Getting Unstuck in your Marriage
by Dr. Michael Murphy

When is the right time for marital therapy? When is the best time to commit the appropriate resources and seek a professional for help with marital problems? These don’t seem like questions that spouses ask themselves very often, and for understandable reasons. Similar to those who might consider individual therapy, married couples want to work at and solve their own problems before they seek outside help. Realistically though, how often do ongoing marital problems get the care and attention that they need to be resolved? And how bad does the problem need to be before both members of the marriage are cued in and concerned? It seems to me that rather than being addressed, the marital relationship is actually the very thing in some marriages that go unaddressed. Ignored. Taken for granted. For whatever reason, the bond of love between the two spouses gets sacrificed for everything else. The “right time” to refocus our attention, repair lost connection, and grow in love becomes obvious when we properly prioritize our marriage.

And for many, a formal recommitment focused on rekindling the marital relationship is difficult. Complicated. Because a lot can happen to that bond over the rough and harried years of marriage. Here at Ruah Woods Psychological Services we conduct marital therapy using a model that honors this bond, tracks how it has deteriorated, and guides the couple in regrowing it. The model is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, or EFT for short, and was created by Dr. Susan Johnson. There’s a lot to say about how we use this model to help couples, but I’d like to highlight just a few things worth reflecting on in this post.

Call it marital atrophy, ongoing conflict, or falling out of love…  Whatever the term, the marital relationship often doesn’t feel the same as when it began years prior. Maybe it has gotten stronger in some ways, but for many, the relationship has endured consistent conflict and neglect that has wounded it and weakened the sense of closeness, security, and safety the couple shares. This automatic, repeated, injurious pattern within the couple is formally called “the cycle of conflict” in the EFT model. While this might seem like a strangely obvious insight to make, we are actually regularly surprised by how unaware couples are of their cycle of conflict (often referred to as just their “cycle”). And this is not to blame the couple! The truth is, the cycle is quite insidious! Such cycles are routinely formed in the context of both partners trying to secure the love and support they desire from each other. Though patterns vary, it often involves one partner trying to reach out to the other to reestablish a sense of security, often in a panicked or aggressive way, while the other partner tries to deescalate and withdraw from interaction in an attempt to preserve the relationship, prevent further damage, and protect a sense of safety and self-worth. This very common give-and-take sequence is called a “pursue-withdraw” pattern.

Both partners value the relationship and the other person, but their respective strategies aren’t always well understood or appreciated by the other. In both cases, there is a deeply rooted human need for safety and security that each is trying to acquire called “secure attachment” (more on attachment later). The stresses, trials, and wounds of the marriage (and past relationships) degrade a person’s trust and emotional responsiveness to their partner – in other words, they often bear wounds from current and past relationships deep in their hearts that make it hard to trust that their spouse will really be there for them when they need it. This mistrust then grows up over time like a nasty weed through many iterations of the cycle of conflict, each time pushing the spouses farther and farther apart.

So a very early task in our marital therapy is to take account of these deeper wounds (which will guide later therapeutic work), and, to become intimately knowledgeable and aware of the cycle of conflict. Not only has the cycle contributed to ongoing damage to the marital bond, but it is quickly and easily triggered in the context of marital therapy, making healing difficult. If the cycle can become acknowledged, understood, and rightfully be made the enemy of the couple, their conflict often cools off, and other productive emotions such as concern, curiosity, and compassion can be felt. “Why does he pull away just when I’m desperate to talk?” “Why is she so hard-up to talk, when we know it’s just going to lead to a fight?” Because under all the demanding criticism and thinly-veiled resentment, under the flat statement “I’m fine” and the shut-down countenance, are two wounded people that care about each other. But the cycle obscures this reality! Because of the cycle, each person grows in their conviction that their partner doesn’t care. And so the first task is to see this cycle clearly and to name it the great enemy of the couple.

The good news is, even for marital relationships that have been neglected or damaged, there is hope.  Prayerfully consider if now is the time to invest in your marital relationship – is couples therapy appropriate for you? An established, monthly date night? An hour, one night a week where you sit on a couch, look at each other, and talk about your relationship? Or maybe you could read a book together and learn more about the cycle and how to fix it? Consider Love Sense (we regularly suggest this to our couples in therapy) or Hold Me Tight, both by Dr. Sue Johnson.

Dealing with Family During the Holidays
by Dr. Michael Murphy

“You are coming over, right?”

A lot of proclamations are made about Christmas time. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” “It’s magical and joyous!” “It’s a hectic time… there’s so much to do!” “It brings up painful memories I’d rather forget.” “It’s the time when folks feel coerced to visit their insane family!”

Overall, it seems like Christmas time #1) isn’t the same for everyone and #2) is such a mixed bag for most, especially when it comes to family gatherings. But it’s going to happen, right? The family is getting together (and if you don’t have much of a family, or you’re estranged, not getting together also matters). A lot of people are excited about it and for good reasons. Old cousins, new grandkids, time-honored traditions, tasty foods… But a lot of people are not excited… and for good reason. Too much alcohol, too weak social filters, dysfunctional family dynamics… these are enough to make the visit unnerving.

Whether such get-togethers are mostly good or decidedly bad, it’s important not to miss the point of it all: the birth of Jesus Christ! Wow, how could I forget Him? Oh yeah, He’s why we have even a shred of hope and joy during Christmas time. And if that hope and joy happen to be in abundance for you, you might multiply it within your family. But we can’t forget the point. We can’t throw the Baby out with the apple pie that Aunt Marie just burned and who will now be in an unbearable mood for the rest of the day! But how?

Give yourself permission to put Christ at the center of Christmas. Its outlandish advice, to be sure, but putting God where He belongs and positioning ourselves around Him is always stabilizing and nourishing. When it comes to family gatherings (and the whole Christmas season), begin by locating Christ within you. Use external cues (such as a nice manger scene) or a crucifix as a reminder if you can. Surviving or flourishing is more achievable if your relationship with Christ is present and primary when family dysfunction emerges.

If you can locate Christ within you during this Christmas season, foster your awareness and connection with Him. Consider Confession, Advent songs, or Eucharistic adoration as powerful catalysts for this process. Prayerfully meditate on the daily Mass readings. Talk to Jesus in your heart about all this holiday season brings up for you.  These practices will not only draw you closer to God but also help you as you make decisions during the Christmas season. Important decisions that possibly don’t match expectations that other shave for you or that you have for yourself. Decisions like…

Which family gatherings do I attend? If Christ is the center of Christmas, then this is a valid question. If the hectic logistics of attending 4 family gatherings in 3 days cause significant anxiety, it may be time to simplify. Foster the priority of celebrating the birth of Christ within your family. Prayerfully consider His will for you this Christmas. For some, this could mean greater involvement and investment in family gatherings. For others, this may mean less family involvement and more time in prayer, worship, and charitable works. If you’re not sure, set aside some quiet time with Him and ask.

But I have to be there! There is no decision! If I don’t go there will be consequences… Some circumstances are complicated and indeed consequences are certain to follow if someone “rocks the boat” and doesn’t come to the family Christmas party. Consider if these consequences are something you can live with or if they are a part of your growing pains towards healthy individuation from your extended family. If you are going to be there, prayerfully holding onto Christ is all the more important. Let Him weather the storm with you.

How long should I stay? We all have our limits. When preparing to attend family functions, honestly consider – given your current state – how long you can interact charitably with those in attendance. This does not mean how long you think you should be able to be charitable but how long you can actually be charitable right now. It also does not necessarily mean as long as people are charitable towards you. Indeed, we are called to bear with others patiently and extend forgiveness generously.  Nonetheless, if a relative is particularly difficult, and you are struggling to remain in a loving frame of mind, consider talking to someone else or switching rooms. Decide ahead of time about how much time you want to spend there, stick to your plan, and reflect on the experience later. Find out how much charity you are capable of sowing and accept your limitations.

What should I do proactively during these gatherings to make it better for me and my family?  While you can’t change or determine who will be at a big family gathering, what you engage in once you’re there is open-ended. Consider what typically happens at the gathering, which might involve preparing food and socializing. For the sake of keeping Christ in Christmas and keeping your own sense of peace and joy, what would you like to change or add? Could you start a“find the wise men” hiding game with the younger kids, not only to enrich their awareness of baby Jesus but also to give you a break from the adults? Maybe play a board game with the teenagers? Is there a member of the family you don’t know much about, or an in-law that is newer to the family? It might be worth shaking things up a little and showing some benign curiosity. They may feel just as refreshed as you to have some genuine, positive attention instead of getting lost in the usual family dynamics.

We all need to find Christ somewhere in our mixed bag of Christmas. He is the beginning of our hope and the only substantial bulwark we have against the anxiety that weighs us down during this busy season. And more than that, He is our salvation after the storms have come and gone! Let us work to welcome Him in our hearts and in the hearts of those around us.

Untangling Things
by Dr. Michael Murphy

If Catholic and Christian therapists have one primary advantage over secular therapists, it has to be that we have the privilege of knowing that in order to be truly successful with our patients, we must form and reform our lives around spiritual dependency on God’s love. I know, anyway, that there’s no other way I could do it, and I’m certain that my two colleagues at RWPS would agree.

God’s help comes in a variety of forms and through a variety of channels. One special lady I lean on for assistance in therapeutic matters is Mary, Undoer of Knots. To me, Mary is always working behind the scenes (the wedding at Cana, yes?) to bring about God’s glory. Therapy is often about recognizing and disentangling our most recalcitrant psychological knots. The process in some ways is mysterious and requires movements of the heart that neither the therapist nor patient fully understands. To offer more clarity about what I mean, I want to elaborate on the analogy of knots as similar to psychological issues, and therapy as a way of addressing psychological knots. I also want to indicate the assistance Mary, Unoder of Knots procures for therapeutic growth, reordering, and healing.

Knots are complicated. Sure, sometimes you can just vigorously shake a cord free of its tangle, but many knots are not so easily undone. The particular issue that brings a person to therapy is often like this latter, difficult knot. In some ways this is just the way it is, as most problems a person encounters are solvable without the help of a therapist. Until this is not the case, therapy is often viewed as unnecessary. Many people find their problems are a good deal beyond manageable by the time they enter therapy, which naturally contributes to the complexity of the therapy as well.

The solution isn’t always obvious. Loosening restricting knots (physical and psychological) sometimes requires trial and error. A bit of pushing or pulling, on this part or another, results in bits of progress – or not. Progress instills hope and gives the therapist and patient a sense that they are working in the right area. Mary is able to step into this process in a way that can be illustrated in a very concrete manner: The therapist and patient only see the exterior of the knot (or salient features of the presenting psychological issue) – Mary can see the interior. She is thus especially suited to guide our therapeutic efforts; the more complicated the problems, the greater her insight!

Undoing a knot is a process. A lot of knots are left alone because they don’t cause that much of a problem. I think of a wad of cords behind a computer desk, or even a pair of shoes with knots perfectly calibrated for just the right fit. This is rightly normal. But some knots persist even while they disrupt and annoy us (and others). Dealing with these requires more time and effort than we are usually willing to give in the moment. We try to ignore them, and sometimes do so for a long time (even if others can’t help but notice them). But when it comes to finally straightening them out, it takes time and sometimes they are so tangled that the process is a veritable puzzle.

Analogously, unraveling long-standing behavior patterns, ingrained beliefs, and tightly-bound emotions is similar. Patient and therapist are finite in their abilities, no matter how clever or competent. Happily, the therapist and patient are not alone in the work, and so enters the mystery of God’s glory through Mary’s intercession. Our (divinely willed) finitude is bolstered and altogether made-up-for by the Lord’s sufficient graces. These graces come both within and without the therapy room proper, as there are no boundaries to God’s chosen dwelling places. It appears to me, from the changes I’ve seen in patients, that God is characteristically generous with these helping graces, which touch and affect our psychology in unforeseen ways.

Sometimes untangling things leads to a bigger mess (initially). Once the person has sat down and committed to the process, it sometimes becomes clear that there is a lot of work to do. Not only that, but what was in some ways confined to the small area of a knot is now spread out, taking up more space, becoming more noticeable by others and yourself. Psychologically speaking, unveiling things that have been balled-up, over-simplified, unaddressed, or consistently ignored can be stressful, unpleasant, and even quite painful and debilitating. This is the normal course of things for many presenting issues, and Mary can help obtain the appropriate graces to help a person endure. The mess doesn’t last.

Knots are a pain. Therapy is often a great relief to patients at first, and in general. However, real change often involves suffering. Therapist don’t like to see their patients suffer, but are obliged to allow them to wrestle with past rejection, deeply-rooted convictions of sinfulness, and other painful interior experiences in order to find healing. Many of these experiences are analogous to the interior parts of a knot – unseen, neglected, denied parts of the person that are never brought out into the light because they are wrapped up tight and obscured. Even as Mary guides the unveiling of these parts of us, God’s presence accompanies us, bringing meaning and healing to our pain.

My colleagues and I at RWPS strive to know the saving power of God. We have the great grace of knowing that the inevitable suffering that life will dole out has been shared by Christ (God himself). Therapy can sometimes be a microcosm of that reality, but it similarly, though not as essentially, is redemptive. Our constant prayer is that God’s saving grace is infused into our work. I would have little hope for my patients and their brave work in therapy otherwise.