Marital Conflict, Marriage Problems Chelmsford, Essex
Diagnosed: Emotional problems, mainly anger, due to problems in marital relationship
"Lucy" (not her real name), who is 47, and married to ""Rob" (50, also not real name), with adult children, came to see me in some distress because she felt that she was "too emotional" to the point where it was ruining her relationship.
At assessment, it was clear that this was very much a relationship problem and that it was possible her being "over emotional" might be as a result of her interaction with her husband.
For example, Lucy found that, if a friend let her down or cancelled a date she would react far less angrily than if her husband did the same.
Her own interpretation of this was that it meant Rob no longer loved her, and that he wanted to be away from her. She would then become verbally and emotionally overwrought and quite despairing.
In further sessions, it transpired that Lucy had developed an Emotional Deprivation Schema which had begun very early in her life. She had grown up with a "needy" sister who demanded all of her parents' attention and affection. Lucy was the "capable, dependable" one who always did the right thing but subsequently got overlooked most of the time.
The problem was, she never learnt how to ask for what she wanted and as an adult and she ended up marrying a man who would keep this cycle going. Rob saw Lucy as one of life's natural "givers", she put him on his feet and saw to his every need when they first met and he loved that about her.
Over time, though, he got used to just "taking" what he needed and expected her to keep "giving". The relationship had become unbalanced and Lucy was feeling emotionally deprived.
None of her needs was being met, and even when she "told" Rob what she wanted, she felt as if it was further proof that he did not truly know or love her — somehow, asking for what she wanted was not the same as having him "read her mind".
When Rob wanted to go away for a golf weekend with his mates, Lucy would react angrily and become highly emotional and then take to punishing him in other small ways that chipped away at the foundation of their relationship.
"I can see myself as I'm doing it - lock myself in the bathroom, throwing things and screaming at the top of my voice, wailing like a hurt animal, and in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'it's just golf!' But at the time, I feel as if I'm being completely disrespected and told that "I'm unimportant in fact what his friends want are often more important that what I want, it's like nothing I want matters"
"Others are more important than me"
"Nothing I want matters"
In session, I asked Lucy to close her eyes, and call to mind that feeling again, getting her to go back as far as she could to remember when she had felt "others are more important than her" and "nothing I want matters" before.
Lucy was able to take the feeling back to her childhood growing up with an overly demanding sister and parents who had inadvertently ignored one child's needs in favour of the other.
Lucy came to realise that the patterns of her childhood were playing out in her relationship with her husband. This was completely new information for Lucy and a breakthrough moment in therapy.
What made the situation worse for Lucy was that Rob was not validating her emotions.
How could he?
He did not understand what she was going though, that he was inadvertently setting off triggers that had its roots in her past, as much as it had its roots in the relationship with him.
He would stonewall her every time she became emotional. His Entitlement schema (that she had helped to create by doing too much for him early in their relationship), was triggered and he believed he should not have to deal with his wife's emotional needs — that was 100% her job.
Slowly. a sense of contempt for his wife had started to take hold. She was being completely unreasonable he decided and, to make matters worse, would avoid her when he could.
They had had couples therapy before, they warned me when I suggested they come along together.
"It was hopeless, we wore down the therapist with our arguments and in the end she said 'maybe you have reached the end of the road with each other, maybe divorce is the best option'. I thought then that no-one will be able to help us."
Lucy and Rob decided to give it one last try. We began by identifying their different schemas and through a process of self monitoring could see how the schemas were triggered and how they interacted. Then began the process of change through taught skills in session and practice at home.
Some of the skills they learnt were:
Validating each other and clean communication
Mindfulness to reduce black and white, judgmental thinking and catastrophising
The "4 horsemen of the Apocalypse" - Contempt, Stonewalling, Criticism, Defensiveness
Assertiveness skills - learning how to ask for what you want/say no in a way that keeps the other person liking you, keeps you liking yourself and states your objective in a clear way.
Pleaser's list - giving the other person a little of your time and attention each week
To their amazement, after only 5 months of therapy, Lucy and Rob had rediscovered their relationship with each other.
Lucy was less emotional and able to use the skills to calm herself more quickly and ask for what she wanted and Rob had realised the importance of validating his wife's feelings and changed his behaviour to focus a little more on her needs and on spending time with her in a more spontaneous way.
He could now think of spending time with Lucy as "my time also" rather than compartmentalising all aspects of his life, so reducing Lucy's experience of him "disconnecting emotionally" from her when he was away.