When a couple seeks therapy, in most cases, the love is still there.
At the very least, the two partners still like each other.
But what if one partner seems to have nothing but contempt for the other?
This session was inspired by a question from “Gottman Method Therapy” Facebook group member “Mary”, a clinical therapist based in Canada.
Mary is working with a heterosexual married couple. The wife has cited flaws in her husband’s character as the root of their problems — in short, she doesn’t think he’s “manly” enough.
Cases like these can be challenging for both the couple and the therapist.
It’s not as though you can wave a magic wand and change someone’s personality. If the issue truly stems from individual character traits, where do you even begin?
Read on for more expert advice from the Gottman Method Therapy group.
“He’s Too Nice”
The couple in question has been together for three years.
From the husband’s perspective, he can’t see any problems, either with his wife or their relationship.
On the other hand, the wife feels her husband is “too nice.”
Interestingly, this trait was what attracted her to him in the first place. The problems began when she realized he is as kind to everybody as he is to her.
Simple things like him being courteous towards others in public will spark huge arguments.
The woman says she feels like “the man in the relationship” and that she must make all the tough choices because her husband is too weak to be an objective decision-maker.
This is a real dilemma — a client who wants their chosen life partner to change a fundamental aspect of their character.
Can it be done? Should it be done?
And if the answer to both those questions is yes, how can it be done?
Let’s get into it.
“I’m Better Than Him”
Mary’s take on the situation is that the woman feels she is “better than” her husband.
In these cases, you can be reasonably confident that what is coming from the partner who feels superior is not merely criticism — it’s contempt.
When criticism becomes contempt, a couple moves into a situation where one partner elevates themselves above the other and looks down on them as a lesser being.
You may remember from Level 1 that an effective solution to this kind of problem is encouraging the partner who feels superior to not focus on what they don’t want but what they do want — to talk about themselves and their needs without putting their partner down in the process.
However, in this particular case, that would probably be little more than a band-aid.
This woman feels her husband is weak and that she is having to overcompensate and be strong for both of them — a situation she considers untenable.
Delving into the woman’s history, Mary established a pattern of differences between her and the men in her life, relating to both her family and previous relationships.
With her most recent choice of partner, she had actively tried to find someone who was the opposite of the men she had dated before.
But now, he isn’t making her happy because he doesn’t fit the image of what a man is in her mind’s eye — an image that has formed over time based on her previous experiences with men.
Meta-Emotion and the Gottman Method
In cases like this, meta-emotion often comes into play.
You might remember, meta-emotion is how we feel about feelings.
Many individuals have preconceived notions about certain feelings, such as anger, sadness, happiness, and pride. These prepackaged ideas tend to stem from childhood experiences.
Back in the seventies, psychologists devised the Ainsworth-Strange Situation Test, which examined the relationships between children and their caregivers.
Although it would be considered unethical by today’s standards, the experiment taught us a great deal about issues of abandonment and attachment.
It also demonstrated how parents can project their own meta-emotions onto their children and that these feelings often follow the child into adulthood.
With this couple, Mary has established a mismatch between how each partner feels about and reacts towards weakness.
The husband is an emotional person who frequently becomes upset during sessions.
On the flip side, the wife is very stoic and will criticize her husband’s vulnerability.
This dynamic is highly indicative of a meta-emotion mismatch.
In situations like this, it can be beneficial to conduct what the Gottman Method refers to as a “meta-emotion interview.”
A meta-emotion interview involves getting your clients to “unpack” their ingrained preconceptions towards certain emotions and asking them relevant questions about their upbringing.
With this couple, we could ask the woman how her parents would demonstrate weakness when she was a child and how they would respond to each other’s displays of vulnerability.
At this stage, she stops projecting her feelings onto her husband and takes ownership of the conversation — now it’s about her.
We could then move on to question how her parents would behave towards her when she felt weak.
This line of questioning can help you deconstruct an individual’s meta-emotional patterns. You can then take what you’ve learned and relate it to their feelings towards their partner.
In this case, we would be looking for similarities between how the wife was treated by her caregivers, how they treated each other, and the feelings she now has toward her husband.
Using the Gottman method, we are always looking for ways to make things dyadic — so the couple is interacting with each other rather than conversing through you.
Once you identify the questions that need to be asked, instruct the partners to ask them of each other, rather than individually questioning them yourself.
Couples must be able to have this conversation openly and honestly without criticizing each other or becoming defensive — two very natural and common reactions to this kind of dialogue.
Working dyadically can help to establish that the partners get where the other is coming from.
Doing this also helps empower the couple to interact in a healthier way at home when you’re not there to mediate between them.
The Concept of Carrying Capacity
Through these methods, you can identify an individual’s “carrying capacity” for certain emotions, meaning how much of it they can tolerate — in this case, the wife’s carrying capacity for weakness.
Fundamentally, there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer as to how much emotion we should or shouldn’t display, irrespective of what that emotion is.
In conversations where one partner is denouncing the level of emotion their partner displays, you should endeavor to close that dialogue down as quickly as possible.
Shift the focus onto the carrying capacity each person has for certain emotions, both at home and outside the home.
Ultimately, there can be no solution for cases where the level of emotion displayed by one partner is simply too much for the other to bear.
What we want to try and achieve is an open, honest, healthy dialogue between the two partners about the problematic emotion without acting it out.
The goal is to help them understand each other’s emotions and meta-emotions better. This increases the carrying capacity for this emotion.
It doesn’t usually happen overnight. In most cases, making this work for your couple will take at least three sessions.
If you’re struggling to help a couple work through issues relating to emotions and meta-emotions, it may be a good idea to change course and try some of the methods we’ve discussed here today.
We have invited Mary to return and follow up on this case, so stay tuned to the “Gottman Method Therapy” Facebook group. If you have any comments or questions — or you would like us to cover a unique case you’re working on right now — feel free to join the group and answer the entry questions!