We are all familiar with the saying about the chicken or the egg. The saying implies that it is sometimes difficult to see cause and effect. This is especially true when dealing with human feelings and relationships. This difficulty often comes up when talking about disturbing patterns in a couple’s relationship.
One person in a couple might, for example, feel constantly attacked by her partner. She believes that her partner is critical of her and interested in making her the person at fault in the relationship. The way she feels (the chicken) originates from the way he treats her (the egg). And, of course, in couples therapy we do focus on the interaction, on how he speaks to her and communicates his feelings. And sometimes, no doubt, he is being critical and on the attack.
But in couples therapy we also work with the chicken and the egg. While there have been times that he has criticized her, there is also often an expectation that she brings to these interactions with him. And this expectation frames the experience and at the very least co-creates it. In couples therapy we work with individual issues as they emerge. A situation similar to the one I’m describing often has roots in earlier relationship history. It is not uncommon to find that a person such as the woman I am describing felt criticized and blamed in her family. That that experience of being faulted is born in her early family experience and then carried with her into current relationships, especially significant ones. That expectation is a lens through which she sees the world and her partner.
Where things get really complicated in human relationships is that these core issues, the expectations we bring with us from past relationships, tend to overlap. So whereas the woman described above feels criticized and attacked, it is not uncommon for the man to feel rejected and abandoned. The man feels that she is not responsive to him. And yes that is sometimes true: there are times when she is not interested in his feelings. But there are also times when that is the expectation he brings with him that influences the way he sees the situation.
Couples therapy involves alternating between the couple interaction and individual core issues brought into the relationship. In this way it is not about the chicken or the egg, but about the chicken and the egg. Or about why the chicken crossed the road. . . But that’s another story.