I know what you’re thinking – “Sounds like the name of a great new rock band!” Well, sadly, not yet. Maybe they will emerge from a Portland garage some day, but, for now we’ll have to content ourselves with discussing The Timeless Internal Tension as a universal psychological experience. It was beautifully described by one of the early masters of family therapy, Murray Bowen, as the tension between the two basic, and competing, drives we all possess – toward connection and togetherness, on the one hand, and autonomy, on the other. Both are vital for our sense of well-being. Too much of the first results in our losing ourselves in a need to merge with others. Too much of the latter results in our utter isolation. This is also reflected in the basic Attachment Styles described in an earlier post. Perhaps a more appropriate image would be a person on a tight-rope, because the key to managing this tension is balance. When we feel the forces of merger rising within us so that our sense of separate identity and integrity in the world is threatened, we need to re-calibrate. Similarly, when our drive to be separate finds us erecting personal boundaries that become impregnable to contact from others, so that our sense of connection with others dissolves, we need to re-calibrate. Those of us who tend toward an avoidant (or adult dismissive) attachment style may have difficulty summoning up the internal resources to make that re-calibration. “I hear that my partner wants something more from me but I don’t know what she means or how to satisfy her,” is the desperate and frustrated plea from the person whose psychic energy throughout life has tended toward the drive for autonomy. “I mean nothing to my partner. I am more alone in this relationship than if I were truly alone – and it makes my furious,” is the, often excruciating, cry from the person whose psychic energy throughout life has tended toward the drive to find a safe and secure connection. Those of us who were blessed by temperament and early parenting to have a basically secure attachment style (about 70% according to most researchers) are able to say on that tightrope, hands firmly – but not too tightly – gripping the pole for balance. For the remaining 30%, or so, that balancing pole is as insubstantial as a drinking straw. Whether the tendency is toward a dismissive attachment style of separation or the anxious attachment style of merger, there seems to be a common thread of discomfort – and even shame – around this life position. For quite understandable reasons, these two different approaches to being with another in an intimate relationship will find themselves frequently joined in an intimate relationship. The person who tends to separate will trigger their partner, who experiences disconnection as cruelly wounding, causing an almost desperate drive to stave off isolation and to join, while the other, who tends to merger, will cause their partner to feel easily overwhelmed – triggering further withdrawal. Thus, one’s drive to cut through protective walls for connection will be experienced by the other as a profound and threatening violation of personal boundaries. At the same time, the other’s drive to erect protective walls to protect their own sense of integrity and separateness in the world will bring an often soul-shattering experience of isolation and dread to their partner. This is the cycle which is so well described by Sue Johnson and the Emotionally Focused Therapy Community. With the compassionate support of a couples therapist, each person can engage in the process of slowing down their part of the cycle and re-establishing (or establishing for the first time) the sense of safety they seek. “You are not alone.” “You are safe.”
My first therapy experiences occurred in the 1970’s, when Gestalt Therapy and dramatic breakthroughs were all the rage. Connecting with one’s inner child and going toe to toe with the oppressive, internalized parental figure was the common and popular approach. Part of my training was with a descendant of Bob and Mary Goulding, the developers of a powerful mashup of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis which they called Redecision Therapy. I also experienced Lifespring, which was a “kinder, gentler” cousin of the notorious Erhard Seminar Training, a very intense process that would blast through people’s defenses, with the support and (I believe) coercion of their many peers, sitting in the big conference room with them. I had dear friends who went through Lifespring and came out with heightened energy and focus. They would repeat to me a mantra of “reasons or results” which dismissed rationalizations for not pursuing your given life path. If people possessed the ego-strength to deal with the rapid dismantling of their carefully constructed and long-held psychological defenses, they might benefit from this dramatic epiphany counseling. I have colleagues today who endorse dramatic approaches such as this, but I remain skeptical, myself. It has been my observation (and experience) that dramatic “breakthroughs,” when facilitated (or engineered) by a therapist have a continued risk of falling back into previous modes of thought and behavior, unless reinforced thereafter. It seems to me another example of the tendency to find a single “magic bullet” which will cure distress, without the investment of time and care which accompanies the incremental change that is more organic and less sudden.
While therapy that works will often find a person experiencing a moment (or moments) of epiphany, these, alone are not enough. More importantly, if the groundwork isn’t laid, if we don’t carefully approach the molten material laying inside, the hoped for healing will be pushed beyond our current grasp. I have worked with some gifted, resourceful and wise therapists over the years. Those who supported me while I moved through my changes, at my speed and with the inner resources I then possessed, were among the greatest gifts of my life. People can only do….well, what they can do. Working with anyone in pain who is seeking relief will always entail a delicate and rich dance. A therapist has many tasks and they include support and protection of the wounded heart that sits within us as well as the gentle prod which over the course of the work facilitates change. I worked for two years when I first arrived in the Northwest with a blessedly wonderful woman, Peg Blackstone who, I grieve to say, died some years ago. Peg taught me this lesson and I thank her in my mind and heart repeatedly. Change is organic. It is incremental and very personal. Much of what we do that now causes us distress is almost always a useful strategy we devised long ago to protect ourselves. So much energy went into this protective effort, which for so long was so vital, that when the threat receded, we were left with a strongly held suit of protective armor. That armor separates us from the love and connection – the peace – we crave, but to simply step out of this suit will leave us naked and vulnerable. We need to grow a new protective skin – which isn’t quite so thick. Watch your skin next time you cut or scrape yourself. Your body tells you – healing is incremental.