Another glimpse of the middle ground.
Patricia and Annie argue about money frequently. Annie insists that Patricia is irresponsible with their money and lays blame for their problems moderate debt squarely on her partner. According to Patricia, Annie worries constantly and unnecessarily and cannot enjoy their life together. Patricia accuses Annie of being a killjoy; Annie complains that Patricia’s spending is, if anything, increasing her anxiety levels and making it harder for herself.
Annie and Patricia have gotten into a destructive secondary pattern that can lead to a separation; they avoid making plans or spending time together, which reduces the frequency of their arguments but does nothing to solve their differences. They have become isolated from each other and fearful about the future of their relationship. By the time I meet with them, this pattern of avoidance has become more of a threat to their relationship than their original (ﬁnancial) problems.
By working on communication exercises together, and through working at envisioning a lower anger level in the relationship, Patricia and Annie gradually tipped the communication balance away from avoidance and toward acknowledgment and understanding. Through their work, they recapture the element of tenderness that both had feared, during their angriest moments, would be unrecoverable.
With a modicum of goodwill and trust restored to the relationship, they were able to speak to each other about their respective ﬁnancial concerns without becoming adversarial. As the work proceeded, Patricia gained new insight into Annie’s anxieties about money. Where she had felt resentful that Annie treated her as a child, incapable of making responsible decisions about money, she came to see that Annie because of a history of ﬁnancial and emotional instability growing up with two alcoholic parents felt helpless and childlike herself when faced with having to deal with even moderate debt. In other words, Patricia learned that being anxious about money was not something that Annie willfully inﬂicted on their life together but was an issue to which Annie was personally vulnerable. In fact, Patricia began to understand once middle ground connections were forged that Annie needed Patricia’s help in dealing with this issue. Patricia’s ability to shift from a challenging to a nurturing stance helped lay the groundwork for a new and deeper level of trust and understanding to emerge between the two. They came to agreements about how to budget more collaboratively. In the end, money ceased to be a central obstacle in their lives together and having been able to listen to and integrate each other’s concerns about this very important issue strengthened their love.
Rage, impatience, self-righteousness will shut down the middle ground. Curiosity and a willingness to work on challenges (rather than avoid them) open it up. The middle ground is not a measure of whether a couple has challenges to face it’s formed as a function of how couples react to the challenges they face.
This article was adapted with permission from The Power Of Middle Ground: A Couples Guide to Renewing Your Relationship copyright © 2009 by Marty Babits, LCSW, BCD (New York, NY) Pometheus Books 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherts, New York 14228-2119 Marty Babits, LCSW, BCD (New York, NY), is a psychotherapist in private practice and a member of the Executive Supervisory Committee of FACTS (the Family and Couples Treatment Service) of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.
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