6 Reasons Couples Get Stuck

Vector silhouette of couple.

The drama in the relationship of so many couples we see in therapy revolves around a powerful struggle between partners that plays out over months, years and even decades. These couples come to our counseling offices because they are stuck. They have not found a way to exit from their struggle to a beautiful dance. It’s as if some time ago, while holding hands, they walked into quicksand. Ever since, when either or both made a move, they sunk a little deeper.

Here are 6 reasons couples get stuck:

  1. We all have deeply rooted needs to feel we are important and special to others with whom we belong, that they care for our hurts, and protect our well-being.We naturally depend on our partners to fulfill these needs.
  2. We make moves to adjust our situation when we’re not certain we’re important or cared for, or when we’re feeling deprived of attention, caring and protection. The particular moves we make are deeply rooted in unconscious, engrained experiences during childhood development.
  3. Our moves impact our partner a great deal more than they impact our friends and colleagues, and a great deal more than we realize. When one partner makes a move, it pulls the other partner into making a countermove – either immediately, or after the impact builds up over time.
  4. We naturally and automatically adapt to each other’s moves to protect ourselves. This means that even when our partner behaves differently, e.g., in a clearer, softer, and more vulnerable way, we don’t perceive them as acting differently enough to take in a change is happening. When we don’t register a change, we don’t act any differently, and that prevents our partner from getting the positive feedback they need to continue their different move.
  5. Many people believe they’ve tried everything, exhausting all the moves they can think of to make a difference in their relationship. It’s extremely disheartening when nothing works. In therapy, these partners learn that everything they tried came with the same feelings of frustration and resentment, and landed on their partner with the same, negative message.
  6. Our only known alternative is to shut down and not move at all. This is equivalent to giving up, a position we can’t maintain very long without serious consequences to our health and well-being. Unfortunately, this also means many of us are in a lose-lose situation. We do nothing or end up feeling even more stuck in relational quicksand.

When partners are stuck in struggles, each partner continues to feel deprived of the love, acceptance, caring and security they long for. It is natural at that point for partners to wonder “who is to blame?” Inside, each partner criticizes themselves, impacting their own self-esteem, and judges their partner, perhaps thinking their partner is “lazy,” “uncaring,” incapable,” “bad,” “cold”, “mean” or even “narcissistic.”

How do couples get out of these stuck places, regain a sense of their own personal goodness and relearn to trust in each other? Partners get out when they understand at an intellectual and at an emotional level these three truths:

  1. The moves we make to get our needs met are completely understandable and valid. So are the moves our partner makes. Each person’s moves are equally valid within the background context of their relationship history.
  2. The moves we make deeply hurt and (perhaps unconsciously) frighten our partner. Likewise, their moves deeply hurt and frighten us. Both partners are equally hurt and frightened, though they might experience and respond to those feelings in very different ways.
  3. We make the moves we do, and we are so strongly impacted by our partner’s moves, because we are so very important to each other. Ironically, when it seems we don’t matter, or aren’t cared for, when our partner seems distant or unavailable to us, or when our partner seems resentful or angry with us, its often because deep down our partner is feeling the disconnection as well.

Because couples naturally adapt to being stuck in quicksand together, often it takes another person (such a couple therapist) to help them relax, slow down and safely explore what’s going on long enough to experience these truths for themselves. If you’re stuck in a power struggle, find someone who can help you understand the attachment significance to the moves you and your partner make. Therapists who use Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) have significant training on how to help you live life feeling valued, accepted, cared for, and protected by your partner. You can find a local EFT therapist at the International Center for Excellence in EFT at iceeft.com.