When the therapist asks individuals what has been happening in the relationship, they almost inevitably make comments loaded with judgment and implied diagnosis:
He doesn't care.
She is too nosy.
He can't give up control.
She's scared of everything.
Nothing is good enough for him.
Cold… mean… angry… sad… and so on.
Each designation, description, or word has meaning within a relationship or system may not be the same in another- in particular, the new or current relationship. The words used have meaning within a particular relationship between two people or a person and a family. "But family relationships are embedded within the wider discourses in society… systemic therapists… say we are constantly recreating our sense of self through interaction with others and with language, and the sense of a coherent 'me' is actually due to the fact that we interact repeatedly with familiar people and linguistic concepts. Language enters this debate by offering, through social discourse, new concepts that individuals and families pick and choose to form their current sense of identity" (Campbell, 1999, page 79). When a partner communicates with the other, there is often the false assumption that the meaning is clear between them. The individual often assumes a common foundation of experience and symbolism with the other person. Being "on time" for example may mean one cannot be late or else will risk getting into trouble. Being "on time" may mean being physically in the room or building at the designated time. To someone else, it means being there and ready to function. Hence, the person who is in the house on time at 6 pm and then spends the next 15 minutes putting his or her jacket away, checking e-mail, Facebook, and phone messages is not on time for the person who was on time at 6 pm ready to start dinner or leave the house. For one person being on time has a literal meaning- at 6 pm is at 6 pm. For another, it may mean being there at least 10 minutes early at 5:50pm or sometime around 6 pm give or take- usually take 15 minutes… or 20 minutes… or more. Being on time may be a physical, moral, and spiritual commitment to one person versus a vaguely desirable intention for another. That person intends to be on time… unless there's an interesting other option or more attractive compelling alternative.
Carrie-Anne cited case after incident after disappointment of Greg coming home late, being late to pick up kids, or late with birthday and anniversary cards and gifts. In contrast, Carrie-Anne was major league uptight according to Greg. What was the big deal if he was supposed to be home at 5pm so they could leave at 6pm, and he shows up at 5:05pm? Carrie-Anne snapped, "It was 5:08!" "No, it wasn't. It was about 5:05," responded Greg. "'About'- see, you don't even know what time it was," fumed Carrie-Anne. "Were we late? Huh, were we late to your mom's? No, we got there at 6," said Greg. "No we didn't. We got there at 6:09. And we had the appetizers!" Carrie-Anne said self-righteously. At least, she didn't add the final, "So there!" Greg rolled his eyes. And he did not say out loud, "What's the big deal?!' Was nine minutes enough of a reason to get so angry? The therapist often sees an intensity or reactivity that is not merited by the situation or circumstances. When an individual is asked about why it is so compelling… so overwhelming… so horrible that he or she has begun to find the relationship intolerable, often there is no answer. The individual repeats the feeling or belief as if they were self-evident. In a relationship, one or more individuals may bring vulnerabilities from family-of-origin experiences and other relationships. The sensitivity is created by prior injuries that cause reactivity and hurt to be readily ignited in the current relationship.
"Vulnerabilities may be the result of past traumatic events or chronic patterns in the individual's family of origin, prior relationships, or social context; they may stem from injuries within the history of the couple's relationship itself (Johnson, 1996); or they may be related to current major stresses or crises in the lives of one or both partners (Scheinkman, 1988; Walsh, 1998). Vulnerabilities may also derive from gender socialization, power inequities, or sociocultural traumas such as discrimination, poverty, marginalization, violence, social dislocation, or war-related experiences. Examples of vulnerabilities include experiences of loss, abandonment, abuse, betrayal, humiliation, injustice, rejection, or neglect, and feeling insecure, disempowered, unprotected, or inadequate" (Scheinkman and Fishbane, 2004, page 282). The "on time" conflict between Carrie-Anne and Greg comes from old vulnerabilities that anticipate risk and further injury. Carrie-Anne had a demanding father who dominated, intimidated, and controlled everyone in the family. A frequent provocation was not being late. He yelled and ranted at everyone in the family not to be late- to hurry up, stop dragging their feet… so they could get to church on time! Carrie-Anne reacted to Greg's perceived hurtful behavior automatically, as if getting to her mom's house was the same thing happening again. Many people unconsciously experience things as essentially the same as a previously stressful situation, or duplicating something from another relationship. In the heat of the argument, as Carrie-Anne's vulnerability is ignited by Greg being late, the wall between current meaning and old meaning vanished, or meanings overlapped despite the differences between the two sets of circumstances. The therapist should uncover what the overlap between meanings is to alleviate confusion, reduce pain, and minimize instinctual but problematic survival reactivity. Carrie-Anne's lack of cognitive insight that Greg's behavior triggered prompted her negative cycle of behaviors. It made her intensely reactive seeking to protect herself when she was not in any danger comparable to what she had experienced from her father. Greg was no innocent either however. Being late his Greg's passive-aggressive resistance to being controlled by Carrie-Anne. Passive-aggressive behavior was all he could muster against his emotionally and physically volatile parents when he was younger. Aggravating them with incomplete compliance, slow response, feigned ignorance, and academic achievement was his only way to risk fighting back. Greg did not have insight to his own behavior either. Therapy seeks to break the partners' mutual ignorance through fostering cognitive insight.