How do you heal your wounded relationship? Get to the core.
Working as a professional counselor for over 15 years, I have had the opportunity to learn from my work with countless couples. Over the course of three articles, I’m going to share the most important things I’ve taken away from this work, the most critical aspects of healing wounded relationships.
The first step is the bedrock of relationship repair. In couples counseling, I call it “getting to the core.” The tricky part about doing it is, just like reaching the bedrock of the planet Earth, getting down to that firm foundation upon which to rebuild takes some sweat equity. Getting to the core is hard work because it almost always gets complicated by power struggles, fear of vulnerability, and surface issues. Allow me to explain these complicating factors before we really get to the meat of what core issues are and why it is imperative to work on them.
In relationships, power struggles are predictable and normal. These occur especially in the later phase of relationship development, after the romantic stage. Couples know they’re in the power struggle phase when it dawns on them that “the honeymoon is over.” This phase can be fleeting if managed well. Or it can last years, ultimately strangling the life out of the union. Regardless, is it important to identify power struggles and begin to dig beneath them. Because, guess what? Core issues fuel power struggles.
Another difficulty with getting to the core is that, once there, couples discover how vulnerable it feels. It can be scary. Questions surface like, “what if when I explain the core issue, the one that is so vulnerable and scary for me, my partner isn’t able to meet my needs?” Sometimes, in response to these fears, people avoid the core issue and instead cycle through unpleasant, repetitive bouts of “surface issue” fights.
Surface issues are the subject of annoying fights that typically happen again and again – and usually over seemingly trivial things. These are the problems couples usually discuss in therapy and end up paying their therapists a lot of money to try to fix. But the reality is this: if a couple only addresses the surface issues and never gets to the core issues that fuel them, it is only a matter of time before a new surface issue will pop up. The good news is that when you get past the surface issues and work through fear and vulnerability…once you get to the core, everything can change in healing, transformative ways.
Let me give you a simple example of surface issues and core issues using a fictitious couple, Trixie and Bob. Bob and Trixie go to their therapist because they are fed up with each other. Trixie complains that Bob never helps her around the house. Bob seems to think he helps her all the time and can’t understand why she gets so angry with him. This is the surface issue.
Typically, therapists will explore the problem in more detail and get specifics on what type of help Trixie wants and what type of help Bob believes he is giving. Some therapists may help the couple make a chore chart, use communication skills training to clearly make requests and ensure the request is properly heard. They teach couples how to reinforce each other’s positive behaviors with expressions of gratitude and encouragement. All of this is excellent work – but not if it’s done in the wrong order, without ever addressing the nature of the power struggle and the core issue.
If Trixie and Bob do the above-referenced interventions without getting to the core problem, they may feel relief for a time. But the next time Trixie asks Bob to the do the dishes and he doesn’t get around to it because he washed her car that day - isn’t that good enough? - they will continue in their power struggle.
So what are core problems, then? Core issues can take on many forms and differ from couple to couple. The core issue that got triggered for Trixie when Bob failed to help her in the way she needed – with those dishes - is actually one of emotional safety and vulnerability. His unresponsiveness to her need for help made her feel unworthy of help, invisible, not good enough. This feels very uncomfortable and so she used her anger to get Bob’s attention in an effort to make him see how important it was to her and also to make herself feel more powerful and less dependent. The core issue for Bob is also one of emotional safety and vulnerability. It was scary for him to have her so angry over something seemingly so insignificant. He didn’t realize the dishes were a surface issue upon a sensitive core issue for his wife. He felt confused, attacked, unsafe to make a move any which way.
Trixie and Bob’s are simple examples of core issues that need attention. When ignored, these unmet needs make staying in an otherwise committed relationship begin to feel unsafe, vulnerable and lonely. Unaddressed core issues of safety, security, worthiness, vulnerability, belonging, power and control polarize otherwise loving and caring couples, keeping them emotionally distant and afraid of the emotional connection they once freely enjoyed.
In the next article we will revisit Trixie and Bob’s core issues and learn about vicious cycles. I will also explain how to step out of vicious cycles, and give how-to tips for effectively addressing the core issues. In the final article I will explain how to remain conscious of core issues, how to nurture relationships, and maintain the emotional growth and increased connection that is created when couples “get to the core.”
Editor's Note: Jennifer Hume is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Addiction Professional practicing in North Palm Beach, FL. Her private counseling practice is B.E.A.C.H. Counseling, LLC where she teaches her clients to Breathe, Engage, Accept, Create and Heal. Jennifer can be reached via her website at www.JenniferHume.com or by calling 561-951-0879. Jennifer's StayMarriedFlorida profile can be viewed by clicking here.