Our clients who are continuing to blame others, clinging to the victim role in their relationship, or refusing to take responsibility for their own feelings and behaviors have not given up being someone’s child to become someone’s partner. They have failed to mourn the end of childhood. Our clients who have mourned the end of childhood are ready to use the conflicts in their marriages to assign the powerful feelings that come up between them to their childhood pasts in order to truly heal them permanently.
As couples focus their repetitive, circular arguments–called recycling dramas in Neurodynamic Couples Therapy–only on the present conflict between them, they are succumbing to an understandable wish that the unsatisfactory and painful realities of their childhoods can be exorcised through changing their partner’s current behavior. Helping them move toward the safer option of consciously mourning the end of childhood starts with the therapist confirming that it is natural to wish their pasts could be undone and re-done. Who wouldn’t want to escape the often tremendous pain of having to feel and sit with the losses represented by a harmful childhood–to know that it is over; done; can’t be “fixed”; and that you are stuck with your own pain?
The nonconscious part of our brains have a bit of a paradox going. They want to rid themselves of the unfinished emotional wounds and traumas of the past, but they would prefer to do it in a way that ignores permanent losses. The primitive brain interprets permanent loss as being similar to death, so it is programmed to avoid awareness of this. All of us who have treated couples know that partners are usually chronically trying to get each other to behave exactly the way they want in order to repair parental experiences–to escape the reality that partner love cannot repair deficits in parental love.
Helping our clients mourn the end of childhood means that we gently and empathically guide them toward assigning all of the most visceral feelings they are experiencing in the moment to their childhood pasts instead of each other. The safe therapist emphasizes that this is extremely hard to do. Many people link assigning feelings to the past with blaming their parents, which they usually don’t want to do. And they desperately want to hold open the possibility that changing their present will automatically change their past.
We must gradually bolster their confidence in their abilities to tolerate their own pain in order to help them relinquish “making” their partner protect them from the permanent losses they are attempting to avoid. This is necessary for couples to engage in a safe treatment. Their brains will compel them to relive feelings from their childhoods that are waiting to be healed, but that healing will only happen if they can give up wishing for magic and accept the pain of permanent loss.