NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Relationships: "Acting In" Instead of "Acting Out"

Many people who are unhappy in their relationship don't know how to communicate with their partner.  Rather than "acting in" by addressing the problems within the relationship, they "act out" by cheating with other people or finding other diversions outside of the relationship (see my article:  Infidelity: Married, Bored and Cheating on Social Media).

"Acting In" Your Relationship Instead of "Acting Out"

Obviously, the infidelity only adds to the couples' problems and, even if the other spouse is willing to forgive the cheating and find a way to salvage the relationship.  The infidelity then becomes one more hurdle for the couple to overcome (see my article:  Coping With Secrets and Lies in a Relationship).

The following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases to protect confidentiality, is an example of this dynamic as well as how couples counseling can help:

Dan and Peg:
Dan and Peg were together for five years when they came for couples counseling.

While Dan thought Peg was asleep, he began sending sexually explicit texts to a woman that he met online.

Initially, Dan tried to make light of these texts.  He told Peg that he never met this woman before--he only knew her online, so he didn't consider the texts to be "cheating."

This hurt and angered Peg even more, so Dan tried to apologize, but Peg wasn't ready to hear his apology, especially after Dan tried to make light of his behavior (see my article:  Trying to Decide What to Do After You Discover That Your Spouse Cheated on You).

"Acting In" Your Relationship Instead of "Acting Out"

Peg asked Dan to move out of their home until she could sort out her feelings.

So, when they began couples counseling, Dan was renting an apartment nearby on a month to month basis, hoping that Peg would eventually allow him to come back home.

"Acting In" Your Relationship Instead of "Acting Out"

Dan wanted to reconcile their relationship but, even though she missed him, Peg wasn't sure.  She wondered if she could trust that he wasn't having sex with other women or that he wouldn't send women sexually explicit emails in the future.

On the one hand, she wasn't sure that she could ever trust Dan again (see my article:  When Trust Breaks Down in a Relationship: Lies of Omission).

But, on the other hand, she knew she loved Dan and she didn't want to just throw away four years of marriage without trying to save the relationship (see my article:  Your Relationship: Should You Stay or Should You Go?).

The first session was so contentious that we had to have individual sessions for a while.

The individual sessions gave me an opportunity to explore each of their motivations for being in couples counseling, their family backgrounds, their relationship history prior to being together, help each of them to explore their feelings before and after the infidelity was discovered, and find out if there were any other instances of cheating on either of their parts.

I also wanted to know how serious Dan was about changing his behavior.

I made it clear to each of them what I tell all couples:  We can't do couples counseling if one or both of them were having affairs or acting out with other people.

Each of them had very different family histories.

Peg came from a close knit family.  There was a real emphasis on communication.  When Peg and her siblings were at home, the family had regular family meetings to talk about whatever issues there might be.

Dan came from a family where family members tended to be estranged from one another.  His parents each lead separate lives, having separate friendships and taking separate vacations.  Dan often wondered how his parents ever got together.  And certainly no one ever discussed their feelings.

So even though Dan could be gregarious and fun, he never learned how to talk about his feelings.  Even though he loved his wife and told her often, the thought of talking about his most vulnerable feelings was foreign and frightening to him.  He wasn't even sure if he knew himself what he lead him to begin texting a woman he met online.

One thing was clear:  He wanted to do whatever he could to save his marriage and regain Peg's trust.  He also denied any prior infidelity and he was adamant that he cut off communication with the other woman.

When I started meeting them as a couple, I facilitated their communication with one another.  At first, Dan struggled to identify his feelings and express them.

I asked each of them to keep a journal where they reflected on their feelings about the relationship.

Peg had kept a journal in the past, so this came more easily to her.

But Dan struggled more.  So, we had a few individual sessions where I worked with him to identity his emotions by focusing on his body.

Since the body holds onto emotions, including unconscious emotions, sensing into the body is a good way to identify what's going on (see my article:  The Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

It's is a very individual process and the same sensations can be related to different emotions for different people.

After a few sessions, Dan was able to sense into his body and identify basic emotions:  If his stomach was tight, this meant that he was anxious.  A tightness in his arms meant that he was angry, and so on.

Gradually, over time, Dan was able to identify more emotions in a more nuanced way.

Along the way, Dan was able to open up more with Peg to express his feelings.  He was able to say, with some difficulty, that he had become bored in their relationship and he had initially thought that texting a woman he met online would relieve his boredom.  Now, he realized how shortsighted and damaging this had been.

Dan realized that what he had initially saw as a "harmless flirtation" online was a form of "acting out."  He also became aware that, like many other people, boredom put him at risk for wanting to "act out" and he needed to be more self aware and to communicate with Peg.

It wasn't easy for Peg to hear that Dan had become bored with their relationship, but she listened.  They were also able to talk about what they could do rekindle their relationship.

By the time they completed couples counseling, they were much closer.  They were communicating better.

They were also rebuilding trust, and they both expressed feeling hopeful about their relationship (see my article:  Learning to Trust Again After the Affair).

"Acting In" Instead of "Acting Out" in Your Relationship

A few months later, when they returned for a follow up appointment, they were much happier.  Rather than either of them "acting out," they were "acting in" by continuing to communicate with one another.

"Acting out" in a relationship, whether it involves infidelity or other breaches of trust, often occurs because one or both people lack self awareness.

If you grew up in a home where there was little or no communication, expressing emotions can feel foreign, uncomfortable and even dangerous.

Without self awareness about how you feel about yourself and your relationship, communication suffers and the relationship suffers.

If you're having difficulty identifying what you feel, the mind-body connection provides a way to discover your feelings.

"Acting in" means that, rather than looking for diversions outside of the relationship, you're addressing your problems within the relationship.

In this particular article, the couple decided to stay together, but many couples also decide to split up.  What's best for you is a very personal decision.

Reading an article where there is a summary of a composite case can make it seem like working out this type of problem is easy but, obviously, it's not.

Couples therapy can help you and your partner to learn to communicate and to strengthen your relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and your partner are having problems in your relationship, don't wait until it's too late to salvage your relationship.

By seeking help with an experience mental health professional who works with couples, you can get the help you need to have a happier relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.