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One time a couple came to see me, confused and upset by an encounter they had with their clergy-person. They went to him explaining that they were having marital problems and they wanted help. He was a lovely and loving man. He listened carefully and told them they had to start acting nicer to each other. They looked at each other and then at him. “But” the wife said, “we know that! We just don’t know how.”
Now it was the clergyman’s turn to be puzzled. “You’re such lovely people!” He exclaimed. “Of course you know how!”
There was an unfortunate chasm between this couple and their clergyman. He couldn’t understand their problem because he didn’t understand the nature of emotional obstacles. But it’s the emotional obstacles that keep therapists in business. If all you needed to be told was, “Act nice!” and all you had to do was think, “Oh, okay,” wouldn’t that be Paradise!
When your emotions take over your brain and you do and say things that later on you will deeply regret, obstacles are introduced into the relationship that change a logical, simple process into one that sometimes seems insurmountable.
In my last two posts, Twisting the Truth, Part I and II, I described one emotional obstacle: seeing reality through a warped lens. The person doing this is terribly insecure and holds on to this warped view of reality because he or she desperately needs to. It’s his way of calming anxieties about things he really doesn’t get. If it fits for him, he feels more comfortable. Challenges to it cause that insecurity to rear its ugly head and he will fight hard to keep his distortion – and thereby keep anxiety under control. That’s why arguing with someone like that gets no-where.
Another emotional obstacle to behaving decently with the people you love is anger. Anger takes over and the person involved is nearly as surprised as the person on whom it’s vented. Anger is another foolish, unproductive response that pushes away any rational attempt to meet someone half-way.
There are many ways emotions can get in the way of a rational and pleasant exchange of ideas: Depression can make a person give up too easily; fear can make people run away from problems they need to solve; feeling like a victim can produce gratuitous attacks; low self-esteem can cloud judgments about one’s capabilities.
This is why couples can argue and argue and the problem remains unresolved: Emotions get in the way. When that happens, the message is distorted, the response is unhelpful (to say the least), and the problem gets left far behind as the arguers wander in a labyrinth of unnecessary topics.
And it is precisely for this reason that “alternatives” to counseling don’t work when emotions are involved. Rational alternatives don’t address emotions that take control and don’t leave too quickly.
So what to do?
When a person is under the control of her emotions, the only avenue toward rationality that will work has nothing to do with counseling, alternative or traditional. What’s required is deep breathing or any other method that will de-stress in a hurry. Exercise, yoga, relaxation, hypnosis, meditation, dance, absorption in something such as a book, movie, or music will all work. They re-focus, they reduce blood pressure, heartbeat, and stress hormones, and they re-produce the links to the cerebral cortex that are needed to regain reason.
It is also true that cognitive methods that refocus you on your goals and the goodness in your life will assist in that process. But you’ve got to work these two processes together; you’ve got to pair up the autonomic nervous system with the cognitive skills for success. This is simply because, as you probably know, when you’re upset, you can’t think rationally.
So, yes, there is a way to overcome emotional obstacles and it works in combo with talk therapy. That's why it is part of my work in healing suffering couples.