The wall is up. I sense it, and I’m sure that Brian* does as well. He is sitting on the couch, looking down at his clenched hands. He raises his eyes and gives a slight grimace. I look at his wife Jane* – she is talking about how she is just done done done, how she can’t reach across any more, how she isn’t seen, how she isn’t heard. “Reach across what?” I ask her. “Reach across the wall!” she retorts angrily. “Can’t you feel this wall between us?” I ask her to describe it. “It’s made of stone bricks and piled thickly between us,” she sobs. “I don’t know what to do!” Brian’s gaze again is on his clenched hands, and he is silent.
Walls are, by their very nature, difficult to get through, especially ones that seem to be made of stone bricks. These bricks may have been placed unintentionally, at least the first ones. As your work commitments grow, as your babies are born and need tending to, as everything you need to do in a day piles up, your partner can take a back seat to your priorities. And that’s okay for a while – but that back seat has the tendency to become a pattern, and that pattern can lead to unmet needs and resentments. And the bricks of separation start to pile up between you and your partner.
Or, maybe you and your partner just don’t like conflict. Unknowingly, the bricks start to pile up between you as you avoid it “for your partner’s sake.” For your partner’s sake, you keep quiet about your own needs. For your partner’s sake, you don’t raise an issue that could be conflictual. For your partner’s sake, you keep the peace. The problem is that this leads to resentment. The wall of disconnection goes up, and as it goes up, you just don’t understand why you’re feeling lonely and emotionally distant from your partner. After all, there has never really been any conflict between you!
When Jane describes their wall to me, I ask Brian if he senses, too. “Yes,” he replies. “I do. It’s awful…” I ask them if they’d like to dismantle it, and when they agree, I ask them to try to identify some of the bricks. Jane is laughing and crying simultaneously. “There’s a bunch of them there because Brian just won’t respond to me when I bring anything up!” Brian retorts with, “A lot of them have the word NAG on them. Nag nag nag! Of course I’m not going to respond to that!” I ask them if they can think of a way to take a few of the bricks down. When they shake their heads no, I tell them that the first thing they can do when they recognize the wall between them, is to simply say to the other “I see the wall,” followed by “Let’s try to dismantle it.” The other partner’s job when this occurs is to agree. This simple act is already taking a few bricks away by communicating this truth in the moment, and getting both partners on the same side.
Over the next sessions, I help Brian and Jane explore and understand when and how their first bricks were placed, along with the dysfunctional pattern that has resulted over time. This takes some time and patience as we dive into intent and affect. I also teach them healthy conflict resolution skills. So many of us aren’t provided with an effectual model from our parents, and we just don’t know how to have a healthy disagreement. It’s okay to disagree, I have to remind some of the couples I see. It’s even okay to get angry! So many of us stuff this strong emotion down. It’s okay to get angry, but the key is to do it in a healthy way. The key is to have a “healthy” disagreement. I coach Brian and Jane how to do this, along with stating their needs in healthy ways, and responding accordingly. It all takes practice and good intent, and my counseling office supplies a safe place for this.
As Brian and Jane’s pattern of interaction shifts, they feel more validated and heard by each other. This makes them feel more connected, and their wall starts to crumble and disintegrate.
It’s so amazing and inspiring to me to see couples like Brian and Jane come into my office feeling so separate from the other, and with motivation, along with some realizations and tools, work to shift their relationship to a more healthy, authentic one. It’s why I do this work. It’s why I love seeing couples.
*not their real names