In normal, optimally interactive dyads, only about 30% of their time together is actually spent in the affectively positive, mutually coordinated interactive state. The rest of the time is spent in mis-coordinated interactive states, accompanied by negative affect, attempts to get back to coordinated states, and positive affect. There is a constant oscillation between matched and mismatched interactions, and back again. Tales of ecstasy are endless tales of failure. For always comes separation. And the journey towards the essential, fleeting unity begins again. As good as it gets is not some uninterrupted state of mutual bliss with perfect attunement; instead what obtains is some paradise, lost and regained as a result of focused efforts on the part of both partners.
- Diana Fosha1
“Even the best relationships are really screwed up.
In his groundbreaking work Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self,2 Allan Schore details the genesis of personal and interpersonal shame. In the first eight to nine months of an infant’s life, the primary function of the good enough mother or caregiver, is mirroring, and providing for the child’s many needs. It is in its ideal form, this phase is a love fest between them. When the child reaches the age of independent mobility, and also when exploration begins, the caregiver begins to have more varied functions, some of which include monitoring or even policing the movement and activities of the curious child. The caregiver may need to intervene or interfere with the child’s adventures in the universe, in the interests of safety, decorum or her own needs and sensibilities.
The child may experience such interruption as a shock or a loss. Especially if it is an angry reprimand, the most painful part of it is the loss of connection with the caregiver. The good enough caregiver, once the dangerous or unwanted behavior has stopped, will comfort and reassure the child, and repair the ruptured connection. That child will have the experience that “regrettable incidents” or mistakes happen, and can be resolved. Relationships survive such occurrences and continue.
When the child receives the message “You are doing something bad!” with the accompanying rupture of connection, and there is no repair, the child withdraws into despair. This child is at a loss to restore the severed connection and does not know how. This is what Schore identifies as the early experience of shame. Wordlessly the communication is “I have done something bad and I lost you.” Swooning alone without a map of return to connection, the child sinks into darkness. The universal facial and body language of shame are dropped eyes, collapse and physical withdrawal. The loss of connection is deathlike for the infant. And the child who grows up without the template of repaired attachment, is at a terrible loss in the world.
Of course this is the experience of so many of our clients who come to us with relationship difficulty. Conflict is an inevitable fact of relationship life. When there is no knowledge of how to emerge from rupture back into connection, or even that such restoration is possible, clients adapt in all sorts of ways. They might avoid conflict at all costs, which may be at great personal cost to their own needs and integrity. They might simply submit to mistreatment. They might abandon or betray their own interests and seek to gloss over the conflict and have the relationship back, slowly disappearing within it. They may lose relationships as soon as there is conflict, accumulating a wrecking yard of abortive relationships and a belief that love cannot last. The variations are innumerable. But the result is uniformly tragic and lonely. We are wired for connection, and when it is lost or impossible, we suffer deeply.
John Gottman is a researcher who has made a science of studying relationship. We recently had the privelege of hearing him speak in a special local appearance sponsored by the TPI Education committee. As he describes the elements of intimate partnership, he maps three major categories or “Blueprints” of relationship skills and qualities, essential to the life and health of the partnership. These are what he calls the “Friendship and Intimacy Blueprint;” the “Meanings Blueprint” and the “Conflict Blueprint.” All three require strength and depth for a solid partnership. In my work primarily with couples who come from histories of trauma and neglect, where they need the most help is with the conflict blueprint. From early on their experience was rife with Schore’s conceptualization of shame. Relationship was dangerous or absent, overwhelming or vacuous. Their transferences onto us as therapists are intense, as are their projections onto their partners. Often when these couples arrive in our offices, they appear to be shipwrecked and exhausted. Their cycles of conflict are like tempests and the storms may seem endless. They may be desperate for the skills of peace making, and perhaps hopeless. But by some miracle of faith, they show up. So how do we help them?
The Lessons of International Conflict
Seeing clients in this desperate state is a grave challenge for us. Especially as whenever there is an episode of conflict or traumatic activation, the body floods with cortisol, the stress hormone. Because cortisol and seratonin compete for the same brain receptors and cortisol always wins because it is survival related; each “cycle of escalation” as I call them, brings a seratonin dip or “hangover.” Each cyclone is followed by worse depression and despair, and still less energy or ability to restore hope or connection.
Gottman suggests principles learned from Anatol Rapoport, an expert in international conflict. Among them, he recommends, “Postpone persuasion until each person can summarize the partner’s position to the partner’s satisfaction.” The goal is not agreement, but the empathic ability to consider and see the other’s point of view.
The second main principle Gottman draws from Rapoport is the “Assumption of Similarity” which is distilled to: “if making a negative attribution to your partner, try to see this trait in yourself; and if making a positive attribution to yourself, try to see this trait in your partner.” These are invaluable practices and skills that belong in the armamentarium of all relationship therapists. My experience, however, is some of my couples who get caught in these terrible storms need something structured and radical to help them settle enough to even get back to the content of the conflict itself. So I developed a tool that I call the “Lifeboat.” The structure requires that both partners withdraw into self reflection, which takes the focus off the other and impels a shift into a cognitive mode. Because the understanding is that both partners will engage equally in all the steps, the burden of responsibility or the perennial fear of blame for the conflict, are obviated. I hypothesize that both of these factors serve to settle the body and nervous system somewhat, and as Gottman reminded us, when heart rate goes above 90 beats per minute, we are no longer able to think clearly.
This activity is not intended to resolve the content of the conflict. Rather it is designed to restore enough equilibrium and enough connection to have the conversation that went awry, in a different way. In effect, the intent is to arrive at the point where Rapoport’s principles become possible.
Life Boat: A Vehicle of Interactive Repair
The Lifeboat is a repair tool for those times when partners are both distraught and activated; stuck in a place of disconnection, and are saying to each other or thinking, “How do we get out of here?” Although I am not a fan of cute acronyms, clients do describe feeling very much as if they are drowning in these conflicts, and emerging from them, is something on the order of getting to shore alive. And it is worth remembering the steps. So I hope the acronym helps.
I W P O
D N P U
1. The Bid: Bid is a term from the Gottman lexicon, meaning a gesture or overture of contact. In this case, the bid is when one partner has the presence of mind to initiate or suggest the activity of repair. This could be done by saying “I’d like to propose that we do the “boat” activity, is this a good time?” Mutual agreement to engage in the activity and on the timing is essential, as often a feeling coercion or powerlessness is part of the conflict dynamic. If one partner makes the bid and the other is “not quite ready” at that time, they are instructed to be very specific about when they might be.
The “B” is also a reminder of the body and the breath. I remind clients that their breath is a primary resource for self regulation. The exhale is key in activating the parasympathetic process o settling and calming. Slowing the breath with a mindful focus on the out breath is an invaluable practice!
2. Ownership: Ownership is taking responsibility for one’s contribution to the escalation/conflict. Our assumption is that it always takes two to escalate. Even if one partner “started it” as little children are always quick to point out, if the other does not react or over react, there is no escalation. The activity of ownership is a sharing of responsibility for the creation of both the problem and the solution. And it is in effect an apology. The structure recommends two “rounds” of ownership, but sometimes more are required. A round is where partners take turns, one item each round, owning one piece of the conflict. Again, because the paradigm is “no blame” owning one’s piece does not mean “the whole thing is my fault.”
And what do we mean by ownership? It is specific and concrete, it is what I did (a specific action or verbalization) that I regret. Detail helps, but it is preferable not to be wordy. Wordiness might appear defensive, and when both partners are in a difficult emotional state, clarity, precision and sincerity are of the utmost significance. We want to avoid that either partner monopolize, but rather, keep the process moving. Including an actual apology can also be powerful. An example might be:
One thing I can own is that I was impatient and repeated my words with a sharp,
nasty tone when you could not hear me. I apologize for that.
What ownership is not:
Ownership is not explaining.
Ownership is not excuses.
Ownership is not a veiled way of saying “You triggered me!”
Ownership is not a trick to coerce counter-ownership! (ie a form of blame!)
In order to be potent ownership must be sincere, honest, and heartfelt. Clients are encouraged to be mindful that their tone and facial expression are congruent with the intention of repair! After two rounds of ownership, they are instructed to see what they notice and how each feels. A good reference point is the state of the body. If breath has deepened and the body of each partner is more relaxed and open, progress is being made. If there is still tension and short breath, or a tight closed feeling remains in the body of either or both, there is more to be done. In particularly gnarly interactions, they may decide they to do more. It is preferable for each partner to do the same number of rounds.
Clients are instructed to monitor their reaction to the partner’s expression of ownership. To comment on or critique it, or to show disappointment in it could compound the problem they already have. This is difficult when one is very hurt, and the partner does not own immediately the piece that hurt most. It may just take a little longer to get there. I remind clients, that they can enhance the depth and healing potential of the process by going deeper and further themselves. As ever in relationship work, we want to teach self reflection rather than blame, self rather than other focus.
3. Appreciation: Another of Gottman’s essential principles, of which he reminded us in his talk, is that of the positive to negative ratio. In order to be stable, relationship requires a positive to negative ratio of Five to One. Expressions of admiration and appreciation are an important element lacking from the relationships of virtually all of the couples who arrive in our offices, who are sorely in the red. Appreciation can be one of the most potent mechanisms for emerging from conflict into connection, as the appreciated partner has the experience of being seen in some way, and seen in a positive light. Going back to the original shame template, it makes sense why this would be powerful. The communication of “You see good in me,” might counteract the belief “What I have done is irreversible and who I am unforgivable.”
This step asks that the partners take turns and do two rounds of appreciations, each round expressing one thing they appreciate about the partner. It is optimal to have the appreciations be related to the conflict or to the ownership process, but that is not essential. What is essential is that the appreciation be personal. Specificity, depth, heartfelt feeling, and brevity all make for “connecting,” potent appreciations.
4. Touch: For many partners, touch is more connecting than words. So to End the process with some sort of caring touch, integrates that component into the repair. It could be a hug, a stroke of the partner’s face or arm, a squeeze of the hand. This may not be acceptable to everyone, but I encourage it. I ask that they see what feels most natural to the two of them. I like it when each partner offers a touch, so each has the important experience of both giving and receiving, (Which is something it seems we are always working on.) Touch can be very soothing; boost seratonin and oxytocin, and thus serve as an antidote to depression and disconnection if it is safe and soothing to both partners.
After finishing all the steps, partners are encouraged to see how they feel inside, emotionally and physically, and to see how it feels between them. It is suggested that they let some time pass before you go back to the original content that the conflict was about. Perhaps some time later they will be able to talk about it calmly, utilizing what each learned from the ownership.
1. Fosha, Diana The Transforming Power of Affect.
New York. Basic Books. 2000. P. 64
2. Schore, Allan Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self.
Hillsdale. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. 1994.
Ruth Cohn, MFT is in private practice in Rockridge. AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, also certified in EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. She specializes in relationship work with adults overcoming histories of childhood trauma and neglect, their intimate partners and families. She can be reached at email@example.com or www.cominghometopassion.com.