Recently, I was asked to give a lecture on Unconscious Self Hatred In Couples Therapy to the chapter meeting of the Greater New York Association of Imago Relationship Therapy. I am summarizing the cogent points of the lecture below.
Most couples enter treatment in some type of crisis of sense of helplessness about their relationship. Imago Therapists help the couples learn to move toward intentional connection by teaching the skills of intentional dialogue, validation and empathy. These skills offer the potential for couples to reconnect. In addition, we move couples to learn how to transform criticism into Behavior Change Requests. Partners stretch their character structure and receive behaviors that they request. This is where the resistance begins to appear.
It becomes a challenge and growth opportunity for the receiver to accept and take in their partners honoring of their request. The clinical questions becomes, why does this happen. What is occurring that a partner makes a request, their partner honors it and they cannot accept and embrace what their partner is doing to honor their requests?
The factors that shape the psychic economy are powerful and implicit memories that occurred prior to verbal expression. The journey of the self includes the expression and socialization of the sensing, acting, feeling and thinking vectors of the self that have been recognized by Developmental Psychologists. How the expression of these experiences are molded are critical to how they are integrated into the self and how they are repressed or denied by the socialization experience.
Concurrently, the developmental stages of attachment, exploration, identity and competence are being integrated into the character structure. How does the child adapt to the messages and experiences in their family of origin? Based on the degree of rupture and pain that the child experiences as they express the evolving sense of self aspects of the self are denied, repressed or disowned in order to protect against feelings of shame and a fear loss. All of these dynamics are unconscious and lead to pain and a yearning for repair to become more expansive and whole. Being able to language our requests is a cognitive skill that helps us articulate our needs, however, cognition does not move character structure nor does it penetrate the unconscious to move psychic energy.
In order to better understand the etiology of Unconscious Self Hatred as a source of resistance, it is important to look at the literature for some insight. In 1928 Sigmund Freud wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principal where he grappled with the question of why insight did not lead to organic change in patients behavior or behavior patterns. Freud thought about the struggle between Eros and Thanatos . He deducted that the life force to feel alive in our character adaption was over ridden by the fear of death (change). He presented the theory of the repetition compulsion which serves to keep the psychic economy on an even keel. It keeps it comfortable and predictable and therefore “safe”. Change is “scary” and the unconscious experiences it as a threat to the life force. Thus, a homoeostatic space is created and therefore the psyche resists change even if is asked for and requested. It is the fear of experiencing full aliveness since our defenses serve to keep us alive and change is experienced as a threat to the safety of the character stricter. Freud hypothesized that the regression of to the mean of the psyche would prevail and therefore resist change. This is a clinical construct that we need to consider in our work with couples.
Out of this, William Reich developed his theory of Character Analysis which is based on confrontation of the patients character structure in an attempt to move the patient out of their comfort zone and to recalibrate their psychic economy for expansion of the self. Reich’s theory was not embraced by the larger part of the then psychoanalytic world. Reich did understand that for the psychic economy to move defenses had to be pierced in order to access the psychic energy underneath the defense that was being contained because it was experienced as “dangerous” during the developmental stages of infancy and youth.
Nathaniel Brandon, wrote The Disowned Self and explored various selves as sub energy systems of the psychic economy. He wrote of the Lost Self connoting those parts of our self that our hidden from our consciousness and which we would say are not and have never been part of our self. The Denied Self connote parts of our self that we know exist but do not allow others to know about or see.
The Disowned Self for Brandon describes traits if others see we disown and say are not part of who we are. Finally, the Presentational Self is developed to enhance our survival and minimize our vulnerability.
Forged out of rupture and pain we all become an assumed identity. Although we may yearn for full aliveness our defenses will resist on going movement because of the danger and upset in the psychic economy. Thus, what appears obvious in terms of rationale thought is often sabotaged by these intra psychic forces.
Dialogue helps couples reduce reactivity and old brain control of thoughts and interactions. It promotes intentionality and facilities understanding and empathy.
Behavior Change Requests allow each member of the couple to express their needs and connect them to their childhood wounds and to start to understanding stretching and healing. It is my belief that the receiver who stretches to reclaim lost parts of them self by participating in their partners’ request gains more movement toward full aliveness than the sender being healed. More energy of the original core self is accessed and reclaimed in stretching.
Resistance of the receiver manifests itself in minimizing the effort of their partner and is part of unconscious resistance to actually receiving what is yearned for. People are capable of yearning but often have trouble actually experiencing what they yearn for as a real life experience. The change is experienced as “unsafe” and stirs up the unconscious. Because pain has a stronger valance than danger, the unconscious always resists change situations it feels might create pain or vulnerability. The impulse that lead to rupture or pain becomes dangerous to the intrapsychic field and therefor even though it feels good and is wanted, it is experienced as dangerous and thus resisted.
The internal experiences often have their origin in implicit memories and are not articulated. For example, if there is a need for attachment (with the wound being abandonment and the character adaptation is distancing) the criticism is that the partner is being “suffocated” when they become unsafe because of the closeness and the person distances themselves from the requested behavior.
Containers as a therapeutic intervention need to be proceeded by safety and trust for the therapist and the therapeutic process. The Container facilitates amplification of the pain and allows the character structure to be pierced so the source of the pain can be re imaged as pain and rupture rather than some negative experience by the partner.
In conclusion, couples resist growth because of the change it brings to the psychic economy of the relationship. The benefits of increasing understanding and empathy set the stage for the expansion of each person into their full sense of aliveness and reclaiming lost, denied and disowned aspects of themselves and for the relationship to become a source of safety and aliveness.