us the capacity to manage our feelings. It is not a simple matter of “changing your thinking to change your thoughts!” That is only part of the process.
Over time, I evolved into a holistic, emotion-centred therapist, helping all kinds of clients, but especially disturbed couples. Some of those couples proved to be “pre-contemplators”. They were not contemplating any kind of personal change. They had identified the entire problem of the unworkability of their relationship as being “my bloody partner”. They were so focused on blaming their partner that they could not see that “it takes two to tango”. They were unaware of the ways in which they had been shaped by their family of origin. Even when I “drew them a picture” of the “damaged wiring” in the basement of their minds, they somehow managed to discard that, and to switch the spotlight back onto their partner. These kinds of clients gained small improvements in their relationships, because they only made small attempts to improve things from their side of the fence.
Some of my couple-clients were “contemplators”. They were thinking about change in their relationships; but they often failed to follow through. They contemplated change, but could not bring themselves to take the action that was needed to make the change. And many of them would only contemplate change in their partner, but no change in themselves (because they were “perfect” exactly the way they were!) Again, these kinds of clients gained only small improvements in their relationships, because they only made small attempts to improve things from their side of the fence.
Some of my clients were, or became, “determined” to produce personal change. And the more determined they were, the more they were able to generate the action required to make important changes to their relationships. I introduced them to a new philosophy of couple relationships, and many of them studied it, applied it with determination, and saw some dramatic, sometimes heart-stopping change in the love their partner now showed for them. (What went around, came back around! [They “cast their bread upon the waters” and it returned after many days!])
What did I learn about healing couple relationships, as a result of my first eighteen years of this work?
That is what I will tell you in this book, using the stories of my disguised and anonymized clients (from my first eighteen years) to help you, the reader, to understand the mysteries of relationships; where the traps and pitfalls are; and how to find the high road to a happy marriage or couple relationship. In the process I will also introduce you to a range of theories of couple relationships and couple communication.
Jim Byrne, Hebden Bridge, February 2022