Anxious Couples

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by Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D., MFCC

Freud (1924) wrote that anxiety or dread can develop into tremendous intensity and as a
consequence can cause the maddest precautions. When treating anxious couples in marital
therapy, this intensity often reaches such levels and affects the therapist. He then reacts to that
anxiety based on many different motivations, one of which may be counter-transference. Anxiety
interferes with marital functioning and its intensity may even be the cause of marital conflict and
dissolution. If anxiety is such a powerful and destructive force in marriages, how can a therapist
deal with his own anxiety, when the fighting-intense couple spills their anxiety over into the
therapist's safe system?

Pearl and Lawrence suffered from marital disharmony and they sought marital therapy. During
their sessions their communications would always lead to a place of misunderstanding,
transference and projection. As their therapist made interpretations, the couple would seem to
make progress and yet in every session they would find a way to become enmeshed and regress.
They would take two steps forward and one back. It was as if they were magnetically drawn to
regress, fight and create excessive anxiety.

Their therapist found himself trying to resolve each little issue as it came up, only to have the
couple draw him down into their messy fusion. As he became more aggressive and directive in
the sessions, he realized that he was having emotional reactions to this couple. Before each
session he would take herbal stress relievers to keep himself calm and non-reactive. But the
couple would find new ways to raise anxiety levels. He. knew that he was counter-transferring
when he noticed his own raised anxiety levels following one of the sessions. He felt that it was
time to explore these reactions and to see how his past might be affecting this situation.

We shall call the therapist “Pablo” and these are a summary of Pablo's words during his own
session: "I feel all alone. I'm back watching my father and mother fight in the hallways of our
apartment. They are pulling on each other and they break a banister rail. I'm observing and
anticipating that my father is going to leave the house and never come back. It will be the end of
their marriage and the end of my family. My father will be gone and I will be left behind. They
can't resolve their differences and I'll be the one to suffer. In my early relationships with women,
I see myself re-enacting my parent's marriage. We pull on each other and it becomes physical
just like my mom and dad. They never let me see what was going on in their marriage. I wasn't
aware that something was wrong. I was the last to find out and then it was too late to do
anything. I wished I could have fixed their marriage, but I couldn't. It was hot up to me. It was up
to them.”

“My mother was a nervous woman and my dad reacted to it, just like this couple in front of me.
I'm seeing my parents all over again and I'm trying to figure out what's really going on. I idolized
my father. I worshipped him and I needed him there, in the house as my father and my mother's
husband. When I see Pearl and Lawrence fighting, I'm thrown back into being a helpless little
boy whose trying to save the family and get at the truth. I bring that with me into the session and
I'm not sure that these people want to be saved. She (Pearl) just does not want to be blamed or
held responsible for everybody else's reactions. She wants to be free of that responsibility. That's
it! I'm not responsible! That's what Pearl is saying and I'm not responsible for saving this or any
other relationship. In all my failed relationships, I've been trying to say, "I'm not responsible. I
didn't do it. It's not my fault. I'm innocent. Please stay mommy and daddy. I've been carrying the
cross, the burden too long. I've been weighted down with the curse of their marriage to long. It’s
time to let go and be at peace with myself."

At the end of the session, Pablo knew what to do in his next session with Pearl and Lawrence. He
was going to be more empathic and in tune with Pearl's highly repressed feelings. He understood
them and he would encourage her to express her need to not be held responsible for her family's
dilemma. He could now give her permission to be free of the burden of guilt and responsibility
that she had been carrying for her family's misfortune.


Marriage counseling requires language. Somebody has to talk and someone has to listen.
Language itself conveys a message and in disturbed relationships. Language conveys something
symbolic, a substitute for something that is not apparent or ever known. The individual who is
communicating the message feels the reality of that message, but they may be out of touch with
its source. That's the stuff and its process of projection: a projected message feels real to the
sender and it is. To the receiver, the message sent is not fully received because there is no place
for it to fit. Something has been displaced, substituted and projected. The past has overtaken the
present and one can hardly differentiate or separate the past from the present.

Anxiety is the result. Messages sent from the sender feel real to that person and the ego insists on
defending that perception even though there is a gross distortion of time. What ensues is a battle
for present reality. Anxiety prohibits the clear perception of reality. So what is the resolution?

Each individual who is party to an anxious interchange needs to find within themselves the
origins of personal truth. This requires the necessity for recognizing that all or most messages
contain an unknown or unconscious message. The limbic system has its own take on something
that the neocortex may be unaware of. Therapy is the business of integrating and making
conscious that which is unconscious. As such, a clear perception of reality results without being
burdened with the past.

        Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D., MFCC, CCMHC, NCC * *
               * 818-882-7404

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