Emotionally Focused Couple’s Therapy, Mindfulness, and Mentalizing: Gateway to Spiritual Connection
November 4th, 2013
We are blessed to be alive in an era when there is an explosion of information coming forward in numerous interrelated fields, such as psychotherapy, attachment theory, neuroscience, and the cross cultural study of religion and spirituality. The intersection of these fields brings forward advances in both spirituality and health. In this particular piece I’d like to draw together information that can be useful to all individuals in their relationships and in opening up an avenue to spiritual enrichment in the context of everyday life.
Sue Johnson is the Canadian researcher who has developed Emotionally Focused Therapy. This is an empirically tested approach to working with couples that is oriented to enhancing productive communication and intimacy. As an emotionally focused therapist, I seek to help clients understand the disruptive cycles that afflict their relationship, and open up those cycles to empathic understanding.
Instead of Marianne telling James that he is unreliable, and undependable when he comes home late, and having James walk off to play with his I-Pad, we help Marianne understand that under her anger there is a primary emotion of fear, or loss, or feeling unseen and have her talk about that, instead of moving into shame and blame. We similarly encourage James to understand the impact of his behavior, and elicit whether the type of pain that Marianne is feeling is anything that he really wishes to stimulate.
In some ways this is easier to describe than to implement, insofar as couples are often entrenched in trying to portray one another is either bad, mad, or both. However when successful this works it brings to bear several strands of very profound forces to the nexus of the relationship.
In encouraging the members of the couple to reflect on their own and their partners feelings we are training them in mentalizing—the capacity to reflect on one’s own and others feelings and motivations. Mentalizing has been shown to be a significant contributor to feelings of safety and security conducive to healthy attachment in both parents and their children.
In slowing down members of a couple in their interactions we are encouraging individual to bring mindfulness to their interactions. As a general rule most of us live in cortically constructed generalizations, we don’t typically fully see the real marigold in front of us, we save time, by mostly having a general sense of a marigold when we look at a marigold. By slowing things down with a couple, and opening up conversation, we bring things more into the present, and we encourage both awareness of the present, and the capacity for reflection. We are bringing to bear, what psychotherapist David Wallin calls the double helix of mindfulness and mentalizing to improving the relationship.
With care, compassion and empathy on the part of the therapist, and an encouragement to slow and reflect, we can move out of the stale repetitive movies that bedevil so many relationships. With this approach we find as neuroscientist Daniel Siegel says the ordinary can become extraordinary. What may have become a stale, repetitive pattern of conflict, can become a touching, vulnerable, experience of rich, intimate, spiritual contact.
Harvey B. Aronson, Ph.D., LCSW, is a couple’s therapist in private practice in Houston and founding co-director of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Buddhist Temple.