How I Work
The aim of couple’s therapy is to help you find joy again, to deescalate conflict, if necessary, and renew your relationship. It takes courage and commitment to get there, but that’s our goal.
The Heart of the Matter:
To understand how we get to our goal, we must understand what’s at the heart of the challenge: the dance you’re in is driven, at heart, by our instinctive need for attachment. We all – every one of us, male or female alike! – to some degree, need to feel safe and cared for through social connection. It’s hardwired into us by eons of evolution. Ever wonder why a baby cries without its mother, even though it is in no pain whatsoever – that’s why! When we don’t feel safe or cared for by our loved ones in general or importantly, in any given moment, our fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms kick in.
When our partner criticizes or blames, withdraws or avoids, our brain experiences it as a threat. We feel, depending up the circumstance, hurt, sad, or afraid. And in many, many cases, we’re mostly not aware of these feelings.
Hurt: “That’s not fair”, “That was mean”, and so on. We often think of this as “rejection.” However, at heart, we experience ourselves as less important to our partner than we want to be. That’s scary! The appraisal hits our hardwiring at a very primal level; it hits the same circuits that mediate physical pain. As a result, it hurts!
Sadness: A break in our connection with our partner can also cause dejection. The panic of our partner not being there or hurting us is experienced as a loss of support, of caring, and gives us a sense of helplessness and its twin, hopelessness.
Fear: The core of what drives destructive dances is fear. Fear is nature’s way of protecting us. We evolved as social beings and one key way we stay connected is fear. Loss of connection – even with something as simple as an unkind word or unempathic response – can hit us with the terror of being abandoned or alone.
These core emotions fuel our fight, flight, or freeze response. We attack, expressed through anger. Or we freeze or flee, manifest as avoidance or withdrawal.
The Foundation of Successful Partnership
“Rewarding”, that is the core of happy relationship. This sense of reward stands, in particular, on the responsiveness of you and your partner to the other. Does your partner support and promote your wellbeing? And visa-versa?
When responsiveness is not there, our partnership becomes decreasingly rewarding until it becomes a source of at best, apathy and at worst, outright suffering. The Demon Dialogues have taken over, and in a manner of speaking, all hell breaks loose.
On the other hand, when our partner is available, responsive, and engaged, we feel safe and cared for and there exists a foundation for intimacy and happiness (Johnson, 2008). We can survive emotional injuries because our foundation is secure. And we are more fulfilled because our partner understands and responds to our needs, including ultimately for security and caring. This creates a “virtuous cycle” that strengthens our connection and provides the opportunity for satisfaction and fulfillment.
The Tools for Foundation Creation: Key elements to the creation of a secure foundation are mindfulness, self-control, and therapeutic communication.
Mindfulness: In many cases, we don’t even know why we are fighting or why we are unable to not get sucked in to a pattern of interaction. It happens because we mostly aren’t aware of the core emotions driving our decisions. The emotional experiences happen in the blink of an eye and they are quickly covered by anger or undone by action.
Self-control: The more aware we become of the hurt, sadness, and fear and our attempt to avoid them, the more we can choose differently, both in asking for what we need and hearing and understanding what our partner needs. We can pause; we can stop and really choose, in particular to not start a conflict or retaliate, to not lash out or withdraw. Eventually, we can choose to care and to love. We are empowered, rather than enslaved.
Therapeutic Communication: On the one hand, we need to develop the ability to reveal ourselves, our wants, needs, fears, etc. in a way where we can be understood and responded to affectively. We need to learn to avoid blaming, accusing, or name-calling, to express our feelings and thoughts, and to be open to self-discovery. Self-control allows us to choose this path, rather than the dead-end road we have been on. On the other hand, we need to develop the ability to listen, “hear”, and respond. Empathy is critical. We also must be able to inquire out of care and curiosity and with the intent to understand, rather than win or hurt. Repeating back what you have heard supports understanding. Understanding and consideration are critical to responsiveness, to choosing to sooth your partner and meet them.
Having laid out our starting point and our goal, we can touch finally on the path we’ll travel between start and finish.