Are you sleeping with the enemy?

by Olatunde Howard, MA, LMFT

The more I do couple’s therapy, the more convinced I am that couples have one essential problem, and one only: enmity. John Gottman calls it “contempt.” It’s when couples assume the worst about each other–assuming negative intention and opposition. A primary symptom of this is labeling–like calling each other “narcissists” or “emotionally abusive.” Accusing each other of “gaslighting” or “being defensive.” Accusing each other of “hating,” or “not liking” or “deliberately neglecting.” Notice each of these labels leaves no room for reconciliation or even communication.

Because enemies don’t communicate or want to communicate–unless they are communicating a “truce/peace treaty.” Which is ultimately, “You stay over there, and I’ll stay over here.” Which ultimately means we can’t or won’t be in a relationship. They can only agree on and have communication about separation.

But I’ve never had best friends come to therapy. Never. I’ve never had to teach best friends effective communication or conflict resolution. They don’t come to get “strategies” or “set boundaries.” Why? Because they are not enemies and don’t ever approach each other like that. Yes, they may disagree or even argue. But they don’t “fight” the way I see couples fight.

They don’t tear each other apart with their words. Even without me or therapy.

Why? Why do couples go to war?

From at least a heterosexual relationship perspective, one theory I have is that there is a growing assumption that men and women are enemies. Quite literally. So much so that they have to “be careful.” They have to “protect themselves.” Premarital counseling sometimes has the vibe of the couple “preparing” in a way that again assumes future negative experiences. Yes, of course, couples need to prepare. But again, do best friends need to prepare? Why do lifelong best friendships last, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health–without “pre-best friend” counseling?

Because they are not natural-born enemies. Perhaps in couples therapy, the assumption of enmity between men and women is where I need to begin. For now, I know that I’m tackling this head-on with couples. I see husbands and wives as “sexy best friends.” But that’s another blog. For now, if you are in a relationship reading this, consider with me that he or she is not your enemy.

Olatunde Howard, MA, LMFT

Olatunde is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate. Read Full Bio

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