A Day in Family Court

Milton Woolley, MS, MFT

A reference book on intimacy: The Commitment Dialogues

by Mathew McKay, Ph.D., and Barbara Quick 


Recently I attended a morning session in Sonoma County Superior Court and had the opportunity to observe cases dealing with family law. I felt very sad watching the couples who were there to settle various contested matters involved in their separations and divorces. Most of the cases I saw dealt with child custody issues. I wondered what caused these people, who at one time were in love with each other, to be there, sadly and angrily, ending marriages or struggling with the question of who has the kids when and arguing about who is the best parent. I reflected on how important it is for marriage counselors, like me, to do all we can to help individuals in relationships to understand each other so that their children do not become extensions of the conflict and difficult feelings exchanged between unhappy partners when they chose to part. Sometimes marriages need to end for a variety of reasons but more importantly, I believe that greater understanding by parents can relieve some of the immense pressure the un-examined conflict inflicts on children. My heart ached for those children who would bear the wounds of being caught in the middle of the conflict between their mothers and fathers. The sadness stayed with me for several days. 


I have been a Marriage, Family and Child Counselor for 30 years and have felt that a central purpose in my life was to help people understand each other. In working with individuals, couples and children, I believe that the rationalized reasons for divorcing are often camouflage for deeper forces at work. Most often the real reasons for falling out of love relate to patterns experienced much earlier in life, long before romantic involvements. 


In the book, The Commitment Dialogues, co-authored by Matthew McKay and Barbara Quick, the writers identify four fears as the main forces that sabotage people's ability to maintain long-term committed relationships. 


The four fears are:


Fear of Engulfment: Will I Still Exist if I Merge with You?

Fear of Abandonment: Is There a Magic Glue to Make You Stay?

Fear of Shame: You Won't Love Me Anymore if You See the Real Me

Fear of Emptiness: If I Keep Moving, I Won't Have to Look Inside

I have found this book to be very useful for couples and individuals who decide and commit to the work necessary to understand these deeper fears. The book is organized around stories of people who have begun to deal with the four fears McKay and Quick discuss. Each section of the book is organized around one of the four fears and includes dialogues between two people dealing with the fear and includes a therapist's overview. At the end of each chapter, there are questions for each person to answer followed by an action plan. 


Our relationships with intimate others are very complex and there are many factors that play a part. I have observed that individuals seem to be attracted to people whose fear is opposite to the one driving their partner in the relationship. We long for intimate connection and seek out people who have what we want in ourselves. The person fearing engulfment will long for a connection and may find a partner who is driven by a fear of abandonment. Initially, each will desire what the other exhibits. The person who enjoys the early days of attention rained upon him/her will eventually begin to feel like he/she can't breathe. When the feeling of suffocation begins to develop he/she will want to "have some personal space." The giver of all of the caring attention will feel abandoned with his/her partner's effort to make distance. It doesn't take too much imagination to construct the dialogue that occurs once these dynamic sets in. 


The point that brings hope to couples in difficulty is that there are ways to understand the conflict. To come to the awareness that it is not because of the failing of the other person that the relationship has faltered. Instead, the difficulty is often the fear of intimacy that lives in each person. 


When I heard the sad and conflicted stories of divorcing couples that morning in court, I wished there was a way for each of them to experience the awakening that can result from a deeper understanding of ones personal fears of intimacy. Working with a skilled therapist and using tools described in this book can make a significant difference in the quality of our intimate relationships and family life.