In the first few sessions of couples therapy, a lot of the discussion is caught up in who said or did what, and there can be a lot of blaming and pointing fingers – especially with high-conflict couples. Both partners usually have a laundry list of complaints and hurts, and invariably they each want to ask, “Why did you do those things?”
When partners are confronted with the “why” question, it’s rarely easy for them to answer. They struggle to tell a coherent story about the behavior which makes sense to them and also to their partner. They’ll come up with something, but it’s usually a less than satisfying explanation, and it rarely gets at the root challenge(s) they face.
Why We Don’t Know Why
Brain researchers have learned that much of what passes for us knowing our own thoughts is really a matter of our reinterpreting unconscious behaviors after the fact. In other words, much of our behavior in the world stems from pre-cognitive, unconscious processes most often informed by the kind of love and affection we received from parental figures when we were very young.
Instead of acting from some set of conscious ideals, we are frequently reacting to material that lies buried beneath the surface of our thought life. When confronted with “why,” our conscious brain must go back and try to make sense of what we’ve done in light of the stories we’ve told ourselves and that others have told us about who we are.
Asking your partner why they did something is really more like asking, “What story about you and your life will help make sense of this behavior?” Because your partner most likely won’t be able to tell you the “real” reason why – it’s buried too deep.
If we can’t usually access the unconscious part of behavior processes, and the reasons we give for what we do aren’t necessarily in touch with the “real” reasons, how do couples get anywhere in therapy?
The Two Things Every Couple Wants
Good couples therapy includes interactions and investigations on the part of the couple with the help of the therapist to uncover some of these unconscious motivations and bring them to light. Much of the time, the problematic interactions in a relationship center on two themes:
1) Both partners have a legitimate need to feel safe in their life and relationship, but one or both of them go about achieving this safety through unhelpful, relationship-damaging means.
2) Both partners also have a legitimate need to feel loved and known, but one or both of them engage in conflict-inducing strategies to get the love they want.
The therapist’s job is to help the couple uncover their legitimate wishes for safety and love, examine the beliefs they hold around these two needs based on the relationship they had with early parental figures, and then identify how those needs and beliefs are contributing to problematic interactions today. In doing so, both partners become more aware of the ways in which they seek to protect themselves and to ask for love from each other, and they become more capable of achieving safety and getting love in honest, forthright ways.
If your relationship has a lot of “why” questions, consider that the answers you’re looking for may not be found in the stories you can tell each other about what’s happening between you now. Instead, it’s probably rooted in things that happened long before either of you met. Getting to those roots is the beginning of changing your relationship permanently.