3 Fatal Mistakes That Adults Make in Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling: A Tustin Therapist’s View

Share on

In today’s article, I want to give you an insider’s view on the 3 fatal mistakes that adults make in couples therapy or marriage counseling.

A Therapists View

When clients enter my office, they usually expect their partner to make them feel safe, secure, desired, and valued. At first glance, there is nothing wrong with those expectations, and it’s understandable to have them. However, when those expectations are unmet, they can result in tremendous disappointment, frustration, and resentment.

My 22 years of experience have taught me that the natural patterns embedded in emotionally committed relationships differ significantly from what most couples expect—which sets the stage for big problems!

Traditional Approaches To Couples Therapy Or Marriage Counseling

When you meet a therapist for your first session, you and your partner will discuss what you deem excessive or deficient things in your relationship. Meanwhile, your counselor will try to understand the root cause of those issues.

Depending on their approach, they will focus on your childhood, your mistaken or irrational beliefs, or your ability to take responsibility for your issues, which makes sense on the surface. Meanwhile, these approaches assume relationships are driven by one’s brokenness or “pathology.”

My Approach To Counseling Emotionally Committed Couples

I want to show you a different view. I’m going to focus on three specific ways people try to regulate their anxiety and gain identity in their present relationships rather than relying on a traditional, pathological view of the presenting problem(s), like focusing on childhood wounds and trauma from the past.

For example, partners typically want things to be different. Meanwhile, it’s not always easy to change because “resolving our differences” and trying to “communicate better” will often generate more anxiety instead of less. As a result, partners can become emotionally reactive, make fatal mistakes that interfere with intimacy, and produce terrible consequences.

Fatal Mistake #1: Couples over-focus on comfort and safety

Dr. David Schnarch, author of the book Passionate marriage, suggests that two dynamic forces shape every relationship—the need for comfort and safety and the need for growth. Schnarch says that the comfort and safety cycle is driven by the belief that your partner and the relationship should make you feel safe, secure, and desired. In this cycle, when hot topics like money, sex, or parenting arise, there is a common goal:

  • Keeping the peace
  • Business as usual
  • Maintaining the same relational patterns

These goals are achieved by adapting in ways that calm each other’s anxiety and ease the immediate situation. In this posture, partners seem warm, accommodating, and comfortable with each other—at least for the moment.

However, as hot topics like money, sex, and parenting arise, they demand that we shift and update how we relate to each other. And that’s when emotionally committed relationships wrestle with a second pattern. Schnarch refers to this dynamic force as the growth cycle.

The Growth Cycle During Couples Therapy

During the growth cycle, your stress and anxiety are generally higher. The relationship feels not-so-stable because discussing these topics requires adapting, adjusting, and embracing change.

On the one hand, it’s important to realize that the stress produced by the growth cycle is natural and a normal part of any relationship. On the other hand, it always generates anxiety—which is healthy and very uncomfortable. Hence, the term, growing pains.

It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with reducing your anxiety when you can, and it’s understandable that you’ll try. However, when life demands that we change strategies like business as usual, accommodating each other, and keeping the peace something has to change. Otherwise, we tend to feel frustrated, misunderstood, and stuck.

The Comfort And Safety Cycle During Couples Therapy

When I meet with people for couples therapy or marriage counseling, they tend to convince themselves that their relationship should reside in the comfort safety cycle where anxiety is low, and everyone feels safe, secure, and desired.

Couples who expect to remain in the comfort and safety cycle tend to over-focus on getting their partner’s approval, validation, and empathy when discussing hot topics like money, sex, or parenting. When those topics are not met with warm feelings, all hell breaks loose—and that’s when I typically get the call. During therapy couples report things like, “everything is falling apart” or “Marriage shouldn’t be this hard!”

And that’s just part of the problem. When couples focus on comfort and safety instead of growth and development, they look for answers to three BIG questions:

  1. What’s wrong with our relationship: communication, passion, desire.
  2. What’s wrong with my partner: he/she is too this, or not enough of that!
  3. What’s wrong with me: Am I crazy or “damaged goods?”

Rest assured; every relationship goes through normal—and healthy—shifts from one relational pattern (the comfort-safety pattern) to another anxiety-provoking pattern (the growth cycle). This back-and-forth cycle is embedded in every relationship and produces predictable anxiety, uneasiness, and stress levels.

The Good News

When we embrace change and the anxiety it always produces, we can adjust, move forward, and experience personal and relational growth. However, when we expect to reside in the comfort safety cycle, we commit a fatal mistake and remain stuck. Or, worse yet—we regress.

The Bad News

If you lose sight of these powerful forces—as couples tend to do—you will be less likely to succeed and more likely to take things personally and feel terrible about yourself in your relationship. Put another way. When you focus on comfort and safety instead of growth and development, each partner accidentally and unintentionally tries to solve the wrong problem, producing even more stress!

To bring healthy change to your relationship, things have to get a bit uncomfortable, and “business as usual” (the comfort/safety cycle) must come to an end.

Developing this critical knowledge and putting it into action will help you embrace the normal growing pains that go with being in an emotionally committed relationship. Even more, this insider’s knowledge positions you up to embrace healthy change with more confidence and less effort!


Fatal Mistake #2: Each Partner Tries To Change The Other

As clients enter my office for couples therapy or marriage counseling, their second fatal mistake is due to a simple fact they never foresee. When partners see things differently, they often decide to stop arguing to avoid conflict. Meanwhile, each partner expects the other to accommodate their needs, validate their feelings, and to keep anxiety levels low. The tendency to relate in ways that lower anxiety is not wrong because it’s part of how healthy relationships work. Hence, the cliché, “we agree to disagree.”

On the one hand, regulating anxiety and stress through accommodation works when your partner has similar expectations. However, when they differ about money, sex, or parenting, these expectations are no longer resolvable in the comfort and safety cycle.

The Temptation of Comfort and Safety

When you hit an issue where accommodating each other does not reduce your anxieties, it’s tempting to focus on business as usual (comfort and safety). When that strategy doesn’t resolve things, people usually protest and try to change each other. In the heat of the moment, pointing out your partners’ excessive or deficient behavior(s) is tempting instead of holding on to yourself and soothing your stress about the situation so you can move forward (growth cycle). For example, you might hear (or say) statements like, “You always work, and you’re never home!” Or, “All you do is focus on the kids.” Or, “You are so selfish!”

The Difficulties With Growth

When topics like money, sex, or parenting demand that we consider new ideas, don’t expect your partner—or yourself—to be eager to change your relationship dynamics (growth). When I do couples therapy or marriage counseling, loving and devoted partners often push each other for anxiety regulation through accommodation by trying to change each other instead of themselves.

My advice

When agreeing to disagree about hot topics doesn’t work, it’s time to get your eyes off your partner’s real or perceived “issues” and reflect on your role in the conflict. Otherwise, you, your partner, and the relationship will suffer. Put another way, when couples try to change each other, getting (or demanding) your partner’s accommodation becomes more important than collaborating. Ultimately, both people become stuck, resentment builds, and intimacy suffers—every time.

Take heart. If you are nervous about changing any aspect of your relationship, it’s not only normal; it’s part of the deal. It helps if you consider the growth cycle as God’s way of developing your capacity to love deeper and mature as a human being.


Fatal Mistake #3: People Don’t Stand Up For Themselves In Marriage Counseling

According to David Schnarch, emotional gridlock is just around the corner as long as your relationship is focused on comfort and safety and trying to change each other instead of yourself.

Oddly, this is another predictable pattern in couples therapy or marriage counseling. Gridlock involves more than stubbornness or accumulated resentment. It occurs when the position your partner wants to take on an issue blocks the position that you want to take, and vice versa. For example, emotional gridlock might involve a wife who wants to spend money on private school for their children and a husband who sees public schooling as a way to save money and plan retirement. Since gridlocked partners need each other’s agreement and support, no solutions except avoidance, deeper resentment, or divorce seem possible.

A New Way To Relate

Thankfully there is a way to change things that can revolutionize your relationship. Experience has taught me that resolving your relationship problems or creating change requires learning how to hold onto yourself.

Holding on to yourself means standing on your own two feet and finding the courage to promote your wishes, wants, and desires—even if you are perceived as ridiculous, crazy, or absurd!

Think about it. Every relationship involves shared responsibilities, but it’s not a 50/50 split. This kind of thinking leads both partners to focus on each other and avoid responsibility when anxiety is high. Assigning equal responsibility and blame sounds fair, but that is not how healthy relationships work.

So, do yourself a favor. Don’t waste your time extracting commitments, exchanging promises, or making no-exit contracts with your partner. These are just fancy ways of dressing up to 50/50 split that will keep you stuck.

When you’re accustomed to steering your relationship according to your and your partner’s anxieties and insecurities (the comfort and safety cycle), it’s hard to “try something new” and change course or sail out into uncharted waters. However, the trick to creating change involves shifting where your stability comes from. Contrary to popular belief, your anxiety regulation and your sense of security need to come from resources inside of you, not your partner.

A New Way To Relate

Holding onto yourself or empowering yourself to take action comes from a desperate (and healthy) fear of losing what you hold dear, whether it’s a partner, your marriage, or your relationship with yourself. At that point, holding on to yourself and taking the stand is an act of self-preservation—which can transform a relationship!

Here is an example of what one of my clients said in couples therapy:

“Sweetie, on the one hand, I love you dearly and want to give you a third child. I really do! On the other hand, I want to get a vasectomy soon, and here’s why. I’m getting too old and worried about not being emotionally available for a new child that needs me. I’m also worried about finances because I want to retire before I am 70. But, most of all, I don’t want to share you with anyone else. I love you and my life just the way it is.”

Stepping forward to change is what partnership and collaboration are all about. It can involve speaking up kindly if your partner continues to dodge topics that need to be addressed—like pregnancy, birth control, and having another child.

Standing Up For Yourself Is Powerful

Ironically, not allowing yourself to be controlled by your fears and insecurities (or those of your partner’s) can make your relationship (and both of you) blossom. For example, you learn this hard lesson when your spouse or child becomes chronically ill or seriously injured.

What could move you to do something that may be scary, especially if you haven’t been willing or able to do it up to now? I wonder what may prompt you to believe in yourself, hold on to yourself, take a stand, or risk changing your relationship. It usually takes something powerful. That’s “something” is a common developmental theme in committed relationships.

That something surfaces when you:

  • Feel like your integrity is on the line
  • Emotional gridlock becomes intolerable
  • What you truly want and who you love are challenged
  • Your fear that things will stay the same exceeds your fear of change

A Point To Ponder

Let’s meet if you can relate to any of the points listed above.

Regardless of your difficulties, I want you to feel empowered with the knowledge and skills you need to break free from the agonizing signs and symptoms of ADHD and discover your family’s potential, take control, and maintain a positive course with each other!

Schedule your free clarity call today for Couples Therapy Or Marriage Counseling in Tustin, CA.

About the Author

Steve Cuffari

Steve Cuffari

For over 20 years, Steve Cuffari has been an ordained minister, assistant college professor of psychology at vanguard university, and a therapist committed to helping individuals, couples, and educators learn how to put an end to destructive conversations so they can build secure and lasting relationships... More about Steve →


Got Questions?

Thank You!

You’ve been added to our mailing list and will now be among the first to hear about our latest news and events.

Thank You!

We have received your message and we will get back to you as soon as we can.