One of the earliest posts in this blog was about “The Eyes and Ears of the Children”. The content of that post was centered around reminding couples therapists who want to set a safe tone for treatment to maintain awareness of the two “children” who are sitting in front of them and desperately want to be understood. It is almost eerily common that the child in each partner’s brain will reveal in the first session (or soon thereafter) some extremely important element of their childhood pain that is needing to be metabolized. This revelation comes out in child language–the types of expressions that are typical of a person under age 6.
We therapists who have spent many years learning and honing our craft have along the way assimilated a lot of “25-dollar” words–fancy, albeit scientifically accurate terms to describe how we understand people and their problems. Although it can make us feel good to show our clients how smart we are, even when we are absolutely correct in our beautiful conceptualizations, using professional jargon triggers the left brain, shutting down the exploration of those right-brain feelings that are trying to get metabolized.
The skillful therapist must learn to listen very carefully for the sharing of these childlike phrases from both partners. Therapists who become adept at this say that they will actually get a type of tingling feeling when one of these important child statements is uttered. Even if the therapist says nothing about it at the time, the experience of that statement is now present in memory and can be accessed by the therapist at the right moment for the couple.
An example might be useful here. I was seeing a couple in which she was one of the youngest of nine children, and he was one of the twins who were his parents only children. Their chief complaint when they came to treatment was that they couldn’t talk to each other. In one of their sessions early in the treatment, she described her experience of trying to talk to her husband as, “It’s just not worth it.” He heard this as, “You’re just not worth it”, which of course triggered a great deal of pain and anger in him.
As the treatment progressed, the significance and healing power of fully understanding the meaning of these phrases for them became quite clear. In a family of eleven people, she had repeatedly experienced feeling “It’s just not worth it” when she reached out for time and attention. There wasn’t enough to go around. In his case, his mother was completely overwhelmed with taking care of twins and repeatedly transmitted feelings of “You’re not worth all the trouble” to her son. In their therapy, they often referred back to these critically pivotal phrases as they dug into the depth of the painful feelings these evoked. These became the basis of powerful empathy that eliminated their communication problems.