Helping couples tolerate the pain that accompanies repairing dramas is about setting the stage for them to learn how to manage tremendous heartache. I once heard the entire process of psychotherapy boiled down to joining with our clients in bearing the unbearable. Couples come to us believing that their pain is unbearable, and we have to safely and gradually show them that it is not.
During recycling dramas, the right brains of both partners are compelling them to live again the pain of childhood losses, wounds and traumas. This reliving in order to make old feelings conscious is natural, inevitable and unavoidable. A client once asked me, “Why are you making me do this?” My answer was, “I’m not making you do anything–your own brain is.” This can be so hard for couples. They desperately want the unbearable to be over. To believe that they have actually chosen a mate who is going to “make” them live it again can seem utterly intolerable.
There is often great fear surrounding the reliving of old wounds and traumas–both on the part of the couple and the therapist. When a childhood wound or trauma surfaces, it can feel like it is happening again in the present. Experiencing it the same way as in the past is absolutely necessary to completely and finally heal it. One of the toughest parts of being a therapist is to sit with people who are experiencing in vivo some of the worst moments of their lives. We often want to comfort too much too soon, instead of allowing the most painful experiences of the past to be viscerally felt in the present. Over-protecting does not allow our clients to experience that they can bear what they have thought was unbearable. Saying “Yes, you can” to a client who is insisting she or he “can’t stand it” is actually effective. In essence, what the therapist is saying is “We are right here with you–we’re all going to do this together, and I know you’re capable of handling it.”
Couples who feel safe in their treatment will gradually take the risk to stop their focus on the present conflicts in their relationship, often fed by mutual blaming, and join in a partnership of learning to bear the unbearable about their childhoods together. They transition from being adversaries to being each other’s cheerleaders. They begin to see their mutual reliving of the unbearable as an opportunity, rather than something to be avoided.
There is no better bonding experience than being a witness to the unfolding expressions of heartbreaking pain from the past that has shaped much of who your partner has become. The level of deep understanding of each other that comes out of this process eliminates the need for most of a couple’s usual conflicts. Intimately knowing each other’s childhood pain is much more effective than the best negotiations imaginable.
Next post: Matching pain