Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Couples, Part 1: Inside Look at the Way a Top Couples Therapist Works

It goes without saying that being part of a couple is hard work at times. Even when things are going smoothly, studies show that each member of the couple will estimate that their success as a pair is due to their doing relatively more for the relationship than their partner. How about when things are going less smoothly? John Gottman, the kingpin of research on couple interactions and author of Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work has found that of the problems that are a source of continuing disagreement for couples, 69% of them fall into the category of irresolvable problems. That is a sobering statistic. While Gottman is the premiere researcher on couples, one of only two couples therapists whose work Gottman gives a nod of approval to, is Dan Wile, the author of After the Fight: Using Your Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship. Wile's take on these perpetual problems is that it is not having the problem that is the problem, but rather each member of the couples inability, when things aren't going well, to recruit the other as a resource for dealing with that problem. Gottman is in complete agreement with Wile on this. One factor that makes a big difference between couples whose relationship is headed for the rocks, and ones that end up together years down the road is their ability to talk about those problems that aren't ever going to be completely resolved.

Dan Wile believes that the key to dealing with these problems is very elusive for us in those times when things aren't going smoothly. His entire approach to couples therapy is about helping each person to express what it is that is eating at them in a way that enables their partner to experience empathy for them. Wile's approach is similar to other couples therapists in taking turns trying to understand each person. Where his approach becomes unusual is that he then tries to speak to the other partner on their behalf, putting their concern, and their dilemma into words that might help the other see the difficult position their partner is in.

His version of speaking for them varies greatly but it might sound something like this. Picture Wile kneeling beside one partner speaking to the other on their behalf, saying, "There is a big part of me right now that wants to reach out to you and comfort you, but I'm afraid if I do, you're going to push me away again, and I just don't think that I can risk that right now." He then checks in with the person he's speaking for and asks how close he was, and what they might add or delete from what he said. When Wile does this with his clients, on those occasions that he gets it right, clients experience this as being very powerful, really capturing how it is that they are feeling stuck and misunderstood. When they have something to clarify, to add or something that they'd would take out altogether, they end up bringing the discussion closer to what the issues really are. One way to put this together is to say that Wile sees the goal as connecting around the difficulty rather than focusing therapy on solving the problem. Given Gottman's finding that 69% of ongoing couple problems are irresolvable, this makes a lot of sense.

Now hiring Dan Wile as a therapist would be a nice luxury that hopefully some Awareness * Connection readers will experience. But what about those of us who won't be able to, or who might not even have the opportunity to see a therapist trained in his approach? In the next installment of this post, I'll break down how and why Wile's statements work, and I'll show how in our better moments we can tap into them to connect with our partner when a perpetual problem comes up and those familiar feelings of tension creep back into our lives.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Coming Soon: On Couples

When things are going less than smoothly in your relationship, it can be even harder than usual to put your concerns into words that your partner might be able to hear. It is human nature to get caught in a cycle of feeling stung and stinging back, or of withdrawing and acting like you don't really care about something that is actually sticking in your craw. My upcoming post on couples will look at one way to up the odds that your partner will be able to "get" what it is that is "getting to" you. Check back soon.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pause and Breathe, Part II

I wrote a while back about the power of tapping into the simple practice pausing and breathing. This is a topic worth coming back to a few times to fill in details, because it can be so essential to living in today's world.

Our autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches. One of the branches, the sympathetic nervous system, is basically the accelerator for the fight or flight response. When we encounter stressful situations this portion of our nervous system is engaged. Parts of our brain out of our conscious control begin the chemical cascades that pour adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream preparing us for action, as if we were going to be doing actual fighting or running for our lives. This is exactly what is needed to either fight off an attacker or run until we're out of immediate danger. It is far less helpful when our sympathetic nervous system is aroused by a looming deadline or by the frustration of arguing with your child over chores that aren't done. In fact our sympathetic nervous system being "on" over time, as in unmanaged stress, is a known slow but predictable killer.

Fortunately we have another part to our autonomic nervous. If you have an accelerator to propel the car you've got to have brakes to slow or stop it. Just like the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system has connections all over the body (pupils, blood vessels, heart, lungs, etc), but its function is to slow our body systems down. So when you're really relaxed, your parasympathetic nervous system is the one running the show.

Pausing and breathing deeply and slowly can be like our secret dimmer switch to the autonomic nervous system. Whenever you find yourself edgy, nervous, cranky or anxious that can be your cue to do some breathing. You might want to road test it right now. Get comfortable where you are sitting, and take some nice slow, deep breaths through your nose. As you settle in to the breathing, each breath will tend to come a bit more slowly and last longer. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to monitor which area is moving most. You want your belly to be moving at least as much as your chest if not more. Chest breathing is like pressing on the accelerator where belly breathing the way to ease on the brakes.

This is worth experimenting with for two reasons. First it is good to try this out and actually experience how your nervous system, and your body is able to slow itself down. There is no replacement for actually feeling yourself what it is like to breathe your way from a state of agitation to calmness. Second, by getting experience with deep breathing, you also train your body to get to a calm state more reliably, and more quickly. The main point is that you don't want to wait until you are in the middle of a very stressful situation to think about using that dimmer switch. You want to have some experience with it ahead of time.

Many find that breathing combined with mindfulness practices can be an even more effective route to becoming calmer, but if that's not your cup of tea, the breathing works fine on its own for purely physiological reasons. You don't have to buy into any particular world view to enjoy the benefits of pausing and breathing.