To maintain a safe treatment, the skillful therapist needs to know about the creative strategies our brains employ to force the reliving of stored childhood feelings that are waiting to be metabolized. The therapist must be able to recognize the beginning of the metabolizing process in order to reframe painful and potentially dangerous experiences between partners as helpful and productive.
As a couple lives together, their brains gather more and more data–predominantly outside of conscious awareness–about precisely how they can trigger each other into a situation in which they will both experience childhood feelings. The situation in the present that triggers the reliving of old feelings is attempting to kick-start the metabolizing process. I have compared the triggering situation to the starter in a car and the stored feelings to the engine that keeps a conflict going. The real-life disturbance lasts only long enough to trigger old feelings; the continuing battle is the opening of an opportunity to metabolize them. The therapist’s job is to help a couple learn to take advantage of that opportunity.
Exaggerations and distortions of reality are among the brain strategies that set the stage for reliving childhood feelings. For instance, it may take only a slight indication of aggression from one partner to be perceived as threatening or frightening. If the other partner’s brain needs to experience fear, it will do whatever is necessary to see the situation as warranting fear. These exaggerations or distortions of reality can fuel many arguments between partners about whose version of what has happened in the present is the truth. The skillful therapist knows that seeking this “truth” is not helpful; what is important is that the feelings being experienced by both partners are 100% valid and must be fully explored.
The exaggerations and distortions of reality that are designed to foster a reliving experience lead partners to mischaracterize and pejoratively label each other. A partner who gets his facts a little mixed up gradually gets perceived as a “liar”, and one who is more comfortable expressing her anger is seen as “abusive”. The safe therapist knows to divert couples from a distorted image of their partner toward awareness of their own childhood feelings that are pushing to the surface.
Another very common brain strategy is what we call the perfect storm. This is a form of mutual triggering in which the childhood-fueled reaction of one partner in a conflict simultaneously triggers old feelings in the other partner. A couple I treated repeatedly experienced a perfect storm that served up feelings of abandonment and fear for her and anger about feeling criticized for him. Whenever a situation arose in their daily lives in which he felt unfairly judged by her, he would angrily leave their home for long periods of time, which triggered her old feelings of fear of being left. Moving this recycling drama into mutual metabolizing became the goal of treatment.