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Understanding Exits

A couple may never argue, work well as a team and would generally say that they have a "good" relationship.  And yet they sometimes feel that there is something missing.....  Or one of them has an affair. Imago Relationship Counselling helps them to identify their exits so that they can focus on working in their relationship.  

The couple were resistant to my suggestion to stop doing things that gave them fulfilment.

They said that they had enjoyed a good relationship for many years. They never argued and worked well as a team.

And yet they landed in my office because one of them was caught out talking to someone else online.

This felt catastrophic for both of them. 

I asked them to identify and curtail all their BEHAVIOURS that took their energy AWAY from their relationship. These are what I call EXITS that need to be CLOSED

To understand why I ask couples to close their exits, I will explain what I mean by an “exit”.  And why it is important to close them. 

An exit is acting out one’s feelings rather than putting them into language. An exit can be catastrophic, like an affair or attempted suicide.  Or non-catastrophic, such as watching TV or fantasizing about someone else while making love.  It withdraws energy and involvement from the relationship that belongs in the relationship.  I call this the invisible divorce - they are leading parallel lives with very little connection.

It is harder for many couples to close the dozens of small exits in their relationships than it is for them to close the catastrophic exits.  It may be harder for them to cut down on TV viewing for three months than to agree to give up the option of divorce. Part of the reason is that closing the smaller exits deprives them of pleasure.

If their partners are not giving them what they want, they are reluctant to let go of established sources of gratification.

Another reason for the resistance is that, as couples become more focused on each other, they must come face to face with their repressed disappointment, anger and fear. They have minimized their degree of unhappiness by distracting themselves with outside activities. They hadn’t poked holes in their relationships casually or maliciously – they did it for the important reasons of need gratification and safety.

Here is an overview of how this process works. Let’s imagine two people who are trapped in an unsatisfying relationship. To make up for the emptiness of their marriage, they have filled their lives with substitute pleasures

Let’s focus on the woman’s exits. She has the responsibilities of having a career and raising two children.  She has an active social life, a position on the community board, a passion for physical fitness, and two music lessons a week.  She also has an addiction to science-fiction novels. These activities help reduce her underlying feeling of despair.  They drain vital energy away from the relationship.

If this woman were to decide to cut back on some of her activities, she would first have to determine which of her numerous involvements could be termed an “exit”. Like many people, she would probably find a degree of validity in virtually everything she did. She might ask herself what is an exit and what is an essential activity or a valid form of recreation? The way to find out is to ask yourself the following question; “Is one of the reasons I’m doing this activity to avoid spending time with my spouse?” Most people know whether or not this is the case.

At the same time that this woman would be eliminating her exits, her partner would be going through a similar process. He too would be examining his activities, identifying his exits, and beginning a systematic programme of reduction. As a result of this exercise, the husband and wife would be spending significantly more time together.

This requires much soul searching and honesty and the courage to put into words the feelings that have been expressed as a behaviour. Paradoxically, that begins to close the exit, because it restores connection. One way I help couples do this is to facilitate a dialogue between them.

They could start by saying:-

“One way I act out in our relationship (rather than put my feelings into language) is (thinking about suicide a lot, or fantasizing while we are making love)…..”

“The reason I do this is because …(I feel I will never get your attention or you are passive when we are making love)…..” 

And then I help them to talk about all their feelings. Each partner does the same until both have put all their unexpressed feelings into words.  And asked for appropriate changes in behaviour. When this is done on a regular basis the need to act out diminishes and is replaced with deeper feelings of connection.

The reaction to this heightened interaction varies from couple to couple. Some couples enjoy the additional contact. Others find that closing their exits leaves them fewer avenues of escape from a painful situation. Although this is not a pleasant outcome, they get something from the exercise nonetheless.   That is a clearer delineation of their areas of conflict.  They know exactly why it is that they have been avoiding each other, and this is an important first step in therapy.

In my next article I will explain what exits are in greater detail and how closing them will help you to heal the pain in your relationship.

Source: “Getting The Love You Want”
Harville Hendrix PH.D

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