Les and Chris are fairly new clients for me, via teletherapy. Body language – even over Zoom – gives me a lot of information on how a couple is doing, and this couple is no exception. Les sits facing me and Chris is slightly turned away from Les, sitting about a foot apart on their couch. It makes me wonder how much overlap they have in their lives.
“What do you think is the right amount of overlap to have as a couple?” I ask them.
Chris looks away. Les looks slightly curious and glances at Chris. “What do you mean by overlap?”
I quickly sketch a Venn diagram and hold it up to the screen. “Let’s say this circle is Chris and this one is you. The circle represents everything you’re doing – work, sleep, play, downtime, you name it. Where the circles overlap is where you share activities. How much do you think your circles are overlapping?”
“Well,” Chris begins, “we both agree that we should be able to do the things we want to do independently of the other.”
With their help, I start to fill in the Venn diagram. In their own circles, where there is no overlap, I list work, working out, and seeing their own friends. Individual errands also go here. Where the circles overlap (representing their together time), I list eating dinners together, some breakfasts, sleeping in same bed (although they go to bed at different times and have different times they get up in the morning – this I put in their individual sections), and some weekend activities together.
“What else?” I prompt them. “Think of your activities each day, through the week and even through the months. What else should go in your Venn diagram?”
Chris remembers recent ski trips taken with college friends and visiting parents solo. Les remembers a dance class they took at the community center pre-covid when they were first dating and expressed interest in doing it again. “Oh,” says Chris, “I’m going to Vegas with my friends next month.” We continue to work on this for a while. I learn quite a bit about their lives with this simple activity.
I show them the finished project and ask for their reactions. “I’m surprised it’s so balanced,” says Les. “I’m usually bugging Chris to do more with me, but we have quite a few things we do together, as well as individually.” Chris agrees. “That’s surprising to me as well,” and glances towards Les. “Les is always wanting to do more with me, but we do a lot!”
“Well,” I say, “even if you’re doing a lot, one partner still may want to do more. And that’s okay. It’s something to talk about and collaboratively problem solve.”
Then I ask the couple this questions: “Besides your activities overlapping, what about your emotions, your hearts’ longings? How much are they shared?” I draw two hearts overlapping.
Both of them are silent, and I wait.
“I’m uncomfortable talking about that stuff,” says Chris. Les is quiet.
“Why do you think Chris is saying that?” I ask Les. “I have no idea,” says Les. “I really wish Chris would talk more about feelings and what’s going on internally.”
“I invite you, Les, to reach out and put your hand on Chris’s shoulder, if that’s alright with Chris.” Chris gives a small startle. “What just happened,” I ask, “to make you startle?”
And out it comes. This often happens in my work – there’s a fairly big thing going on between the couple that doesn’t come out at first. This makes sense – a couple needs to develop trust with me, and feel safe. In their case, they’d had a pretty big blowout fight a few months ago and the result was profound emotional disconnection. It was actually why they had reached out to me for support. The couple didn’t really know how to talk about this effectively or do repair, so they had each retreated.
It takes more than a few sessions to unpack all this, and in that time, I talk about the importance of validation and repair, and how to go about validating and repairing. Les and Chris begin to turn towards each other to do this important work. Perhaps more importantly, they gain some insight on each other’s patterns of behavior through learning about attachment.
We often blame our partners for how they interact with us. They might seem avoidant, or seem too enmeshed with us. But our attachment style is not our fault – it means our parents weren’t attuned enough to us for us to realize that we can rely on others and that it’s okay to have needs.
We cannot choose our attachment style – it is given to us by how well our parents were attuned to us. If they were there consistently for us, we attach in a secure way. But if they weren’t, we can either feel alone and that we have to do things on our own, or that we have to take care of them or others in our family in order to get any attention or feel loved, or a combination. And we bring this way of attaching to our adult relationships, without even realizing it.
Once Chris and Les become more aware of how their own attachment style affects their relationship, they are able to give each other a little grace for how they automatically respond when in conflict. Chris tends to pull back and avoid conflict. Les tends to think more of Chris’s well being in times of stress. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong in these ways of coping – except that the relationship might suffer if one partner is pulling back and the other one is neglecting their own needs.
The couple begins to understand that their behavior might be hurting their partner, and learns how to care for their partner in authentic ways. This is the gold of couples work – seeing this care for one another evolve and make differences.
I invite you to fill out a Venn diagram with your partner, to see what the balance is of individual and together time. There is no right or wrong answer here – the rightness is in how each individual feels about the balance. If one of you is unhappy with the balance, it warrants further discussion and problem-solving.
I also invite you to do a heart Venn diagram, of two hearts overlapping. How do your hearts overlap?