A Unique Approach to Couple Work by Wim Kuit
Would you agree that the demands of life have never before placed as much pressure on marriage and couple relationships as in the 21st century? As if the stresses of the economy, the power crisis and crime weren’t enough, many couples have to manage what are known as psychological vulnerabilities, often with little support and guidance.
These vulnerabilities are “emotional sore spots” that are carried into the couple relationship from past experiences and other current contexts (such as friendships, family relations and work), where varying degrees of distress, emotional pain and sometimes trauma have been experienced. Even the most loving of families or well-intentioned friendships cannot accommodate perfectly our every need and expectation. Learning to deal with and survive the inevitable hurts and disappointments of life is fortunately an important part of healthy psychological development.
However, we all tend to become “hyper-sensitive” to certain experiences from which we tend to want protection. Some of us may be particularly attuned to being betrayed, while others may struggle more with criticism or rejection, trying to avoid these things at all costs. Whatever our particular sensitivities may be, we developed survival strategies early on to protect ourselves from re-experiencing that which makes us feel vulnerable and under threat. Some of us learnt to withdraw from others or deny problems, while others may have found that displays of anger provided protection. And there are many other such strategies. Survival strategies are the best means we found in the past to create secure and fulfilling relationships
Problems arise when these vulnerabilities and survival strategies start preventing us from experiencing open, collaborative and trusting relationships with our life partners. Although survival strategies may have been successful in the past by helping us sustain secure bonds, they can become “outdated” and harmful to the growth of relationships. Many couples can report times when disconnection, defensiveness and power struggles seemed to dominate their otherwise special bond.
The E-vulnerability Cycle (see Figure 1 below) is a unique approach to resolving relationship conflict that helps couples identify how their vulnerabilities and survival strategies tend to result in relational impasses. A relational impasse occurs when a couple’s very attempt to deal with escalating conflict becomes part of the problem. The E-vulnerability Cycle shows how a relational impasse is the result of a mutual activation of a couple’s respective vulnerabilities (sore spots). The paradox here is that it is our survival strategies that tend to activate our partners’ vulnerabilities. As shown in Figure 1, each partner’s way of protecting themselves is what stimulates the vulnerability of the other. A vicious cycle ensues where each partner’s behavior keeps triggering emotional pain, and therefore defensiveness and disconnection from the other. The couple feels stuck and often helpless to make a change.
This is where couples counselling with the E-vulnerability Cycle can provide assistance. The counselling process helps a couple identify their vulnerabilities and the counter-productive effects of their survival strategies. The couple’s unique E-vulnerability Cycle diagram is developed in the context of personality style**, family of origin issues, and socio-cultural influences. Couples are invited to critically re-evaluate the factors that sustain their survival strategies and to develop more constructive responses for managing their vulnerabilities. Once the relational impasse has been deconstructed, the counselling process can celebrate and build on the virtuous threads in the tapestry of the couple’s love relationship.
** The next article posted by Wim Kuit will reveal the survival strategies, vulnerabilities and values of 9 distinct personal styles outlined by a revolutionary personality profiling system.