Understanding vs. Succumbing to the System

Couples have a nonconscious, intersubjective system between the two partners that has been existent and developing in complexity since they first met each other.  It has been well-established in recent years that this type of system gestates during childhood and becomes the template that dictates who we will be attracted to and commit to as a life partner.

The system serves a dual and paradoxical purpose in the realm of historical wounds, losses and traumas.  The partners have a nonconscious “agreement” to avoid the painful aspects of their pasts that are unmetabolized and unintegrated, but their system is perfectly constructed to compel reliving the precise aspects that they want to avoid.  Their intersubjective system creates relating that brings old feelings to the surface through recognizable repetitions of childhood experiences, but the need of the system to protect both partner’s brains from being overwhelmed by intolerable affect creates the avoidance that perpetuates reliving.

Circular arguments develop that are designed to keep partners from becoming conscious of the ways their current feelings are connected to their pasts and to seduce them into believing that there is a “solution” in the present that will stop the pain quickly and permanently.  The system is set up to reinforce that the problems are in the present and therefore the painful feelings of the past can be avoided.  The system establishes who is to blame and identifies the problematic behaviors that must be changed in the present to end the conflict.

Driven by fears of disintegration, this iron-clad system is very complex and powerful by the time a couple reaches our offices.  It is no wonder that they can seem determined to prove to us that their construct of who is to blame and which behaviors must change is correct.  To them, it is a lifeline.  It then follows that the couple’s therapist must be very thorough, methodical and patient in understanding their system before any attempts to intervene are implemented.

It is extremely easy to succumb to the couple’s nonconscious, intersubjective system, particularly if the role they need the therapist to play in the system has some resonance with the therapist’s psychology.  Partners are hurting, which hooks rescuing the “victim”; partners are often being mean to each other, which hooks diagnosing; partners are terrified of old traumas, which hooks colluding to avoid them.  In particular, the therapy setting itself can easily lead to the repetition of triangulating.

Therapy must proceed carefully in exploring the system and understanding all of its complexity.  Prematurely confronting and attempting to change the system is a form of succumbing to its power.  The system’s function in protecting both partners’ brains must be respected or the system will overpower the impatient therapist into succumbing to a role that they didn’t intend to inhabit–judge, labeler, parent, competitor, etc.  Our job is to gradually lower the partners’ fears of exploring feelings, rather than trying to get them to change their system.

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