Therapists who are helping couples build an integrated relationship are committed to fostering curiosity in both partners. Painful, repetitive, circular conflicts are interpreted as invitations to metabolize unintegrated feelings–not as differences to be negotiated and resolved. Partners are encouraged to ask themselves, “Why is this argument bothering me this particular way at this particular moment?”
When most couples come for treatment, they usually believe that there is a problem that is the source of their troubles, and they usually locate that problem within their partner. They want the therapist to tell them how to “fix” the problem so they can get back to enjoying their relationship, or maybe decide whether they want the relationship at all. Building an integrated relationship is the furthest thing from their minds!
In Neurodynamic Couples Therapy, we begin with separating the problem from the feelings about the problem. We equally validate both partners’ feelings about the problem, while beginning to introduce the notion that activating those feelings was the natural and helpful reason both of their brains created the problem in the first place. We deemphasize the problem and highlight the feelings with statements something like, “I can’t even begin to help you with this problem until I fully understand how both of you are experiencing it.”
Further in-depth exploration of both partners’ feelings to reveal in detail what they have experienced around the problem becomes the focus of the treatment. The therapist asks one question on top of another to get a fully developed picture of each partner’s internal response to the problem: “What happens inside of you when your partner xxx?” “How often do you have this feeling?” “When did it start?” “Did you feel it when you were a child?” “Did anyone ever tell you that feeling is wrong?” “Are you ashamed of having this feeling?” “Do you think your partner understands your feeling?” “What is the one way you could describe this feeling that you think no one would ever understand?” etc., etc., etc. There are often other questions that are particular to the couple’s problem. The point is to ask enough in as many sessions as necessary for both the therapist and the couple to viscerally get what both partners are feeling.
Being in a therapist’s office together when this happens creates the perfect conditions for building an integrated relationship. The feelings that have been activated surrounding the problem always represent unintegrated aspects of both partners. As the couple is encouraged to talk about their emotions from the standpoint of discovery, understanding, and empathy, the problem that originally brought them to treatment dissolves. Their focus shifts to the pleasure of a newly formed bond around integration. Conflicts can then be seen with no judgments about who is right or wrong or entitled to their feelings. They can be appreciated as the special windows into self and other awareness that can only open when partners have mutually triggered each other.
Next post: Mutual emotional triggers