We humans are somewhat “pain-phobic”. We don’t like it much–for good reasons. The most primitive parts of our brains equate pain with death, so it’s understandable why we are programmed to avoid it. Emotional pain can be even more difficult for us than physical pain, partly because it comes from sources we can’t see, and we can more readily ignore it. That makes it very easy to deny that we are having emotional pain.
Most of couples’ recycling dramas are an attempt to avoid pain, and certainly to avoid being blamed for causing pain. The pain that those dramas are attempting to bring to consciousness is about permanent losses, so again it’s understandable why we try very hard to skip it. The wounds and traumas from childhood represent the permanent loss of the childhood one wished to have. That is largely why couples nonconsciously collude to believe that the pain they are experiencing is only coming from their present lives. It hurts too much to know that they cannot eliminate the pain of childhood losses through their adult relationships.
Tolerating pain is about being able to hold a conscious experience of that pain in one’s mind long enough to actually feel it, label it, and talk about it. I have often seen a flicker of seeming pain in one partner’s eyes that doesn’t stay–i. e., cannot be tolerated. I have learned to respect the timing of that person’s brain; it knows when that feeling can and cannot be tolerated. When childhood pain comes to the surface during couple dramas, it is always experienced as feeling precisely as intense and dangerous as when it was originally stored. It is understandable that this is frightening and threatening. If a partner’s brain is not ready to tolerate the fear of his or her pain, then we have to wait until it is.
Often one partner is more ready than the other. Observing the safe therapist competently and comfortably explore, validate and understand that partner’s pain gradually reassures the other partner’s brain that accessing her or his own pain can actually produce relief. Both partners can then begin to feel the enhanced closeness between them that arises from mutual empathy and understanding.
Concerns expressed by many therapists are that clients will become overwhelmed or even be re-traumatized by consciously accessing and talking about old pain. Rest assured, it is impossible for re-traumatizing to occur in a therapy session for these reasons: 1) your clients are no longer children; thus they have much better brain capacity for tolerating difficult feelings; 2) your clients are not alone; they are with you and each other, and they are receiving validation and understanding; and 3) there is no real danger that must be escaped. Feeling overwhelmed goes with the territory of accessing old wounds and traumas. If the therapist is respecting the timing of each partner’s brain, there is no danger in feeling overwhelmed.