The neurological origins
Last time, in the spring newsletter, we talked about those powerful predispositions to react
automatically that we see in many of the couples who come for therapy. I suggested then that many of the clients we see in couple therapy were subjected to early trauma, abuse, or neglect and learned to protect themselves any way their nervous systems could figure out (Sapolsky, 2017).
Thru the lens of neuroscience, I speculated that many of the defenses they have learned are governed not by thought or decision (higher cortical centers in the brain) but by more primitive brain regions like the autonomic nervous system (ANS) with its powerful propensity for “fight or flight.” And, if the trauma was severe enough, even more primitive brain areas (dorsal vagal aspect of the parasympathetic PNS) flashed on and they learned to freeze or collapse as the “escape where there is no escape” (Putman, 1997).
Dysregulated reactivity, the lack of neural integration, causes suffering, disrupts the ability to communicate, erodes, and can eventually destroy the closeness of our most intimate bonds. It is this kind of blind reactivity we need to help our clients interrupt.
These tendencies of striking out or closing down are not foreign to us as therapists. Many of us have survived abuse and know intimately the reactivity and suffering that is its legacy. We’ve all experienced being bounced around inside our most intimate relationships, including those formed during psychotherapy. We all have the capacity for anger and defensiveness; we’ve all experienced the urge to flee. And so, it is this same reactivity we need to work on in ourselves, as we temporarily join their system, in an attempt to alter it from the inside out.
The habit of blame: how we shift the responsibility to the “other” to control what we cannot control in ourselves
Just as couples blame one another for their relational pain and thus their own reactivity (“I wouldn’t yell at you if you’d listen to me when I spoke calmly,” or “You got angry first; I was only defending myself”) we too may have felt like victims in our own families (“the problem must be their fault; I don’t react like that with anyone else.”) We can meet these couples with initial enthusiasm and then find ourselves blaming them or fantasizing flight (who can I refer them to) when long- held patterns don’t abate.
Thus, the first step toward healing is focus on oneself
Healing begins for couples with the willingness to focus, each on themselves as the target of healing work. To approach therapy sessions as a place to learn skills to manage the energy that arises in their own physiology instead of seeing its origin somewhere outside themselves. Some couples master this quickly; others stay stuck in blaming for months (or occasionally for years). Couples therapy will either fail or end in the dissolution of the marriage (or at least in the hope for real intimacy) when individuals cannot master this most pivotal of steps.
The next step toward healing is the ability to self- regulate
The antidote, we said, is emotional regulation, the capacity to either calm body energy down or to amplify it when it has fallen too low (as in depression and dissociation). This regulatory capacity requires the integration of arousal centers (amygdala) with energy- regulating ones (MPFC) until they function in a smooth and coordinated way, allowing us to cope with fear and hurt without striking out or closing down.
Because co-regulation is more powerful that self- regulation, the eventual goal is for the couple to learn to function as a regulatory team, balancing each other's primitive brains. But first at least one members of the couple has to learn to pause, and in that instant of suspended reactivity, to find an internal reflecting capacity, a space outside their arousal (the same higher centers that self-observe also regulate) to calm or