Saturday, May 1, 2010

Relationship Dharma

A form of psychology that I frequently utilize in my psychotherapy practice is the theory of psychodynamics. In this style of therapy, we look for repeating patterns of thought or behavior that get activated when certain interpersonal (or intrapsychic) dynamics are present. 

The word "dynamics," refers to energetic exchanges and conflicts both in relationship with others, as well as within ourselves. Most, if not all, of the repeating behavioral patterns are developed early in life, and are the result of some kind of wounding, either real or imagined, that took place at that time. The patterns of behavior are, for the most part, dysfunctional or maladaptive coping strategies designed unconsciously as defensive mechanisms to prevent being wounded again.

An example of psychodynamics at play would be an exchange between spouses in which a dynamic that resembles some unconsciously remembered childhood conflict with a parent. For a moment, at least, the couple forgets who they are actually talking to, and a defensive mechanism is activated that leads to further conflict. In couples therapy, one of the first questions that I ask if a conflict arises during a session is, "Does this feel familiar to you?" Often the response will be that it was an experience they had as a child in their family of origin (the word "familiar" has same etymological roots as "family").

So at some time in our life, something happened that caused a psychic wound. In the example of the couple in conflict, even though the time, circumstances, location, and people are now completely different, the mind perceives that the original dynamic exchange is taking place right now. In fact, it's not unusual during these conflicts for someone to ask, "Who do you think you're talking to?" It's a question that should be taken literally rather than rhetorically, and it can lead to some enlightening answers.

Mindfulness can be brought to bear on these situations resulting in the unconscious becoming known. With a partner who is also able to utilize some amount of mindful awareness, this can lead to the ability for a couple to heal their psychic wounds together. Rather than operating on reflex reactions to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a relationship, they can take a moment, return to the present moment though the senses, such as the feeling of the breath, and then examine the exchange as a dynamic process rather than as a life or death struggle.

This way of working as a couple not only reduces the anger quotient in a conflict situation, which in turn reduces suffering, but can also lead to a repair of hurt feelings through a sense of light-heartedness that can spontaneously arise. The situation can be seen as more of a humorous disagreement, rather than as a serious fight. Early in my relationship with Kathy, for example, we discovered many familiar familial dynamics during our own moments of conflict. One day, Kathy bought us both custom-made t-shirts that read, "I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER." When we wore these together, it became obvious just who were were talking to.


No comments:

Post a Comment