Today, I have something reverberating in my skull from a couple I saw. It was a couple who almost never have conflict, who are always nice to each other, treat each other with respect and never rock the boat by saying anything that might reveal too much or get too deep. Why? What’s really going on? Many people would say that they just need to learn how to open up and be willing to be vulnerable with each other. A lot of shrinks will make good money by just meeting their expectations: by training them in “good communication techniques” or good “repair techniques.” I despair that this is what’s most often offered by us so-called professionals.
This is what I suggested to them and I’ll try to simplify for brevity.
1) They’re not communicating intimately because they’re too vulnerable. The virtue is to get less vulnerable so that they can risk exposing more.
2) When they self-edit and refrain from sharing an intimate awareness, their unconscious is actually anticipating what their partner’s emotional reaction might be in the worst case scenario. They’re usually anticipating that their partner will show angry disapproval or hurt feelings. That’s not the end of it though.
3) They’re also anticipating that once they see their partner’s reaction, that they won’t be able to prevent their own shame/guilt emotional shutdown response that will feel horrific. They don’t really feel confident in being able to boundary off from their partner’s mind.
4) Because they anticipate far in advance that they might wind up awash in shame or guilt, and they don’t feel confident that they can stop their reaction, they wind up avoiding even the consideration of sharing their thoughts on a deeper level.
What’s important is to realize that this is all taken care of by the unconscious. The choice to share intimate thoughts and feelings just never seems to come up to the surface. Isn’t that interesting? I also find it interesting that shrink types just never want to really think this through. That’s too bad because if they did there would be a lot more effective therapy helping people out with these kinds of problems. Instead we just see this garbage about how people need to be taught how to communicate better!
So anyway I tried a new homework exercise assignment with this couple. It’s too detailed to give here but it’s similar to a longer therapy I developed that works quite well in the ofiice. If it works, it will be very useful for many couples. If it doesn’t, I’ll go back to the drawing boards.
Here’s a real paradox. The world tells us how we should always try to empathize and be sensitive to each other’s minds. But I think that automatically and compulsively being empathic all the time is a prescription for communication breakdown. If you don’t have a way of defending yourself from painful feelings then you’ll just distance in any relationship by avoiding deeper communication. At least that’s what your unconscious will do for you. Try this paradox: Being confident in your ability to mentally build your separate frame of meaning can actually give you the confidence to risk closeness. So dynamic separateness is necessary for emotional togetherness! Weird, huh?
So this is what goes through my mind. I feel quite alone because I can’t get most clinical colleagues to think this through. However, I’ve been very gratified by some of these ideas being appreciated by some research types in the scientific community (ie. Reversal Theory folks). It feels like I’m exploring a strange land where there are no other human footprints. It’s exciting and that’s why I lose sleep. It’s also why my wife Helen finds me zoning out sometimes. “Earth to Bryce…Earth to Bryce….” she calls. At least she’s not bored when I do answer. Bryce (12/30/2009)