By Beverly Rodgers MS, PhD, LMFT and Tom Rodgers MA, PhD, LPC

How To Work Effectively With Highly Volatile Couples

One of the most difficult cases for many marriage counselors is the highly volatile couple. These couples have a history of verbal and physical abuse, and many are even mandated by the court to seek therapy. They pose quite a therapeutic challenge in that they have little to no consistent conflict resolution skills. The therapeutic obstacles of these couples are many, especially if both are childhood trauma survivors, which is frequently the case. These systems are often referred to as dual trauma couples.1

The childhood traumas these couples experience leave emotional scars we call soul wounds which can be re-injured as situations occur in their current marital relationship. There is a high probability that these couples will simultaneously exhibit trauma responses or reactivity when their soul wounds are re-damaged. This reactivity can be acted out by explosive anger, stonewalling and withdrawing, or histrionic, over-emotional displays.2

Dennis Balcom in his 1996 article on Dual Trauma Couples in Journal of Marital and Family Therapy says that normally assumed processes in couples are sabotaged in traumatized couples.  For example communication, nurturance, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills may be underdeveloped or may disappear under the pressure of trauma responses (reactivity). Without basic relationship skills these couples are unable to set goals and make any sort of progress. They adapt to their woundedness by protecting themselves from real or perceived dangers, which also inhibits them from experiencing the rewards of intimacy.3

Of all the couples to treat, these can truly be the most complex. Yet in our twenty years as marriage counselors, we have found that these couples need our love, support and help the most. Jesus said it best when he was reprimanding the disciples for telling him not to consort with evil people. In Mark 2:17 Jesus says, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (NIV). These are the people who need us the most. Thus, we as Christian marriage counselors, have a dilemma.  How can we reach these couples?

In providing healing for this type of marital dyad we have determined that there are several objectives that marital therapists must address.

  1. Help each partner deal with his or her soul wounds that are causing them to become reactive.
  2. Examine the actual dysfunctional interpersonal relationship patterns in the system and provide healthy alternatives.
  3. Aid the couple in distinguishing past childhood traumas from current relationship issues
  4. Develop communication techniques and tools that will reduce reactivity, slow down communication, and build empathy and compassion for each partner.

We have developed several communication techniques for these crisis couples designed to meet the above objectives. One of our first “test runs” in using our newly developed tools was with a very angry, volatile couple named Bill and Sue who came into our counseling office at the request of their attorney. In one of their heated arguments, both became violent and Sue pulled a gun on Bill and threatened him.  The police and the courts were then involved, and they were mandated to seek professional help. They came reluctantly. We decided to see this couple conjointly because we feel that volatile couples often do better when both a male and female therapist are resent.

Bill and Sue presented as a very attractive, personable couple. They politely introduced themselves to us and we sat down to work. No sooner had we asked the first question than the tense discord started. Both were interrupting each other and getting louder as they spoke. Soon they were both simultaneously yelling so loudly that we couldn’t make sense of what each was saying.  Our frequent attempts to quiet them went unnoticed, as they carried on their fight as if we were not even present. Intermittently woven into their histrionic displays of anger were questions we managed to ask about their family histories.

We learned that both Bill and Sue were adult children of alcoholics. Both of their fathers were alcoholics and both were verbally and physically abusive. This supports the theory that wounded people are attracted to similarly wounded people as possible mates in an effort to understand, be understood, help or be helped. This repetition compulsion causes them to repeat patterns from their families-of-origin and try to get them right.4

A typical ritual for this couple is that one accuses the other of trying to control or dominate a situation. As the conflict escalates, both of them slip into childhood memories of abuse.  Sue responds to the threat of control and abuse by verbally attacking Bill.  He gets overwhelmed with reliving his father’s physical abuse, so to protect himself he usually lashes out physically. Ironically, their fighting replicates their own family-of-origin experiences. They are re-wounding each other’s souls in much the same way their parents did. As a result of this type of conflict they both saw each other as a perpetrator, an intimate enemy, and therefore violence seemed to be their only way of self-protection. Both felt like Job in chapter 3:25 when he said, “What I fear comes upon me. And what I dread befalls me” (NIV). They were each reenacting in their marriage that which they greatly feared from their past. Giving this hurting couple hope was a most challenging task.  They managed to agree on only one thing during the session—that they would come back again next week.

             We staffed this case and decided to use a directive and didactic approach with them. Because they were so chaotic, we would maintain a very tight reign on their interaction. The main goals for the next session with this couple were:

  1. Educate the couple on their reactivity so they could understand that their childhood wounds were being triggered by current issues in their marriage.
  2. Reduce the amount of reactivity in their relationship so that they could calmly communicate on a deeper level.
  3. Teach them two very basic communication techniques designed to

      help them over-ride this reactivity in sharing and help them experience

 a certain level of success in communication, as well as attend to the

 woundedness in each other and themselves.

 With much planning and prayer we entered the next session with the couple.

As predicted, they started the session by “tattling” on each other. They both seemed bursting with information they wanted to divulge on the other’s inadequacies as a partner. We kept to our game plan and interrupted their agenda with several thought-provoking questions. “Would you like to know why you are so reactive with each other? Have you ever wondered why you two can’t share without discord?” These pointed questions seemed to get their attention and quiet them. We took advantage of this rare pause between them to begin the didactic portion of the session.

            Neurobiology 101 the “Old Brain”

            We explained to Bill and Sue that the traumas which occurred in childhood and past relationships are stored as memories in the primal part of the brain, sometimes called the old brain. This is important for several reasons. First of all, the old brain has no sense of time so a trauma or wound that occurred at the age of five can be remembered with the same threat and fear at age thirty-five. Secondly, the old brain houses our self-defense mechanism. If it perceives real or imagined danger it will react in a fight or flight manner. It does not have the ability to be rational or reasonable. It cannot act, only react, thus explaining why reactivity is so hard to control.5

            From this teaching, Bill and Sue learned that they were over-reacting to each other’s offenses because these offenses triggered wounds from their past. They saw that they were not separating trauma that occurred in family-of-origin from new marital interaction. They both agreed that they wanted to stop the destructive patterns in their relationship. In order to do this we told them that they would have to act with intentionality.

            We explained that intentionality is using the more rational reasonable aspects of the brain to help over-ride the reactivity of the old brain.  It is consciously behaving a certain way regardless of how you feel. This approach has been used for many years in self-help groups such as alcoholics anonymous. They abide by the belief that you should act as if you desire sobriety no matter how you feel. Acting with intentionality is similar to what Paul shared in Romans 12:2 “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind that you may prove what this will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect “(NIV). Both Bill and Sue agreed that this would take much prayer and we agreed to pray with them and for them as they embarked on this process.

            Lastly, we wanted to teach them to communicate in a clearer and more effective manner. To do this we explained that we were going to teach them two very basic communication techniques designed to help them reduce discord, maintain intentionality, and take an active role in healing each other’s wounded-

 ness.

Teaching The GIFT Exercise

We taught Bill and Sue that anger is not really the main culprit behind their reactivity.  It is only a secondary emotion, usually felt in response to a more primary feeling, which means that anger is more of the response, than the root of a particular situation.  Submerged under anger are four basic feelings that help define or give purpose to rage.  Chances are, if a person is feeling anger, they can trace it to any of these four emotions.  They are as follows:

                                    Guilt

                                    Inferiority

                                    Fear

                                    Trauma or pain

             We have developed an acronym for these underlying emotions so that couples can trace them to their root cause, and so that the roots can be easily remembered.  We chose the wordGIFTbecause we feel that it would be a GIFT to each other and themselves to identify the root of their wrath. If one mate responds in anger, it tends to create a defensive or angry response from the other in return. Both are less likely to really hear what the other is saying. Healthy communication is thwarted, and conflict goes unresolved.  By tracing the root of anger, they are able to share it more effectively with each other. The GIFT Exercise gives couples a format to follow in tracing the root of their rage and helps couples communicate more honestly. Proverbs 14:29 says, “A wise man controls his anger.  He knows that anger causes mistakes”(NIV).  

            We challenged Bill and Sue to think about conflict, not in terms of anger, but in terms of the four basic emotions that are lurking underneath it. We were now ready to teach them the second communication technique, which is a spin- off of the first.  This next tool allows the couple to identify certain triggers in their current relationship, understand the feelings these triggers evoke, and attach those feelings to early childhood wounds. This helps couples look deeper at their woundedness and separate family-of-origin issues from the interactional patterns in their marriage. It is aptly called The Digging Deeper Exercise.

            Teaching The Digging Deeper Exercise

            This exercise consists offive basic steps. In order to follow the steps, they need to answer the following questions.

1. What is the behavior that my mate does that triggers my anger?

 When my mate does this………I feel this………..

2. Identify the root of this anger using The GIFT Exercise.

 (Guilt, Inferiority, Fear, or Trauma)

3. Ask yourself, when have I ever felt this feeling before?

Look for a past occurrence, preferably in childhood.

  • What do I do when feel I this feeling?

What is my behavior?

5. What do I really NEED?

 

Bill and Sue’s Digging Deeper Exercise

            We asked Bill and Sue to give us a typical scene they had experienced in their marriage where conflict occurred. Sue’s trigger was that Bill would criticize and condemn her for being messy. He would yell at her and call her names like “lazy pig.” She also added that Bill would not pitch-in and help her. He would just put her down for not having it done. She usually responded by defending herself, then becoming angry, crying, yelling and at times throwing things. This would upset Bill who would try to defend himself by using violence. A destructive conflict cycle was set in motion that was almost impossible to disarm. This dilemma is validated in John Gottman’s research with violent couples observed via video camera. He found that when violent rituals started, they were very difficult to stop.6

 Bill would become inflamed because he thought the house was always a mess, and that Sue needed to be more responsible for the household chores. He felt she was not pulling her weight and that too much fell on his shoulders.  This sense of unfairness replicated the same feelings he experienced in his family-of-origin with his own abusive father who made him do the majority of the work around the house. As a child he could not retaliate, but as an adult he would yell and scream, verbally demean Sue, and often resort to physical violence. Both were re-injuring each other and stepping right into each other’s soul wounds. Here is an example of the work this couple did as they completed this exercise:       

Sue’s Digging Deeper Exercise

          1.  What does my mate do that triggers my anger?

When Bill criticizes me about how dirty the house is, I feel put down and devalued.

          2.  Identify the root of my anger using The GIFT Exercise.

            I feel put down, and hurt, the roots being—Inferiority and Trauma.

          3.  When have I felt this before?

As a child, when my father called me stupid, and would constantly order me to do chores, but would never help me do them.

          4.  What was my response?

To get angry, yell, and then not do what I was asked in rebellion, sometimes throw things.

          5.  What do I really NEED?          

              To be encouraged and complimented for what I do accomplish.

 

Bill’s Digging Deeper Exercise

            1.  What does my mate do that triggers my anger?

When Sue does not clean the house as I have requested, I feel that my needs do not matter.

2. Identify the root of my anger using The GIFT Exercise.

I feel like my requests are unimportant, that I don’t matter. The roots being—Inferiority and Trauma.

3.  When have I felt this before?

When I would come home from school,  often my father would be drunk on the sofa. The house would be a wreck, and he would make me clean it.

            4.  What was my response? 

 I would hold in my frustration, and eventually explode. 

            5. What do I really Need?

            To feel like Sue listens to me and cares about how I feel.

As you can see, Bill and Sue’s responses to anger worked against each other.  Bill would take it until he exploded and then yell at Sue.  She would yell back, and then just ignore his implied or verbal requests for change. They both felt threatened, misunderstood and disregarded. Their deeper feelings were inferiority and trauma.  As they began to work through this exercise, they could see that they were triggering each other’s soul wounds. It became obvious to them that their responses to anger fostered violence in their marriage.

            By using these simple yet powerful tools several major things happened to this couple in a short period of time.

  1. The couple learned to share calmly and rationally without reactivity, which perpetuates fear of verbal and physical violence.
  2.  Because their reactivity was reduced, they could more easily hear what each other was saying.
  3. Both Bill and Sue understood for the first time why these issues impacted them so deeply, and what the soul wounds were behind their reactivity.
  4. They distinguished family-of-origin trauma from current marital conflict.
  5. They determined what each other’s needs actually were.

 Sue saw that her need was much deeper than for Bill to simply stop criticizing her; she actually needed him to affirm and believe in her. Bill saw that he wanted to feel that Sue really cared about his needs, and that he was important to her.  This was symbolized by her keeping the house neat and honoring his requests.

As a result of their deep sharing, both Bill and Sue saw empathy from each other for the first time since they had started dating. Sue said it best when she reported, “It feels so good for us to actually listen to each other. For the first time in years, I feel like we are listening with our whole heart. This ‘healing feeling’ actually motivates us to want to meet each other’s needs.”

They both agreed to be more cognizant of each other’s requests. The desire for first-order change was addressed in that Sue committed to be aware of Bill’s need to feel heard and important by keeping the house clean, and Bill was more conscious of Sue’s need to feel affirmed and encouraged. But more importantly, second-order change occurred as this couple recognized each other’s deeper needs for love and connection, and actually wanted to meet them. This couple built a bridge between them that had been sorely lacking for years.

At the end of a powerful emotional session, we usually ask couples to give us a word or phrase that describes what they feel. Bill’s three-word answer said it best—“I feel God.”

Bill and Sue continued weekly therapy for seven months. They used the techniques we taught them religiously. Their ability to resolve conflict without violence continued to increase as their violence decreased to zero. We see them periodically for “marital check ups,” and they report that they finally feel like best friends and soul mates. For us as therapists, this is what Christian marriage counseling is all about.

Endnotes

  1. A. Matsakis, “Dual Trauma Couples,” Vet Center Voice 10 (6) (1989):3-5.
  2. Laura Davis, Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child (New York: HarperPerennial,1991) 81ff.
  3. Dennis Balcom, “The Interpersonal Dynamics and Treatment of Dual Trauma Couples,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 22 (4) (1996): 431-442.
  4. Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: Jason Aronson, 1978).
  5. Harville Hendrix, Keeping the Love You Find (New York: Pocket Books, 1992) 40-45.
  6. John Gottman and Neil Jacobson, When Men Batter Women: Insights Into Ending Abusive Relationships (New York: Simon Schuster,1998) 58ff.

Sources

“Anatomy of an Abusive Relationship,” Psychology Today 31 (2) (1998): 60-69.

J. Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

David Kalmuss, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Marital Violence,

Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 46 (2) (1984): 11-19.

Gus Kaufman, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Battered Women in Family

Therapists’ Offices; Male Privilege Colluding with Male Violence,” Journal of

Marital and FamilyTherapy 18 (3) (1992): 233-243.

Steven Stosny, Treating Attachment Abuse: A Compassionate Approach (New York: Springer Publications Inc., 1995).

About the Authors

Beverly Rodgers MS, LMFT and Thomas Rodgers MA, MHDL

They own and operate Rodgers Christian Counseling and The Institute for Soul-Healing Love in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are Certified Imago Therapists, and have 20 years of experience in the field.  They have appeared on various television and radio programs speaking on the subject of marriage, and present at regional and national conferences for organizations such The American Association of Christian Counselors and ACME. They conduct Soul Healers Workshops across the country, and facilitate training workshops for counselors and clergy. Their books include Soul-Healing Love: Ten Practical, Easy-to-Learn Techniques for Couples in Crisis and How to Find Mr. or Ms. Right: A Practical Guide for Finding a Soul Mate (Resource Publications Inc.) 

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