All of the previous guidelines I have shared about creating safety in couples treatment are in preparation for teaching a couple to be genuinely curious about each other’s internal worlds. In previous posts, I have frequently mentioned the need for the therapist to be in an openly curious state of mind, but here I will focus on helping the couple develop this skill, as well.
Only when both partners have relinquished the quest for establishing blame, taken responsibility for their own part of their struggles, and stopped believing that there is a quick behavioral “fix” for their problems are they ready to transition from the safety phase of the treatment to the internal healing phase. Safety is always important throughout the treatment, but the therapist will not have to spend a lot of session time reminding the couple how to be safe with each other once they begin demonstrating genuine curiosity. When it is clear that both partners earnestly want to know what it has been like to be them, they are ready to move on to using their relationship to heal each other.
In a state of genuine curiosity, couples no longer judge each other’s feelings or behavior as right or wrong. No one is particularly worried about guilt or shame in the present, because no one is getting blamed for causing their feelings. They want the full background story on why their partner feels the way they do; why a certain behavior bothers them; what happened to them to create their feelings.
This curiosity is not just for an intellectual understanding, although that is part of the picture. As we all know, true empathy is about “feeling the other’s feelings”–having a visceral experience of their story. As they develop genuine curiosity, I have repeatedly found that couples are astonished at the matching quality of their childhood feelings, particularly when their external circumstances appear opposite. As they shared their inner worlds, I have had many a client exclaim, “That happened to you, too?!; “You felt that way, too?!; “I had the same thing happen to me!” And often this experience was with couples who had been married for many years. They hadn’t listened to each other’s stories with genuine, heartfelt curiosity before.
In Neurodynamic Couples Therapy we believe that this process is what partners’ right brains chose each other to do. The nonconscious portion of their minds have known about these matching feelings from the moment they met and fell in love. They have been waiting for the conscious minds to get ready to experience the excitement of genuinely knowing each other for the first time and mutually freeing the hurting children in their heads and hearts. They are open to supporting each other through whatever pain may arise, as well as enjoying the unfolding of the ongoing adult development that is created through giving voice to the self that has been silent for a very long time.
Next post: The goal of couples treatment