Searching for deeper feelings

Lots of couples come to counseling because they’re pissed off. The anger often seems to be about a lot of things, a thousand paper cuts, the rough edges and strains of life. But it typically runs deeper, and is closer to rage than it is to irritation or frustration.

My job is to go down into that rage with my couples. And then my job is to go even deeper.

When I was a kid, the swimming pool at the Y had a deep-end depth of nine terrifying feet. I remember the scare and the thrill of plunging deep enough to touch my feet on the bottom, and then the desperate desire to swim back up to the surface as fast as I could. The water was a deeper blue down at that end, and the bottom was as far away from the safe, ordinary confines of my childhood life as anything I could imagine.

Now that I’m an adult working with adults on their relationships, I think about that pool. It’s a metaphor for the depth of their emotional life with one another. My job is to fearlessly plunge into that pool, and to take them with me, into the rage below the surface, and beneath that rage to the bottom of the pool, the quiet, blue waters of sadness and fear that are really what their conflict is all about.

One assumption I make—it’s an assumption that has served me well—is that most people are sad and scared. Sad about the loss and abandonment and rejection they have suffered, scared that they will never be able to connect with their beloved and get what they truly want and need.

I welcome their anger: it is valid and understandable and important. And there are times in therapy when someone has risen up in might to express their anger in a way that revolutionized their marriage, for the good. But that rarely happens if no one is aware of and responsive to the sadness and fear that lurks beneath that anger, in the cold, quiet, blue waters in the depths of their hearts.

Couples therapy requires “adulting” from all of us: from you, the client, who will be exploring the depths of your feelings, desires, and dreams; and from me, the therapist, who can’t help you if I stay safe and secure in the shallow end.

If you are sad and scared, I can go there with you—with both of you—and we can find our way through those waters.