Ellyn Bader

Anxiety, anger, and jealousy are emotions I see often in many of the couples I have worked with over the years, and I’m sure it’s no different in your practice. Untangling the roots of these feelings and helping couples adopt strategies to deal with them becomes a central challenge for you.

Recently my therapists’ online training group discussed a case where insecurity, jealousy, and conflict were quickly taking over a young couple’s relationship.

Partners Jane and Bob had a history of feeling rejected and unloved. Life had handed them interlocking scripts, but each partner dealt with these feelings in a unique way.

Jane tended to act against herself, going back to self-harming habits she thought she’d broken for good. Bob’s insecurities flared into jealous bouts of anger when he sensed Jane wasn’t paying enough attention to him.

Listening and empathy as an essential first step

The therapist had helped Jane and Bob develop a practice of empathetic listening so each could learn what the other was feeling, especially when worry and anxiety spun into open conflict.

Bob reported that when Jane listened to him, he felt calmer right away. He felt Jane’s willingness to hear him out was the key to managing angry, jealous feelings that often overtook him.

In one session, Jane felt courageous enough to disagree.

Sometimes, she said, Bob demanded remorse for things she’d done that triggered his anxious feelings. “And if I don’t say I’m sorry over and over again, he punishes me,” she explained.

Bob reacted angrily to Jane’s statement, and for a few moments, it seemed the couple had reached an impasse.

Whose job is it to manage a partner’s anxiety?

The therapist challenged Bob to think about his responsibility in the situation. If his healing depended entirely on Jane, the burden might be too great for her.

“Jane’s listening may help you for a few moments, Bob, but it may not be serving you,” she said.

She explained that, while empathy and understanding are necessary in all close relationships, one partner’s listening can’t magically erase a lifetime of pain for the other.

Instead of expecting Jane to be his only resource, Bob would benefit from recognizing his power to heal old wounds that sparked new anxieties.

“Unfair as it might seem, the job of healing our childhood hurts always ends up in our own hands,” the therapist said. “Jane’s listening and her apologies can’t possibly make up for everything that happened to you over the years.”

The therapist encouraged Bob to come up with ways he could reach inside himself to soothe his own anxiety when he was feeling threatened and jealous. He was able to come up with two or three strategies, including coming in for individual sessions with her.

The conversation was helpful for Jane, too. She’d been feeling helpless when her caring and attention didn’t seem to resolve things for Bob. Now she could release the guilt she was feeling and step back a bit, trusting Bob to manage his own emotions.

Have you found ways to help clients assume the full measure of their responsibility for anxiety and conflict in their marriage? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

And if you are interested in learning more about working with angry partners, I recommend our resource, The Hostile Angry Couple.  Click here  for more information or to order this collection of two one-hour teleseminars in audio and print format, along with the slides and handouts that accompanied the original, live sessions.

Consider This

If you are interested in learning more about working with angry partners, I recommend our resource, The Hostile Angry Couple. Click here for more information or to order this collection.

About 

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.


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Marcia Naomi Berger
Marcia Naomi Berger
2 years ago

Thank you for sharing this; nice how therapist clarified that one partner can’t be expected to fix a lifetime of pain the other is experiencing from way before they became a couple.

Brigitte Goldfarb-Safrana
Brigitte Goldfarb-Safrana
2 years ago

It is true that it is not a partner’s responsibility to manage the other’s anxiety, happiness, well being etc… However, in order to go forward in the relationship both partners have to take responsibility for their role in the conflict/malaise and unfortunately more often than not there is one who is not ready to recognise this and prefers to blame the other openly or not. So my question is how do you manage to guide someone who is not ready to take responsibility for their own issues? me i havent found a way yet i’d be very grateful for insights in this matter

Marine
Marine
2 years ago

Thank so much Ellyn. This reminds me of a case I had and it is very reassuring to hear what the therapist did. I can relate.

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