Our discussion of the “4R’s – Rupture Regression, Repair and Resolution” began in January 2015. This is an easy-to-remember model for identifying and effectively managing internal and interpersonal upsets. When a rupture occurred between Tim and Barb at a party, their regressive emotional reactions revealed significant struggles in their relationship. Follow their work now in the proactive conscious steps of relationship regulation - Repair and Resolution. In this post the focus is on Repair: a time of awareness, truth and understanding.
Tim and Barb started moving toward repair when the regressive reactions of their rupture brought up unsettling feelings that motivated them to face the challenges in their marriage without the certainty of an outcome. The regressive feelings and behaviors that surfaced for them are well characterized in the victim/persecutor/rescuer paradigm - the iconic stances of rupture discussed in January’s post. The range of alternating negative emotions in the triangle of dysfunctional distress include blame, hurt, disappointment, fear, anger, exasperation, displeasure, remorse, and guilt. Tim and Barb were clear that these shaming feelings created distance between them as glimpsed in this example of their early struggles to connect.
Tim said that while he readily gives in to the way Barb likes to do things, he doesn’t like how she shouts at him. Barb countered: “Things don’t have to escalate but they do because you won’t go outside of your comfort zone. I wish you would show up and do more than just your chores. Instead, you make excuses and point out what everyone else is doing wrong. You leave me no option but to be controlling.” Tim tried again to let her know that when she gets upset with him like this, even though he may deserve it, he either gets amped up and defensive or passively strikes back by being moody and uncooperative. Barb said either way it was horrible and always seemed to be her fault. She tried not to cry but her tears wouldn’t stop.
As the work of repair unfolded, Tim and Barb continued to have these difficult episodes. They also had interludes of tenderness, vulnerability, emotional maturity and so much more. They wanted to develop compassion, courage, and patience so they could stay connected during the difficult times. They thought spending time with each other in a relaxed way could help them be more comfortable with each other. Since they were both available on Sundays, they decided to grow their emotional muscles by taking turns planning activities for weekly Sunday “dates.”
In their couple’s work, Barb and Tim were realizing how in childhood, for different reasons, they had to cut off their feelings because being vulnerable wasn’t a safe option. Barb lived in an unstable whirlwind of emotional abuse and neglect in her home. Tim’s parents separated and divorced when he five. He was happy when his mother remarried, because his new father provided structure that helped Tim feel safe. Barb added that Tim’s step-father was also a fierce task-master who pressured Tim to do things “right.” Tim was becoming aware that he pressures himself and worries about the “other shoe” dropping. Barb said that as a kid she never had time to feel, much less worry, because she had to take action and manage the chaos. To this day, she’s aware that she speaks her gut feelings whether anyone is listening or not. When Tim told Barb he doesn’t know what to expect from her, she understood and shared how she never knew what to expect from her mother.
After their return from a much-needed vacation, Barb excitedly shared that Tim showed a lot of courage when he told her he was afraid to tell his birth-father and brother that he didn’t want to go on their annual golf outing. Tim knew from experience it would be a “drinking” trip and that he would be pressured to drink with them. Tim let Barb know he wanted to keep his commitment to himself and to her about not drinking and he wanted her assurance that his dad would be OK with his decision. Tim was relieved it went well when he told his father he wouldn’t be going on the trip. Barb appreciated Tim’s honesty and was deeply moved by his request for her support. She announced she was so moved by Tim’s willingness to be vulnerable with her that she wanted to open up with him too. She started by describing herself as one of those kids who “blended into the drywall.” So when an older neighbor was nice to her and invited her to play at his house, she liked having a place to go and she liked his attention, even though she didn’t understand the “sex part.” When her father came around one time, she told him about the neighbor man. He listened to her and let her know he was glad she talked to him. Then he called the police. When the police came, they took the man to jail. Stunned, Tim struggled for words and finally he was able to say, “Barb, I’m really sorry that happened to you, I don’t know what else to say except that my heart hurts really badly.”
In a later session, Barb expressed concern that they hadn’t been as close lately because their Sunday “dates” weren’t happening with much regularity. She shared her disappointment about how Tim tries to outdo himself planning activities for them and then gets overwhelmed and gives up. Barb said she liked how she kept her Sunday “dates” for them simple and easy-going because she was discovering how much she enjoyed relaxing with Tim. She let Tim know how important it was to her that going forward she needed him to keep his agreement to their Sunday “dates” as a way to balance the pressure of their jobs, daily commutes, and chores at home.
For a number of months, Barb was feeling challenged by changes in her work situation. This difficulty came up sporadically without really going anyplace. Then Barb started a session saying she needed to tell Tim how much she had been holding back from sharing her distress about how badly her work situation had become for her. She thought her hesitation in talking with him was less about self-protection and more about her discomfort with sharing in general, because she wasn’t sure she really believed it was OK to ask for support. She told Tim that under the current pressures she could give herself about three more months before quitting. When Tim asked her what she was going to do if she did quit her job, she told him she wanted to go back to school. She said she had always been a good student and she was looking at tech training programs that would take about eighteen months. Tim shared that he feared any added financial stress. Barb nodded awareness and expressed her concern that if she did quit her job and go back to school, she was afraid Tim would indirectly act out his money anxieties and that she would interpret his behavior as a message for her to quit school and go back to work. Tim genuinely admitted to having a hard time managing his anxiety and yet he wanted to help make school happen for her. Barb was surprised and let him know his validation and support wasn’t like anything she’d ever received from anyone. They agreed to work on creating a plan together and she felt hopeful and optimistic. Barb commented, “It’s been easier for us to talk openly with each other about almost anything since we’ve been coming to therapy.”
Repair does not require a dramatic rupture to get it started; it can begin anytime one is curious about what is going on with them. Much of repair involves the time consuming work of unpacking the unknown, hidden and buried regressive feelings exposed by a rupture. Barb and Tim took the risk to move into and through the emotional fluctuations of repair without any guarantees. It was clear to me they shared a deep connection with each other and yet at times it was difficult for me to make sense of who they were together. Tim seemed to come into the marriage wanting to be valued and appreciated as a good and responsible provider. Barb approached their partnership wanting to build a life with someone who would cherish her. Theirs promised to be a good match and while they made a valiant effort to achieve their desires and wishes, their long-standing focus on self-survival kept them apart. For Tim, this meant acting out his vulnerabilities because he didn’t have words for feelings. For Barb, it meant disregarding her feelings with rigid resolve by powering through. Tim’s anxieties about being shamed caused him to either withdraw or attack, which played into Barb’s expectation to be minimized and overlooked. When they came to couple’s counseling, it was to see if they could save their marriage by figuring out what was wrong and to find a way to be emotionally close with each other. As Tim and Barb struggled to discover their feelings, accept them and share them with each other, indications of secure connections began to emerge.
I am deeply moved by the courage Barb and Tim were willing to access in order to grow their marriage by developing trust in each other. As we embark on Resolution with them, however, “living happily ever after” isn’t the next stop.
Developing new habits is hard work and it is never as easy as it seems. Significant questions have yet to be addressed. Will Tim take ownership of his anxiety issues and manage them in a productive way? Will Barb develop healthy and appropriate boundaries so she can properly focus on her own needs? Will they begin to understand how they cycle through a defensive loop of victim/persecutor/rescuer behaviors at each other’s emotional expense? Will they choose to fall back into the relationship patterns that promoted their rupture?
Sign up for an email reminder so you can follow Barb and Tim as their work continues next month into Resolution - the last of the 4 R’s: Rupture, Regression, Repair and Resolution.