Utilizing Present Feelings

In the previous blog post, I addressed the importance of using the present-day conflicts that couples bring to therapy to access historical wounds, traumas and losses.  But often couples don’t want to talk about their pasts.  They have usually come to deal with current conflicts–not their family histories.

Therapists in my consultation groups often ask, “What do I do when I try to get into family history and they just won’t go there?”  Each person’s brain is in charge of how much risk it is willing to take to feel old business.  Material that is too laced with trauma will often not easily show itself.  Sufficient safety must be established in the treatment before old pain can be consciously metabolized.

Insisting on getting a family history before a client is ready is seldom productive.  Therefore, it is often necessary to utilize present feelings to get at the past.  Any emotion that either partner is expressing about a current issue can be deeply explored.  There are a number of approaches therapists have used to do this exploration:

“I see that you have strong feelings about xxxx.  Can you describe some of those feelings?”

“What comes up inside of you when your partner has upset you?”

“How does it land with you when (s)he accuses you of xxxx?”

“I don’t quite understand what this is like for you.  Can you tell me more?”

Whatever the answer, it needs to lead to further questions from the therapist: “How often do you feel that way?” “Do you feel like anyone cares how you feel?” “Are you ashamed of feeling that way?” “How do you usually experience/deal with this feeling?” “Do you remember the first time you felt that way?”

One of the most important aspects of this process is discovering the precise words that the partners use to describe their experiences of distress in their relationship.  Their words should inform the exploration, because it is their meanings that we are guiding them toward speaking, hearing and understanding.  As they are given an open forum for exploring their own words to describe what they are living with their partner, their brains will begin to access memories.  Increased safety with those memories will seamlessly lead to the partners making their own connections with their pasts.

A particularly challenging dilemma is working with the partner who claims no responsibility for the conflicts in their relationship.  I have approached this partner with questions such as “Have you often been accused of doing something wrong when you were totally innocent?”  Remember that couples frequently distort current reality in order to relive past reality and make it accessible to current experience.  The above question might perfectly fit the experience of a formerly abused child.  In a similar fashion, the spouse who has been nonconsciously forced into the “bad guy” role in a marriage may be reliving that painful characterization of himself that was his place in his family of origin.

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