Conflicts in couple relationships hand us the potential for profound, deep, permanent change “on a silver platter”. Knowing how to respond to this opportunity is the key to effective couples treatment. Too often couple conflicts make therapists anxious, and they prematurely shut down the most fertile ground for empathy and understanding. In a previous blog post, I addressed the concept of regulation. This should be an end-goal for the work; not the first reaction from the therapist.
From the beginning of treatment, couples are verbalizing the mutual triggers that spark their repetitive conflicts. In the first session — certainly by the second — one or both of them will spontaneously share a meaningful phrase that is usually stated in simple language and is loaded with important, unmetabolized feelings. The therapist will know that this important phrase has been spoken, because a mental or physical alert signal inside the therapist will be saying, “Pay attention to this.”
These meaningful phrases come directly from a client’s childhood experience and hold within them a range of feelings that the right brain is trying to metabolize. The conflict with their partner has perfectly created scenarios in which these phrases can be accessed and spoken. Here are some examples:
“When you do (say) that, I feel ‘punched in the gut’.” “I can’t talk to you.” “It isn’t worth it” (which is often heard as you’re not worth it). “Nobody’s home.” “What’s wrong with me?” “You’re a monster!” “Nobody listens to me.” “I’m just trying to do this right.”
Any of these types of spontaneous utterances must be met with intense curiosity and explored in exquisite detail. The therapist must have a completely open mind as questions are asked for deeper and deeper clarification. It is truly not important what the therapist thinks about the meanings of these statements–only what the clients are saying about them–because the therapist just might be incorrect.
Both partners must get the message from the therapist that their most dysregulated affect can be expressed and explored during treatment. You cannot get “to the bottom” of people’s traumas if there is an atmosphere of restraint. It is so tempting to try to protect the partner who seems the most vulnerable from inflammatory, cruel, or destructive language from the other partner. Often I try to mitigate this by saying something like, “(S)he isn’t talking about you, but we’re going to find out who (s)he is talking about.”
I have stated before that if the therapist assesses that there is true, imminent danger in the relationship, appropriate steps should be taken to keep clients safe. But this isn’t often the case, unless the therapist is working in a domestic violence setting.
In Neurodynamic Couples Therapy, we are not teaching couples to be more loving. They can learn that in other places. We are helping them experience taking advantage of a neurobiologically natural process that creates profound internal change in both partners.