“Pay attention to your patterns. The way you learned to survive may not be the way you want to continue to live. Heal and shift.”
- Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis
As a REBT-based counselor, I believe that the most essential task in REBT-based couples counseling is not to simply resolve a couple’s communication deficiencies, but rather to identify, challenge, and transform any underlying irrational beliefs and attitudes that are responsible for relational upset. Irrational beliefs are rooted in stubbornly-held demands and unrealistic expectations which generally result in the development of relationship dysfunction, because the consequence of irrational thinking is unhealthy negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, hurt, guilt, shame, embarrassment, problematic jealousy, envy, and anger, as well the development of unhelpful maladaptive behaviors, such as avoidance, withdrawal, combativeness, and not taking care of oneself. It is important to note that in REBT, we view anger as an unhealthy, dysfunctional, and useless emotion that has a severe negative impact on relationships, as well as productivity within counseling. Furthermore, the presence of anger is usually indicative of it masking a deeper unhealthy negative emotion, such as anxiety, depression, and hurt. Anger undermines our relationship goals, as it robs us of the ability to think rationally and behave adaptively to the degree that we are capable of compromise, which is vital to any healthy relationship.
In essence, we all have desired criteria within relationships that we are willing to negotiate on, and other areas where we will stand firm. As a REBT-based couples counselor, I help each partner decipher what truly is a non-negotiable area for them personally, versus where they can fairly negotiate and compromise with the other. To do this, we firstly distinguish unhealthy relational disturbance from healthy relational dissatisfaction. In my experience, when couples first seek out counseling, both disturbance and dissatisfaction are present, and therefore we firstly focus on identifying, disputing, and replacing their irrational beliefs and attitudes behind their disturbance, and once successful, we transition our focus to their dissatisfaction.
To understand relational disturbance, we want to also understand relational dissatisfaction. Relational dissatisfaction is the consequence of one or both partners essentially not receiving enough of what they desire from their partner and/or from their relationship. Relational disturbance occurs when one or both partners become emotionally disturbed regarding their dissatisfaction. Disturbed or unhealthy emotions (such as the ones that I discussed in the above paragraphs) are the result of irrational thinking, and these emotions generally undermine their abilities to utilize skills that are essential to healthy relationships, such as effective communication, adaptive problem-solving strategies, and the ability to fairly negotiate in order to alleviate dissatisfaction. Furthermore, when one or both partners are emotionally disturbed about their relational dissatisfaction, they typically behave in ways that are self-sabotaging and relationship-defeating, which only serve to further undermine their goals, by reinforcing disturbance and perpetuating dissatisfaction. As a couples counselor, when I observe a deficiency in the presence of essential skills required for sustaining healthy relationships, I focus our sessions on helping both partners to develop and practice effective communication, problem-solving, and negotiating abilities; however, this is only helpful for couples who are experiencing dissatisfaction without disturbance. For couples who are already in the disturbance stage of their relationship, it is most effective to address each partners’ individual cognitive, emotive, and behavioral challenges responsible for causing their disturbance, prior to helping them cultivate practical solutions for relational dissatisfaction. It can be quite helpful to note that:
Many couples misdiagnose their own problems by believing that their issues are related to a deficiency in communication skills; however, their communicative challenges are a consequence of their irrational beliefs, unhealthy emotions, and unhelpful behaviors.
As a reminder, irrational beliefs in REBT are demandingness, awfulizing/catastrophizing, frustration intolerance, and global evaluations of worth (i.e. depreciation) of self, others, and life in general. Therefore, the rational alternatives of these irrational patterns of thought are:
· Desiring (vs. demanding, musturbating, and shoulding)
· Rating as bad or anti-awfulizing (vs. concluding that something bad or less than ideal equates to something entirely awful, i.e. it is the absolute end of the world)
· Tolerating frustration and discomfort(vs. frustration and discomfort intolerance: believing you cannot withstand something that is painful or uncomfortable, even though you are very much capable doing so)
· Accepting the worth of something or someone as a complex and fallible person or circumstance, even if you dislike a particular facet of them (vs. condemning or depreciating the entire value or worth of something or someone due to one aspect)
Remember, rational thinking within life and our intimate relationships leads to strong, yet healthy negative emotions such as concern (vs. anxiety), sadness (vs. depression), disappointment (vs. hurt), dislike/annoyance/frustration (vs. anger and rage), remorse (vs. guilt), regret (vs. embarrassment) sorrow (vs. shame), and non-problematic jealousy and envy (vs. problematic jealousy and envy). Unlike unhealthy negative emotions, strong healthy negative emotions often serve as motivation for both partners to take flexible, constructive, and adaptive action towards profoundly improving their relationship (if both partners desire to remain together) and/or making the rational decision to part ways, but to do so in an amicable and helpful manner.
In REBT, we believe that unrealistic relationship myths and significant incompatibilities are the two major factors that lead to relational dissatisfaction. Unrealistic relationship myths typically idealize and romanticize the reality of intimate relationships by inaccurately portraying what partners can expect from one another and from romantic partnership in general.
Some of the most common relationship myths are:
· Being in love = a great sex life
· We will always feel romantic love throughout the entirety of our relationship
· My partner will always know what my desires are without me expressing them
· Good sex = spontaneous sex
· I will not ever experience disappointment, frustration, or sadness in a healthy relationship
· My partner is responsible for building up my self-esteem and self-worth
· My partner will heal my pain from previous relationships and/or prior traumatic experiences
· My partner will always accept my poor behavior, always be on my side, always be loyal, and always love me – no matter how poorly I behave
Through REBT, once we identify, dispute, and replace irrational beliefs with rational alternatives (this is done in the disturbance phase), we then challenge cognitive distortions and relational myths in this dissatisfaction phase, which helps us to begin formulating practical solutions tailored to each individual partner, as well as their shared relationship. Together with my clients, our collective goal is to assess the reality of these myths in comparison with our actual relational experiences, because in all probability this will exhibit that the above relational myths (as idealistic as they are) are not representative of realistic relational expectations.
In addition to providing clarity regarding relationship myths, I also believe it is vital to acknowledge the role that incompatibility plays in relational dissatisfaction. Incompatible partners can be the result of two people entering into a committed relationship, prior to fully and authentically knowing one another; however, incompatibility may also exist between partners that knew each other well at the onset of their relationship, yet one or both of them have developed a significantly different perspective throughout the progression of their relationship. Regardless of the source and degree of incompatibility, throughout the couples counseling process, I support both partners in compassionately learning whether their incompatibility with one another is too profound to overcome (which can happen when incompatibility exists in highly important areas of the relationship that are non-negotiable for one or both partners), as well as learning if both partners can use respectful couple-negotiation strategies to reconstruct roles, responsibilities, and expectations within the relationship with the shared goal of successfully and happily moving forward together.
I truly believe in the power of REBT to facilitate both individuals and couples in learning how to take emotional and behavioral responsibility of our own lives, the role we play within our intimate relationships, and the belief we have within ourselves and our innate ability to transform our cognitive, emotive, behavioral, and relational patterns into ones that are rational, healthy, and helpful! Whether you are single and wondering why you seem to repeat dysfunctional patterns within your dating life, feeling stuck in a marriage that you no longer recognize, or merely looking to develop healthier strategies for relating to your partner, I hope this introduction into REBT-based individuals, couples, and marriage counseling has helped you to think of your relationship in new ways and provide you with a relational skillset that will empower you within your life and your relationship!
Through REBT, I help couples to identify, dispute, and replace their individual relational disturbances, as well as to learn effective communication, problem-solving, and negotiating strategies to significantly increase relational satisfaction. In counseling, we address and combat each partner’s worst-case scenarios pertaining to their partner or their relationship, and I facilitate them with efficiently dealing with and managing these fears in an adaptive, functional, and powerful manner. In doing this, couples are equipped to relate to one another from a rational perspective, which helps partners who are truly not compatible to feel more confident and at peace with their decision to part ways, as well as helps couples who desire to stay together to do so because they want to be together, and not because of fear or obligation. Afterall, the essence of REBT is to:
Live NOT to prove yourself, but to enjoy yourself!