A couple walks into an office for the first time. They take their seats at opposite ends of a couch. After a short flurry of legalisms, a small contract is passed out and the two steal an anxious look at one another, “What is it we’re getting ourselves into here?”.
The therapist speaks for a bit and the two are mildly reassured. They steal another glance and one of them nods, “This is normal. This is what normal people do.” After a cautionary inhale, the more outspoken of the two offers an explanation for their presence in the room. Perhaps the other contributes to the commentary. Perhaps not. Either way, the stage has now been set. A crucial pivot point in the relationship has been reached and passed. What was once a private dynamic between two frustrated individuals is now in the temporary care of the therapeutic container.
Asking for help is a courageous act. It takes admitting that your current strategies in life are not working as well as you’d like. This takes all the more courage when there are two who must agree, not only that their strategies are failing, but on the structure and timing for the repair.
In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to unmask the magic that can happen when you engage your partnership in couples therapy. From a Relational Psychology perspective, the expertise of the therapist is but a secondary factor that leads to positive results. Of primary importance is the re-activation of one’s mirror neurons while in relationship. This occurs naturally – and often unconsciously – during therapy in the form of shared narratives and intersubjective crisis resolutions. These unexpected states of relational healing take place regardless of the “chemistry” that a couple might happen to feel for their therapist. They require only an investment of time and attention within a therapeutic container, the boot camp for one’s mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons sit adjacent to motor neurons. They fire in an observer who is doing nothing but watching another person behave (e.g. reaching for a glass). And the pattern of firing in the observer mimics the exact pattern that the observer would use if he were reaching for the glass himself. In brief, the visual information we receive when we watch another act gets mapped onto the equivalent motor representation in our own brain by the activity of these mirror neurons…We experience the other as if we were executing the same action, feeling the same emotion, making the same vocalization, or being touched as they are being touched. (p. 79)
Mirror neurons are key to our development as social creatures. Though they are an inherent part of our brain chemistry when falling in love, we are capable of jettisoning their use when we feel threatened or when focused on a fixed point perspective. The couple that has lost touch with each other over the years may feel that their empathy has simply dried up, “I used to trust that we understood each other. But now I just look at him with this vacant stare. Who is this guy?”
Though it may be a specific crisis requiring a specific solution that brings a couple to counseling, the real work often involves addressing a broader question: “Are you even capable of caring about this person again?” When you look at your partner and see only the threat of continued disappointment, the fear of criticism, or the rage of your unmet needs, you can bet that your mirror neurons have been taking a long (perhaps much warranted) vacation.
Learning and practicing the skills of active listening are the main curriculum of the therapeutic container. Couples come to therapy to feel heard. They come seeking a safe refuge from their own fixed point perspectives. This takes real effort; an investment in unveiling one’s feelings while at the same time creating open space for one’s partner to reveal themselves. The process is uncertain; black and white solutions give way to the greater effort of tolerating and forgiving the unsolvable.
Yet within this uncertain effort, something unique occurs. It begins at the very start of therapy as the two partners engage for the first time with someone who views their relationship as the client. As each individual’s mirror neurons become engaged, so too are the shared mirror neurons of the couple. They begin to speak within a shared narrative, “This is worth a try for us”, “We’re not sure if we are going to come back next week”, “We will try doing what you asked and talk about it with you next week.” The language of we is speaking not just for two people but for this newly recognized entity – the Relationship.
The therapeutic container is a place where the Relationship gets the undivided attention it needs to flourish. Two very wonderful loving people might be living within a mean spirited, childish Relationship. The couples’ therapist may be well aware of each person’s great qualities but his focus remains entirely on the growth and well being of that mean spirited, childish thing. “How do we help you grow up and take better care of yourself?”, “How can we teach you how to play freely again?”, “How do we help you forgive and give you another chance to make repairs?” The Relationship answers back not in words but in actions. Each week as the couple returns to the couch, there arise new intersubjective crises, “Shall we sit closer on the couch today?”, “Shall we let him speak first for a change?”, “Shall we look each other in the eyes when we say this?” Each Relationship will find its own path toward growth and unique resolutions to its own crises.
Your mirror neurons need practice to build you a healthy Relationship. Like viewing yourselves in a three way mirror, couples therapy provides an optimal environment for seeing the bigger picture and giving space for growth.
Stern, Daniel (2004). The present moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. New York, New York. W.W. Norton.
© Copyright 2011 by By Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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