I hear it so often in my office. One partner or the other (usually both) will report that in the height of some nasty fight they escalated into, one of them said something so wounding that the target is still bruised. He or she struggles with how to make sense of a world where they are supposed to be working on their relationship and at the same time things are said which couldn’t feel more destructive. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain that good people can inflict on one another when they have escalated to the outer reaches of their own cycle. It is an inescapable fact that when two people are reacting to each other from the raw and vulnerable places inside – and they are swept up in their cycle of fear, anger and reactivity, they can spin so fast (almost instantaneously) that both feel out of control. It is for sure that these deeply hurtful statements aren’t made during a placid dinner conversation right after, “Please pass the peas.” These missiles that are launched almost always occur when the cycle is spinning so fast, that the centrifugal force of both people’s emotional reactivity throws them to the extreme edge of their experience. So, rather than mull on the thing said, it’s far more helpful to view the statements as symptomatic of a cycle that has gone from “zero to 60” in a nanosceond. The path to healing is to begin to find ways to catch ourselves at the very beginning stages of this emotionally reactive cycle – to slow it down at the outset and step out of this tightly choreographed automatic dance.
Lots has been written in the past 20 years about the brain and how its wiring directly impacts our emotional states. One writer pointedly drew the distinction between the “mind” and the “brain” – that collection of billions of neurons, each with numerous axons that connect with others to create networks. These networks are the pathways for our thougths and mental associations, as well as our most gripping emotions – Rage, Fear, Lust, Sexual Lust, Connection with Others, Seeking (exploring the environment for its rewards….basic aliveness and vitality). Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has identified the specific neural networks where these feelings track. Scientists for years have been able to experimentally stimulate areas of the brain and produce angry, fearful, lustful, exploring and anxious behavior. Substantial evidence exists for the notion that chronic feeings of irritation or anxiety, for example, are actually reflections of a low-grade, constant activation of these neural networks. This is perhaps, why neurofeedback therapy has been clinically found to ease these distressing states.
John Gottman, Ph.D. has observed that when couples come in for their first appointment with a marital therapist, their relationship has had serious problems for, on average, six years. I often tell couples that it is rare that two people will sit across me me and say something like, “We’re basically doing fine. We just need some help with communication.” Much more likely, I am sitting with two very wounded people, their feelings rubbed raw from years of conflict, pain and emotional distance. Dr. Sue Johnson observed years ago that the intensity of the conflict – the very sense of being out of control – is tragically understandable – as each person’s deepest need for connection has been unmet. This “attachment” need (see earlier posts) is so deep it is felt, literally, on a cellular level. People are just so emotionally exhausted and strained when they first enter marital therapy that any therapist who blames either person, rather than compassionately trying to understand the particular wounds and needs of each is doing more harm than good. Emotionally Focused Therapy, among many things, is like a balm to people’s psychic sores. I am on the EFT community’s list serve and I am frequently moved by the deep care and compassion of these attachment therapists. It is a pure and fine form of therapy. The abiding belief of this community is that healing of even the most strained relationships can come to us if we are patient and give care rather than judgment.
Recently, the New York Times reported that the mental health diagnostic “bible,” the DSM is going to drop Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its 5th Edition. Laura Smith, Ph.D. provides a good explanation for why this was done, here. While an interesting development in its own right, the move brings to mind an overriding concern about the easy use of labels like “narcissistic.” Many, many, times have I heard people in recent years label someone as “narcissistic.” It’s not that “people who believe the world only exists if seen through their own eyes” don’t exist – and it’s not that these folks don’t cause a lot of distress to those close to them. (I remember hearing in my training that the only way you see a person with NPD in therapy is if their spouse or family basically says, “Get help on this or we’re outta here!”) San Diego mediator Bill Eddy identifies people struggling with NPD as one of a handful of “high conflict personalities” who challenge helping professionals mightily. But here’s the problem – it’s easy to label, isolate and dismiss another person, losing sight of the fact that this rigid shell of a personality they present to the world covers enormous, old pain. Eddy has suggested that the 4 major “high conflict personalities” at their core, are protecting themselves from the pain of early, constant violations to their developing, tender personalities. The “borderline” personality is driven by the Fear of (emotional) Abandonment, suffered so early. The “antisocial” personality is driven by the Fear of Being Dominated. The “histrionic” personality is driven by the Fear of Being Ignored. The “narcissistic personality” is driven by the Fear of Inferiority. In fact, these people with hugely (over)inflated views of themselves have buried within their hearts a glass shard of failure to measure up – of not being good enough. When we almost cavalierly label others as “narcissists” (or any other thing) we rob them of their humanity and pain. Of course, in their striving to protect themselves from the ancient, overwhelming wounds that are long-buried within, they may often overwhelm and deeply injure their intimates. But as with all injuries which we suffer at the hands of others, our own healing comes in part through our own halting efforts to understand and even hold compassion for the other. It’s not necessary to label the other so that we don’t take on responsibility for our own injuries. It was never our fault anyway. To humanize ourselves without dehumanizing the person who wounded us is an ongoing challenge and, I think, righteous goal.
John Gottman has observed that, on average, couples come in for counseling after they have been experiencing serious problems in their relationship for 6 years. That means that when you sit in that client’s chair for the first time, you probably will be feeling angry, hurt and hopeless. You will probably feel blamed by your partner. You may be trying desperately to save your relationship – or you may be almost out the door and have agreed to give this one more shot. You might have had a horrible fight recently that leaves both partners exhausted and wounded. So now I’m going to share a prejudice of mine: People who seek the help of a therapist for couples work should see someone who is specifically trained to work with couples. A therapist who is really good at working with individuals, may not be so helpful with couples. Teaching communication skills can be very useful, for sure, but every couple brings with them a rich and complex dynamic. It is this dynamic (or system….or cycle) that a therapist needs to understand and touch. When we are stressed in our relationship we already feel alone and isolated. Working with couples from an individual perspective only strengthens this sense of isolation, I think. There are a number of wonderful ways to think about, and work with, couples in distress. Many like Susan Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Others develop an expertise in John Gottman’s approach. Still others use Brent Atkinson’s Emotionally Intelligent Couples Therapy approach, or Dan Wile’s Collaborative Couples Therapy. I prefer Johnson’s work, spiced by the work of these other exceptional and gifted people. There are certainly more kinds of couples therapy out there. My suggestion is that whoever you work with, make sure they have specific training and focus in an approach to couples therapy.
Over the last year, I have felt my practice moving away from divorce law and toward helping people maintain their relationships. I began to realize that the great majority of couples I help in mediation did not have to get divorced. (Now that’s a bit more complicated than this simple statement suggests, because by the time they go to a lawyer or divorce mediation, one of them, at least, has withdrawn from the marriage. For them the marriage is over and any effort to get them to change their mind will just be futile –more on that in another post.) Still, had these poor stressed and wounded people gotten some help on their relationship before the threshold to dissolution had been crossed, a relationship felt to be beyond repair could rise from the ashes. John Gottman, Ph.D. famously observed that studies suggest that, on average, couples wait six years after they know there are serious problems with their relationship, to see a counselor. That’s why any couples counselor has got to expect people to be hurt, angry, polarized and emotionally reactive when they first come in. Yet conflict and pain – even that which has endured for a few years – need not bring hopelessness. I have seen people re-establish connections and heal old wounds. It’s just a shame that so many couples I have worked with in the divorce arena never got that help in time.
I attended a wonderful conference on brief therapy a couple of years ago and concentrated on the folks who were presenting about marital/couples therapy. Thus inspired, I had dinner with an old friend and his second wife (also, now, a dear friend). Their union was very connected and sweet, and definitely had benefited from years of work. (They say a good marriage is work and whoever “they” are, you’d best believe them.) I had listened to my friend describe his first marriage and a mismatch which had produced his beloved daughter. The way he described the relationship, I had to come away with the belief that it was a good thing he had gotten divorce. So over dinner, I regaled him with my new-found commitment to the idea that any marriage can be saved and that divorce is an avoidable trauma – necessary only in cases of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual). My dear friend looked at me like I was nuts. He assured me that his first marriage would have resulted in years of despair for (probably) his wife and (certainly) for him. They were young. They were mis-matched.
In my years of helping people disentangle from painful marriages, I know very well that for one partner, the time comes that their emotional commitment to the marriage is simply gone. At some point there is no reviving a person’s commitment to a marriage. That person knows that the marriage is over in their heart. It is a very painful truth.
While it is definitely possible to stop this erosion of emotional commitment to a marriage before that line is crossed – once that last step is taken my observation from years of working with divorcing people is – there’s not going back. Sadly – wrenchingly – it’s over. There comes a time when our energies need to shift from holding onto a marriage that has emotionally ended for one person to recovering emotionally from the grief and loss of this transition and finding a new path that will, over time, bring fulfillment and love.