Read here about the dynamic of symbiosis Mark and Arian got stuck in.

Once Arian and Mark understand this dynamic, they re-open the conversation first from an emotional perspective. 

Mark feels stressed and overwhelmed, he is trying to deal with it by drawing Arian in to help solve the problem. He knows she will feel bad enough to do so. It takes some untangling of emotions and reasoning for Mark to be able to acknowledge this internal dynamic. 

One frightening event in the past branches out in our brain to create many related ‘warning signals’

Now, he can see how the external overload triggers his fear of not being good enough. Firstly, Mark slows down enough to become aware of the uncomfortable feeling of fear underneath his anger. He has learned enough about body awareness to be able to sit with the feeling for a moment. In that space he settles down enough to be able to draw the link to his past fears. The counsellor guides him to come into the present moment. They spend some time listing the differences between the past and the present. This helps Mark’s brain to recognise the present as non-threatening. 

Leaning into the arising conflict: call it out early and negotiate how to do this

They discuss ways that will allow Arian to challenge Mark on his current inner ‘position’ should this anger arise again. Mark is okay for her to invite him to slow down, take a breather and notice where he is. They also agree for Mark to let Arian move closer and invite him to talk. They both know that the physical contact will settle Mark down.

Before they continue the conversation about work, roles get swapped and they discuss Arian’s needs in case of a ‘past-hijack’. Since Arian is quicker to withdraw or please, this is a little harder. She feels less accepting of Mark pointing out her behaviour as she fears he might use it against her. Eventually they agree that Mark can tell her he notices her changing and let her know that he is there to talk when she is ready. 

This type of negotiation is super important for a healthy relationship: we often assume that what our partner needs is what we would like and when we go there, we get rejected and cannot understand why! Communication, trial and error, openness and trust are part of this process of getting to know each other better and better along the way. 

Inner processes need to be understood before anything can truly shift

Now that Mark has understood his reactions better, room opens up for exploring what can be done. Mark immediately goes to the logistics of the problem. He gets stopped by the counsellor who begins to support Arian in the process of asking Mark explorative and curious questions about his experience. Again, this is challenging since Mark keeps referring to the whole situation. And Arian feels triggered that she has done something wrong that needs fixing. 

Arian learns to ask questions about Marks inner experiences.

She keeps empathising with the struggles he expresses.

Then she reflects back his explanations. 

Change creates uncertainty, we don’t like it and try to avoid it. Beware the old habits of symbiosis!

Mark repeatedly feels anger arising in this process as Arian’s questions challenge his need to offload the problem onto her. With the counsellor’s help, Arian manages to stay clear of taking on Mark’s anger, fear and worry. Instead, she begins to ask him about past events when he overcame problems and encourages him to step up and remember his strengths.

couple in counselling talking about differentiation

Finally, Mark lets go of the attempt to create the old ‘balance’ and begins to look at his own experience. Once there, having Arian support him in his exploration feels really good. He appreciates her believing in him and finds his own strengths. The counsellor takes the opportunity to point out how Mark has just come back ‘online’. With his Prefrontal Cortex being switched on, answers become available, event processing is possible. 

Staying tuned with the partner is imperative. Don’t get thrown off track by defensive behaviour. 

At the end of this process, they swap positions and begin to talk about Arian’s need to fix the problem, her fear of losing Mark. Her automatic pilot is to try harder, to adjust her behaviour and step back from her own needs to keep the peace. Arian is surprised to find it hard to not have this opportunity. This time Mark is not asking her to do anything differently.  Instead he becomes curious about what drives her fears. At first, Arian draws back and becomes defensive. With the gentle support of the counsellor, Mark can stay on track with his support questions. Finally they laugh about the fact that Arian reacts in the same way as Mark – in this situation. 

Once this is out of the way, Arian quickly understands her own habits and discovers a need to learn how to value herself enough to have needs of her own. This is new territory for her and even Mark, who turns out to be pretty good at asking curious questions, is stumped about how to help Arian here. 

This is material for another counselling session… 

However, once they get home, the couple sits down with a glass of vine in the evening and discusses the logistics of their busy lives. I leave it up to you to imagine what solutions they come up with to reduce Mark’s work stress without Arian needing to cut back on her business. 

If you need help with building strong and healthy connections, book a free 45-minute check-in-session with Mattie now.