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On Bhangra versus Ballroom: The Couples' Dance

I love dancing, always have since I was a kid, and I took all kinds of lessons from ballet to kathak and will never miss a chance to hop on the dance floor. Growing up all over the world exposed me to all different forms of dancing and there’s nothing like watching a couple dance in perfect harmony and rhythm.  Two people who can move together, matching each other’s steps, and making it look effortless. If only romantic relationships were that simple and came with step-by-step instructions on how to avoid stepping on each other’s toes! Almost all of us couple’s therapists use the metaphor of “dance” to describe what happens in romantic relationships; especially when people are moving to completely different tunes (like doing the tango versus the fox-trot) and as a relational therapist, our goal is to help them move towards each other. For example, one of the most common patterns we see is the "pursue/withdraw" cycle that couples find themselves in.  As one partner steps towards the other, the other partner has to step back; one partner's actions impact the others in both movement, and in their relationship engagement. 

When working with couples, I find Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and the Gottman methods most effective and tangible in making progress. These models are cross-culturally applicable, which is very important to me given that I see a wide array of couples from all walks of life. Whether working with a heterosexual couple, a LGBTQ couple, monogamous or polyamorous relationships, inter-racial or BIPOC couple, I strive to understand the context of the relationship. The relationship itself is my “client” rather than the individuals, and with that in mind, we work collaboratively to understand what’s best for the relationship. This means that sometimes the goal is to help the partners stay together, and sometimes it may be to find the best way to end the relationship and part in the most amicable way. In working with couples, my goal is to also address how gendered socialization can impact the development of the clients’ attachment styles and conflict cycle. Power, privilege and oppression are issues that must be explored, regardless of what culture my clients or I belong to. Certain traditions are not part of culture and must be looked at as oppressive customs, such as honor killings, domestic violence, dowry-related deaths, and forced marriages. 

There’s no “one way” or “right way” to be in a relationship, and for better or for worse, we usually learn how to be in relationships by observing what was modeled before us. Our parents and other care givers may have provided the template we end up following for how to be together, how to fight, how to make up, how to present as a united front, or how to challenge each other. One of the unique aspects of my own journey was growing up in a joint family system where I didn’t have just one, but several examples of couples who all lived with us! Most of us, whether we grew up with both parents, single parents, or other care givers, tend to resort to what’s familiar because we encode attachment cues and patterns early on in our life.  Does that mean our own relationships with our partners will be the same as our parents’ relationship with each other? Not necessarily, but it can be helpful to explore and discuss the roles you observed growing up and what the expectations were in your own family of origin from each partner. I have seen arranged marriages, traditional gender roles, high conflict and stonewalling up close in some relationships, and have found that it was helpful for me to separate cultural expectations from family rules and roles as I learned more about myself in romantic relationships.

If I’m being honest, I would say that working with couples can be one of the more challenging aspects of my job, but also very rewarding at times. I’ve had couples with high conflict in the room, with screaming, yelling, name-calling, and sometimes where clients have stormed out of the room. I have also had couples who have cried and heard each other for the first time in years; finding forgiveness and compassion for each other and creating a new dance together. Fighting is not always a bad thing, but resentment and contempt can erode the foundation of any relationship. My hope for couples that come to me for help is that together, we can ease the pain from the hurts that have accumulated, tune into our own emotions and the emotions of our partner, and hear each other in a new way that allows both partners to feel safe in both moving towards and away from each other in their relational dance. 

Dr. Ammara Khalid, Psy.D 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, P.C 

[email protected]

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