Coming to therapy can feel really hard. What usually brings us to therapy is the feeling of being out of control in some way and not knowing a way to change. One person might be in a series of unstable relationships. Another might not be able to stop drinking. And still another carries the weight of trauma or shame or depression (or all three) on their shoulders every day for 10 or 20 years or more! When we decide it’s time to gain control, there’s typically a breaking point, something that feels dysfunctional and unbearable to us. Studies show that couples, for instance, wait an average of six years from the time the relationship shows signs of difficulty before making the call to see a couples therapist. And by then, damage to the attachment can be very difficult to mend. So, why is change so hard?
Therapists conceptualize cases from many different lenses, but most modern-day therapy attends to what is known as “the system”. We are all part of systems. At work, I’m a member of a small community of therapists, so I’m a part of something larger than myself and my clients. At home, I’m part of a family, so I function in many different roles as mother, wife, daughter and sister. There I’m a small part of a larger dynamic system. As a result, my behaviors, moods and emotions directly affect those around me. And those around me move with and against my behaviors, moods and emotions.
For example, if I don’t sleep well, I’m less likely to be a positive support for my daughter who needs me to help her study for her math test the next day. My husband might need to help her study instead and he might have to change a meeting at work to make that study time possible. People at work might be disappointed in him for missing the meeting, and so on. In this example, my sleep is indirectly affecting the progress of projects in my husband’s company! It’s easy to see how systems are much larger than we initially think.
In addition, when someone comes to therapy, there are more people in the room than just client and therapist. We carry with us all the loved ones, as well as those who have hurt us, everywhere we go. The voices of these people will naturally shape how we feel and behave in all aspects of our lives. As the client shifts and adjusts those definitions of the self, the larger system will be adjusting expectations of the client.
Imagine the alcoholic father and husband, who for years avoided the role of loving caretaker due to his alcohol use. Consider the ways his family adapted to his behaviors, his mood swings, his avoidances and threats. Those family members got used to disappointments and found themselves relying more on others or themselves for safety and support. And when dad finally made the necessary changes to quit drinking, everyone around him also changed their expectations, levels of trust, engagement and access to him. The dad in this scenario is one part of a larger system, much like a part in a car engine. If one part of the engine doesn’t function properly, the others work harder to find ways to make the car run that might exhaust the system entirely.
But what’s often unexpected is that our loved ones may not like the change, despite asking for the change for years. This is because they have gotten used to a stable and predictable way of living their lives, in spite of the alcoholism. When he functions in a different way, it upsets the way they function, even if the change is for the better of his health and the health of those around him. His wife’s power as the primary and stable parent might feel threatened. His teen son has learned emotional avoidance in the system and is now being asked to be vulnerable with his dad, a man with whom he never felt safe before. And so on.
Change is difficult because the perceptions we have of ourselves and those around us must also change. In couples work specifically, how one person is expected to behave can get in the way of meaningful change for both partners. Interrupting patterns of behavior often means challenging expectations learned from many injuries to a couple’s relationship. For example, a woman who cheated on her husband repeatedly has a long, uphill battle to show her husband it won’t happen again. She will be working against his hypervigilance every time she goes to the grocery store or receives a text. She may decide to change, but she will have to be actively working against his anxiety which was created by her past behaviors.
The truth is that we can make the changes necessary to have safe, secure attachment as we redefine our roles in our systems. I’ve seen it time and time again in my work with couples. Couples therapy is designed to repair those injuries to the bond, to rebuild from the ground up the trust and commitment that frames the relationship. It requires patience, curiosity and commitment to the process of healing.
As we make meaningful change, we are asking so many others to see us in a different role, and to adjust with us, not against us. It takes courage and sometimes blind-faith to trust the change will be permanent. When we come to therapy, we are making changes to improve something vital to our well-being and we want to be safe, supported and loved in that change. Therapy is the safest place to be witnessed in the effort to change, to be transparent about the intentions of your new actions, and to map the support you’ll need to make those changes for good.