My blog has often focused on character types and I am sure many of you have recognized aspects of these types in yourself and others you know. Those of you residing in couple hood may recognize characteristics in your mate as well. Or, maybe you don’t recognize your own character flaws, but recognize your mate’s problems with greater ease. That happens too; it is easier to see and be critical of our mate than look at our own contribution to the problems. It is quite challenging to live with another person day in and day out, as we are confronted with our own discomfort, disappointment, and even despair, and become chronically annoyed, irritable and resentful. We grapple with wanting things to be other than they are and that is the human condition. “If only he (or she) was like this or like that I would feel better.” And sometimes that is true too. Yet the comforts of companionship, familiarity, and shared experiences over time are intrinsically so valuable that it helps us get through obstacles that at times seem insurmountable. The longing to be bonded with another is a primitive need as we are basically social animals. That said, couples do struggle and reach boiling points when they can’t get back or forward to a stable place of harmony and safety with each other. It is at those times that a therapist can help illuminate, clarify, clear the logjam and help create permanent ways out.
There are various approaches to couple’s therapy. This post will discuss character analytic couple therapy, which clarifies how life-long character patterns create difficulty in relationship. As each character type engages from its chronic defensive positions, a couple’s dynamic is created. So understanding each character’s propensities helps a couple to understand their dynamics – as a couple’s ’system‘ has a life of its own.
Let’s look at a fictionalized couple.
George is a high functioning Schizoid character type, meaning he is introverted, mostly comfortable being on his own, and is at ease when he is deeply connecting to his inner life of thoughts and fantasies. He works as an engineer at a tech company. He finds himself exhausted by too much conversation and is often quiet or solitary at social events. George appreciates his capacity for self-sufficiency and can appear detached from his relationships. He withdraws easily under stress as his introverted style provides solace. His emotional capacity is thin at times due to losing contact with his feelings.
George is married to Sara, a phallic Narcissist who enjoys socializing and holding court within her world. Narcissists tend to like being center stage and can be manipulative in order to keep that position. They do not empathize with others well and demand perfect mirroring.
Sara was attracted to George’s depth and intellect, feeling safe and relieved with his quiet dependability. She found his secretive intensity appealing, as she is the opposite: an outgoing, controlling type who can easily demand that the outer world comply with her needs. He liked her magnetic, vivacious nature and her flamboyant style. Both are successful in their autonomous functioning in their careers, yet are distressed with their increasing feelings of alienation in their relationship.
Sara, a coach and consultant, is upset that George isn’t stepping up to participate with her at social events as she wants him to engage in the activities. She also craves more liveliness, emotionality and connectedness. She pushes him, makes demands and tries to control him with angry, critical outbursts. On the other hand, Sara usually rejects his sexual entreaties and has become less interested in sexual contact.
George feels violated by her intrusiveness, control, demandingness, and critical style. He retreats more and more into his inner world and is stubborn, antagonistic and unreachable. He becomes distant as she becomes more verbal and demonstrative. They are each locked in their character patterns: domination and retreat. As they repeat this pattern, Sara and George become more desperate inside as each depends on the other for intimate, emotional fulfillment that is not forthcoming. Neither is able to find their way back to a sense of trust, safety and contentment in their marriage.
In therapy, George and Sara began to see how their unhealthy defensive patterns created a miserable couple dynamic. When couples relate with their defenses, it creates an abrasive rub of defense against defense without any real contact. Sara came to see that her demanding, dominating style pushes George away. She hides her feelings of being defective and inadequate underneath her inflated devaluing of the other. George worked in therapy on his defensive style of retreating – a way he feels safe and ensures his self-sufficiency while hiding his dependency needs. He practiced expressing his needs in session and told Sara strongly that he did not like her controlling, critical attitude toward him.
As we discussed the individual historic roots of their patterning – allowing each to be vulnerable in front of the other – George and Sara gained a depth of understanding that softens the defenses and allowed their affectionate and loving feelings to emerge. They gained skills in communicating so they could effectively negotiate and be on the same side.
Couple’s work can be difficult, painful, and extremely challenging. Early family-of-origin feelings are provoked and the vulnerability can be excruciating. Yet, the couple dynamic changes as each member becomes healthier. Then they can become a true team, safe and secure yet ensuring individuality, autonomy and differentiation.