Linda J. Engelman, Marriage & Family Therapist
Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples
Not On the Same Page? Or Not Emotionally Engaged?
© 2017, by Linda J. Engelman, Licensed MFT
Do any of these sound familiar to you?
"We're just not on the same page", "we're just so different", "maybe we just have different interests", "we'll never see it the same way," etc.
For many couples, particularly after many years of marriage, this becomes a stuck point that leads them into therapy, and into discussions about "maybe we're just not meant to be together anymore."
Sure, sometimes, couples really outgrow each other, become less of "a good match." However, much of the time, the missing element is not a shared interest, or "getting on the same page." It's EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT.
Emotional Engagement unlocks something in relationships that has NOTHING TO DO WITH having the same viewpoint. It has NOTHING TO DO WITH "the facts." It doesn't require partners to agree on anything at all - EXCEPT for one thing: "What you feel and what you think (pause) matter to me."
Hmmm, let's explore this, because I know you're thinking that it can't just be that simple, and that in YOUR case, that's not what the problem is.
Let's look at a fictional couple, Marge and Fred, who represent a compilation of many of my clients over the years.
Marge and Fred have been growing apart for a long time. It started when the kids were little and Marge started spending more of her time running them to activities and attending to their needs, while Fred became more and more lonely. Sensing that he was just "in the way," Fred began to stay at work longer, to have a few drinks when he came home from work, and to fall asleep in front of the T.V. on the couch. The more he withdrew into these types of behaviors, the more Marge wrapped her life around the kids, filling her hours helping kids with homework, attending their music lessons, going on play dates, and then laying with them at night, collapsing with exhaustion.
As the years passed, and as Marge and Fred grew more deeply entrenched in their pattern, their behaviors became self-reinforcing. They each grew more impatient, less tolerant, and started blaming each other for every little thing that went wrong. They argued more, and spent no time together nurturing their relationship.
As the kids got older, and Marge had more free time, she started recognizing herself as unhappy, unfulfilled, depressed. There were things she wanted to do, and she didn't want to do them alone. She started fantasizing about finding a new, more engaged partner. This would lead her to get much more quickly irritated with Fred.
Fred too, acknowledges unhappiness, although up until now, he had developed a sort of apathy in order to stay married to the woman he had loved for so many years. Now he experiences his problem as a sort of existential crisis - starting to think about how many years he had left, what he wanted to do with those years, and whether he could imagine himself growing old with Marge.
On the day that Marge and Fred enter therapy, they tell me, "We're just not on the same page, it seems." I lean in and ask them what they mean...what does "not on the same page" mean? "We have different interests," they tell me, "and we disagree on so many things. We've been living like roommates for years, the kids are gone now, and we're each feeling restless about how we want to spend the coming years. We're thinking that maybe we just don't belong together anymore."
Marge and Fred's presenting problem is not uncommon. Many couples find themselves at this point, and begin to question their relationships. But what's missing for the two of them probably is not about "getting on the same page." What's missing is emotional engagement.
Until they started in therapy, Fred has never told Marge about his more vulnerable feelings of loneliness...how lonely and useless he felt when the kids were little and when Marge seemed to have no interest in him. She had made most of the parenting decisions, and he had felt like an outsider for so long. He had never, until now, shared with her how much he has numbed out over the years in order to protect himself from the pain of an ever-distant marriage. He felt that sharing any of this would mean he was weak. And he had a philosophy of "don't dwell in the past, or the negative," so that too precluded him from opening up.
Marge has never heard this from him before. She becomes tearful, both with sadness that he has felt this way for so long, and with excitement that Fred is finally showing vulnerability. At the same time, Marge shares that she has tried to tell Fred about her own loneliness, but it always fell flat.
If he was so lonely, why couldn't he have been more responsive to her?
After a few sessions, Fred feels safe enough to help Marge understand that her pleas for connection sounded more like criticism and anger. Her tone would scare him, her words felt like daggers, and so he would shut down and just wait for the "tornado" to blow over.
So, let's see: Fred was lonely for many years, and often felt like a failure as a husband and father, but didn't tell his wife. Instead he withdrew, leaving her feeling certain that he just had no interest in her. This would lead her to protest vehemently because she would often feel so scared that she didn't have the partner she thought she did. And THAT would lead him to withdraw further, because her protests felt like criticism, and he couldn't bear to feel any worse about himself than he already did. Imagine this cycle, over and over again, for 20+ years. Why of course they feel like "we're not on the same page."
Over the coming couple of months, as Fred and Marge revealed their innermost fears, and how each of them had felt like such a failure, you could see them visibly softening. In time, they were reaching for each other physically in session, in order to both give and receive comfort. What they were learning to do was to engage emotionally, and become responsive and attuned to each other. They were learning how to convey to one another "what you're feeling right now matters to me so much."
Nothing needed to be "fixed" or defended. The simple act of making soft eye contact, holding hands, being tearful together, was having a powerful effect.
You could hear them start to change their language with each other. It was common now to hear Marge say "tell me more, because I really need to understand that." And Fred would listen more attentively to Marge, no longer scared, and would say things like "I'm not sure how to make that better right now, but I'm so glad you're telling me." This wasn't about developing a communication skill… it was about learning what each of them needed in order to stay safe enough to remain attuned and empathic.
Marge and Fred quickly found out that becoming emotionally responsive would give them a "rush" or a "high" that reminded them of their early dating years. And so they started to do it more. At first, they needed prompting and help with the words. But soon, it began to flow more easily, and they were able to engage at home by themselves.
It's been many years now, and this couple, as with many others who have gone down this path, are still together. They nurture their relationship, both by spending time doing things they enjoy together, and also by turning to each other for that "high" of emotional engagement. They are now "on the same page," but they will laugh when they hear other couples use that expression because they know that it was never really about that anyway.
For more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, listen to Sue Johnson talk about How to Love Intentionally in the Age of Instant Gratification or read the book Hold Me Tight.
CALL for a confidential consultation: 925.295.1036
LINDA J. ENGELMAN
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFC#46255
Psychotherapy and Counseling Services for Individuals, Couples, & Families
Office Located in San Ramon, California