A Missing Piece in Couples Therapy

I am—despite that odd question arising after my last blog—not in the business of uncoupling people. I am more than ever invested in how I can guide couples to have a deeper committed long-term relationship in which both can feel safe. I have more recently discovered what the missing piece is in regards to being able to show up as the loving and compassionate Self with the other person. The answer lies in a particular practice which I will elaborate on more later in this article. But let’s first of all look at what is commonly done in therapy or coaching sessions and what the value of those approaches is.

Couples therapists like Stan Tatkin and Sue Johnson, who are based in attachment theory, empathize how important it is to create a secure attachment in our partnership. Stan Tatkin focuses among others on knowing each other’s threat signals and creating a “couple bubble” in which both partners feel safe with each other. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, says, “When EFT is successfully implemented, each partner becomes a source of security, protection, and contact comfort for the other. Each partner can assist the other in regulating negative affect and constructing a positive and potent sense of self.” (Susan M. Johnson: The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy).

For both of them, the answer to feeling safe, less anxious and less depressed lies in the connection between the partners. The goal is for each partner to learn how to show up as the unconditionally loving attachment figure for the other spouse. Your partner is your primary go to and the one who provides the safety for your childhood wounds to be healed. Their premise is that you need somebody outside of yourself to heal the past. If your partner is really struggling to be that person because their own defenses are triggered in the relationship this journey can be frustrating. Unless one partner already has a secure attachment style, the process of creating this attachment requires some time and commitment to working this out together.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, whose research-based insights and techniques I use in my sessions with clients, also have a wonderful set of tools to truly empathize, perfect communication between the partners, compromise successfully, and to avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which predict the end of a relationship.

Other couples therapists, like Willard Harley, focus on women’s and men’s needs being different and on making deposits into each others love bank, which is the emotional account we all have. I acknowledge the importance of our needs by teaching my clients the non-violent communication steps developed by Marshall Rosenberg to express our feelings and needs successfully.

All these are fabulous tools and techniques that can make a big difference in our closest relationships. When couples are willing to not just learn but also practice these techniques, their relationship improves. Besides making the commitment to put the time in to practice relating differently to each other, couples must learn how to handle situations when one or both partners get triggered into states of high emotional activation, into what is called fight or flight. When this happens, destructive patterns of interaction are activated and amends and repairs need to be made. Often the spouses feel discouraged by that setback. And that is were Richard C. Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy, known in short as IFS, comes in as a missing piece.

IFS helps couples replace their distant, controlling, or needy way of relating to each other by what Schwartz calls “courageous love”. This courageous love is accepting of everything we are and all our partner is. Within each of us is a group or “family” of sub-personalities, which Schwartz calls “parts”. Just like in a family, these parts have intricate relationships with each other. Some of the more known parts are the Inner Critic and the Inner Child, but we have many parts which, according to Hal and Sidra Stone and their system of voice dialogue, are either primary personality parts or disowned personality parts. IFS, in comparison, focuses mainly on two kinds of parts. One type is the “protectors”, which have the function to keep us safe; some of them are responsible for us going into fight or flight mode. There are also the “exiles”, which usually are younger wounded child parts.

Every message we get growing up from our family, our friends and the media, has conditioned us to believe that finding our soul mate, the One, will be the answer to our inner pain, our loneliness, sadness, fears or insecurities. The myth is that a special someone will come and love us unconditionally and heal all our childhood wounds. “We’ve been told that the love we need is a buried treasure hidden in the heart of a special intimate partner. Once we find that partner, the love we crave should flow elixir-like, filling our empty spaces and healing our pain” (Schwartz: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For”)

The truth is that our partner can no more relieve our sense of unloveability and unworthiness than the short term energy relieving behaviours (STERBS) we use to distract ourselves from our pain. The external focus on other people or on STERBS, like food, alcohol, drugs and so on as well as addictive activities, can only provide temporary relief. In fact, this very assumption that our partner is our rescuer is the reason why so many relationships struggle and fail.

“From watching movies or TV, listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one” (Schwartz).

We subconsciously pick a partner who matches the template of our original care-taker who has wounded us by making us feel “less than” or unworthy. And we set out with the unconscious agenda to relive the past but this time around change this person’s mind about our worthiness to heal that original wound. The problem is that our partner acts so much like our caretaker that he or she triggers our protectors. When the euphoria of the honeymoon period is over, and the love naturally changes, we get scared and, as Schwartz puts it, set to work on one of three projects.

The first “project” is to get our partner to change into that loving rescuer that we are hoping he or she will be for us. “We plead, criticize, demand, negotiate, seduce, withhold, and shame” (Schwartz). Naturally, most partners resist these attempts to change them and become defensive. They feel unloved and not accepted.

The second project that we embark on is to figure out what our partner doesn’t like about us and then strive to become what we think he or she wants us to be. In this case, the criticism and shame is directed at ourselves. We are no closer to true love and acceptance than when we are trying to change the other person.

The final project kicks in when we give up on getting the love we crave from our partner. We begin to close our heart to him or her and we do one of three things. We either search for a different partner, we numb down enough to stay with our original partner, or we fool ourselves into thinking that we need to live alone because we believe our true needs for love can never be met in an intimate relationship.

Women engage more in the first two change projects mentioned above, while men tend to more quickly retreat into the third behaviour. Shutting down externally often seems like the safest choice for men, especially when they experience strong inner angry protectors. Men often fear what they might do if they let that rage take over.

Women tend to define themselves through relationships and are socialized to take care of their inner child parts through relationships. When those exiled child parts are upset, they usually want to change things in their relationship so that the distressed inner child can get the love and comfort from their partner in order to feel safe and secure. Hence, women are more often the initiators of change-oriented discussions.

We tend to assume that women are more connected to their emotions and we jump to the conclusion that they should be better at parenting their own inner children. However, women focus so much on taking care of others and on getting their inner child’s needs met by their relationship, that they are no better at nurturing their own parts than men.

Schwartz talks about a cruel joke that is being played on all of us. “We’ve all been setup—victims of a cruel joke. First we are loaded with emotional burdens by our family and peers, and then taught to exile the parts carrying them. Then we are told to go out in the world and find that special person who can make us finally like ourselves. Together we and our partner enter the striving, frenetic whirlpool American lifestyle that preludes time together, isolates us from community, depletes and stresses us out, and offers innumerable addictive distractions that further isolate us. When we can’t make this impossible situation work, we feel like total failures—as though something is wrong with us.” (Schwartz) Meanwhile, we never had a fair chance due to the baggage many of us have and the pressure of modern life, but most of all due to the complete ignorance on how to deal with our inner turmoil, other than expecting our partner to miraculously make it go away.

The missing piece you have not been taught is how to parent yourself in a way that allows you to take care of our own inner wounds and to show up as your best self with your partner. You can stop searching outside of yourself because you are the special person your vulnerable inner child parts have been waiting for. Once you realize and embrace that insight fully, your partner will be released from the pressure to have to be the perfect unconditionally loving parent for your younger selves. IFS is essentially attachment theory taken inside.

In your partner’s place, your Aware Self will become the primary caretaker of your inner child parts so that your partner can be a secondary caretaker. Instead of your power parts, for example your Inner Pusher or Inner Perfectionist or Inner Pleaser, to just name a few, parenting your vulnerable inner children in their limited way, your true Self can give those parts what they so desperately need. Those protective parts are parentified inner children. They have taken on the job to protect you and thus parent the vulnerable child parts but are often quite burdened by it.

IFS is a psycho-spiritual model of therapy in which all human beings are perceived as healthy and whole. The Self is the spiritual aspect of this therapy. It is a myth that we have to learn or build compassion. Our true self is naturally accepting, loving and compassionate. All humans have this inner wisdom and healing energy. The Self is the healing entity. It is meant to be the natural leader of the inner system of parts. The Self is eternal, knows all and is not affected by any trauma. It connects us to others and to all living things. It is presence, heart-openness and conscious awareness. The Self is characterized by the eight C’s of self-leadership that Schwartz names. The Self is compassionate, calm, curious, connected, confident, courageous, creative and possesses clarity.

When you take care of all your parts from that Self, you can also show up from that calm, connected and compassionate stance with your partner. The way you relate to your own parts is mirrored in the way you are able to relate to your partner’s part. If you for example have a relationship with your own fearful part, you can be compassionate with your partner’s scared part.

When our power parts, for example anger, control, defensiveness, judgement, righteousness or even our distant rational self are triggered, we are usually blended with them or have a feeling of being taken over by them. Interactions with our partner from a place of anger, judgement, righteousness, defensiveness or control are clearly not productive but are greatly damaging for the relationship. Instead of our power parts taking us over in a given moment, we ideally want to be able to speak for the parts rather than being immersed by them and speaking from those powerful parts.

We also want to be able to speak for our vulnerable inner child and their needs rather than having the child take us over. When that child takes over and jumps into the driver’s seat, we might show up as overly scared, helpless, or moody. Our partner is left wondering what to do with this child-like behaviour and finds himself or herself in an involuntary parenting role.

The myth of us having a monolithic personality, which translates into being only one mind, is according to Schwartz one of the greatest causes of distance and conflict in our intimate relationships. That awareness of our parts, our natural multiplicity, on the other hand, is the greatest antidote. Instead of believing our partner is this angry or controlling person, or they are this distant judgmental person that shows up at times, we can relax into the awareness that this is just a part of them and that it serves the function of protection. When both partners are totally flooded by their protector parts, the knowledge that this isn’t a permanent condition but that the protectors on both sides will relax and the two Selves will emerge is extremely eye opening and comforting. We can then both work with our own parts to get back into Self and then repair and reconnect with our partner from a loving and compassionate place.

Not only does the knowledge of the multiplicity help us navigate through storms, but it can also deepen the intimacy and love. We all have fears that once we have exposed our parts that cause difficulties, we will forever be seen by the other person as having character flaws. If both partners understand that those are just parts of each of them, parts that simply need empathy and acceptance, it is easier to respond to each other lovingly. As we learn to love and accept all our own inner parts, we also learn to love and accept all parts in our partner.

“There is something magical about trusting that all of you is welcomed in a relationship. It’s as if you are a single parent who feels ashamed of how ugly, stupid, or frail some of your children are” (Schwartz). When this process of welcoming all parts of oneself and of ones partner is mutual, it provides such a secure couples connection that the protectors can relax more and more and both partner’s younger parts know it is safe to come out.

Join me on Sunday, June 24 for an “Intro to Your Parts and to Your Self” workshop from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. This workshop is based in Jay Earley’s parts work. For more information please call or email.

Contact me for a free phone consultation on either individual sessions or couple’s coaching. I also offer packages for couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!

Conscious Uncoupling

I have been going through the process of consciously uncoupling over a period of several months, starting last year. 2017 brought me some major personal life changes and challenges. I experienced a couple of catalysts in the second part of the year to bring to my attention that my long-term partnership needed to be evaluated and transformed. Until these two events unfolded, I had been trying to fix instead of admitting that repairing only works when you still have enough overlap in your value systems. The catalytic events brought to the surface that we had reached an impasse. Our needs and wants as well as our core values, by which we as humans all live, had grown farther and farther apart. And we cannot compromise our core values or ask this from another person. To live in integrity with our values is one of the most important decisions to make for our happiness and health.

So how do we part consciously? How do we transform a romantic relationship into a friendship in which we feel safe?

When a relationship nears its end, you might have experienced that you are tempted “to try to violently vomit someone right up and out of your heart and soul” (Katherine Woodward Thomas). Ironically, by trying to cut a relationship off too quickly, we keep the connection festering in our psyche. Contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds. John James and Russell Friedman name this idea as one of the myths around loss which hold us back from achieving completion. It depends on what we decide to do with the time.

Initially, my experience was deep grief. Part of the grieving when a relationship ends is around grieving the future, or as Katherine Woodward Thomas says, “Much of the horror of a breakup is the insult to our expectations of how this story was supposed to unfold versus how it actually did”.

Woodward Thomas points out that “when our expectations are in line with reality, our brains receive a hefty dopamine hit to reward us… Yet, when our expectations are not met, our stress levels shoot through the roof, shifting our brains into a threat state”. Failed expectations can throw us into deep confusion and inner chaos. We might even experience humiliation, inferiority or shame because of the external rules and expectations of society.

The phrase “and they lived happily ever after” summarizes our collective story of how romantic love is supposed to work. If it lasts, then it’s real love; if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t love to begin with. But we are forgetting that people and their needs and value systems simply change.

So rather than defining the success of a relationship by whether it lasted “until death do us part” or not, why don’t we define the value of it by the wisdom and learning we have gained. A second, and in my mind very important, way of defining success or failure of a relationship is by consciously deciding to end a union in a loving way rather than with hatred and revenge.

Conscious uncoupling is “a way to end a romantic union with dignity, goodness, and honor, and where no one was left shattered or destroyed by the experience.” (Katherine Woodward Thomas). It is the decision to remain as conscious as possible while separating and to strive to overcome the impulses of our limbic-brain. The aim of conscious uncoupling is to plant seeds of forgiveness, goodwill and generosity. The word generous shares the same root as “genesis” and “generate”, which means “beginning” or “to give birth”. One way to be generous and initiate a new beginning is to get to a place where we can honestly offer a blessing to our former partner, wishing them well.

Of course it is great if both partners want to part this way, but it only takes one person to consciously uncouple. Even if your partner is revengeful or angry, you are not bound to behave in kind. Even if he or she does not show up as generous, you have the choice to be that forgiving person. The motivation of forgiveness is for-giving yourself freedom, so that you can move forward empowered to create a happy, healthy life. In order to do that, we need to take what is ugly and rotting, and turn it into “compost” to grow something better from it.

Most marriages or relationships unfortunately end with one or both parties becoming obsessed with winning or getting some form of revenge. Angry and reactive words and deeds are the norm. Well-meaning friends or family members can also do some damage. They often want to see us as a strong hero or heroine. They tend to take sides, “insisting upon devaluing, diminishing, and dismissing your former love, and your relationship in the process, to try and help you move on” (Woodward-Thomas) but that will not ultimately bring us relief and peace. After all, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference or detachment. Hate is just as strong a bond as love, and keeps us energetically tied to our former partner.

And because our brain is hardwired to keep us safe and ensure our survival, it is also prone to stay connected to the previous attachment figure. For our ancestors, being part of the tribe was essential for survival. Being rejected and excluded creates feelings of unsafety and danger in the reptilian complex, the evolutionarily oldest part of our brain. To that part of our brain, it might seem that it is better to have a negative bond than no bond at all.

To comprehend the pull a former love can still have, we need to understand what happens in our brain when we love somebody and lose somebody. In her TED talk “The Brain in Love”, Dr. Helen Fisher shares how brain research shows activity in the brain cells which produces dopamine when we are in love. This area is part of the brain’s reward system, part of the reptilian core of the brain, below our cognitive functions or more advanced parts of our brain. The same brain region becomes active when someone feels the rush of cocaine.

But romantic love can become even more of an obsession than cocaine. The obsession can get worse when you have been rejected. Our conscious mind is very much aware that the best thing to do is move on and start a new life, but our brains are hardwired to increase our desire for the one we are losing because the exact part of the brain that became activated when we fell in love is the part of the brain that becomes stimulated when we are rejected. It sparks activity in the brain that is similar to the experience of a cocaine addict seeking that next fix.

Dr. Fisher sums it up by saying, “I have come to believe that romantic love is an addiction. A perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly… Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on earth.” Love comes from the wanting or craving part of our mind; it’s a drive.

In fact, three different brain systems are involved in the experience of being in a loving relationship, says Fisher in another talk titled “Why We Love, Why We Cheat”. One is the part of the brain where the craving for sexual gratification originates from, you might want to call it lust. The second of these brain systems is romantic love, characterized by the elation of early love. The third brain system is attachment; that sense of calm and security that you can feel with a long-term partner. Our brain’s main function is to ensure survival of the species. The sexual energy prompts us to look for a number of partners for the survival of our genes, romantic love focuses us on one partner and the attachment need we have enables us—according to Fisher—to tolerate this human being long enough to raise a child together as a team.

The three brain systems don’t always go together and that’s where complications occur. They can go together and that’s why casual sex is not always casual. When experiencing orgasms, you get a spike of dopamine and a rush of oxytocin. Dopamine is associated with romantic love and oxytocin with attachment. We can experience a sense of a strong cosmic union with someone after we have made love to them. That’s when we can fall in love with somebody who we just wanted to have casual sex with.

But these three brain systems aren’t always connected to each other. We can feel deep attachment to one person while we can feel romantic love or sexual attraction to another person. Good long-lasting healthy relationships need to be consciously created despite these instincts. We need to understand our learned attachment styles so we can actually form a long-lasting, secure bond.

So what if we would not just strive to consciously create fulfilling and well-functioning relationships, but also create break-ups “where neither party was blamed or shamed, yet where both people were left valued and appreciated for all that they’d given one another” (Katherine Woodward Thomas)?

If a love relationship ends for any other reason than death of one partner, we assume that it failed. Yet, we would never say a friendship or business venture was a failure if after some time one or both people realize their needs aren’t met and it is time to move on to new adventures.

Life changes, like a relationship loss, are a time when we find ourselves in the corridor between two worlds. We are no longer the person we used to be, and not quite yet the person we are going to become. Even though a break-up is most likely one of the more painful experiences we can have in our life, it holds great promise for growth and awakening.

Every fear and insecurity we have ever swept under the rug now stares us straight in the face to be dealt with. But you can use the shock of the loss “to break your heart open, expanding and enlarging your capacity to authentically love yourself and others” (Katherine Woodward Thomas).

If we do not work on completion of a relationship, the baggage we have buried will come up again in the next relationship. It will leak out in toxic and destructive ways into the relationships we have, which are ultimately all a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her former husband, Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, brought conscious uncoupling into the headlines of the press when they announced the end of their marriage in 2014. I would like to end with their announcement as a perfect example of uncoupling with consciousness:

“It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate… We have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer that we have ever been.”

 

Are you in the process of creating or improving a relationship, or in the process of ending a relationship, and you want to do it with as much consciousness as possible and in the highest wisdom and benefit for all involved?

Contact me for a free phone consultation on either individual sessions or couple’s coaching. I also offer packages for couples. You can request the phone consultation by email. Selected time slots are also available to book through my online calendar.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!