Without experiencing these kinds of moments, instead of talking about them, we never fully understand the ideas and the words. The work here in couples therapy is to give our nervous systems an experience. Turns out Marina’s mom was not always available. Sometimes she was there, but more often she was absent, either because of work or alcohol.
As a result, her nervous system came to expect and predict that others did not love her. So, her need for connection would be met with rejection. It was difficult for her to feel connected. In this simple exercise, Toni was able to give her the antidote.
At this time, we’re doing more than talking about things. We’re doing the work of relating in real-time. We’re moving, playing, practicing, and experiencing. Change in this model comes from the bottom-up. Instead of relying on cognitive and language-based interpretations, we feel the change. We experience it, and we move.
In Another Session
Marina was complaining to Toni about their work hour. I noticed something started happening to Toni.
“I am sick of it! It’s like you don’t even care anymore. Well, you care about your damn work, but not about us, not about me! How can you think this is good? How can you not see that this won’t work anymore? I just don’t….” I let Marina go on for a bit here. And, I start to notice something changing in Toni’s body.
Eventually, I say “Marina, slow down a moment. Do you see what’s happening over there right now? Is Toni still hearing you?”
“No! They always tune me out?”
“How do you know something has changed for them? What can you see in their body, face, breathing?”
“Just slow down a minute. I know you’re upset, and you have every right to be. But, I don’t think that Toni can listen to you. I don’t think they can hear you right now. And you’re saying some very important stuff. So, first, let’s make sure they’re really with us. What do you see that has changed in Toni’s body?”
“They aren’t looking at me anymore. Um. Their face, it’s kind of blank, down, flat I guess. Are you even breathing?”
“Good. Why do you think this is happening?”
“I don’t know. They’re overwhelmed? But they always get overwhelmed! It’s so frustrating. It’s like….”
“Hang on. This happens a lot huh? It’s like Toni’s nervous system shifts here. Something else begins to happen and they can’t hear you anymore. Do you know why that happens? Where does that come from?”
“Take your time with this.”
Toni smiles. And tears come up in their eyes.
“You see that? Right when you said ‘Toni’s mom,’ there’s emotion coming up.”
Marina has tears in her eyes too, “She was so mean.”
“Yeah? That makes you sad too huh?” I respond.
“Yeah. I hate what she did to Toni.”
“So, I wonder if, knowing what we know about Toni’s past with their mom, and how their nervous system responds when people are upset if we can figure out a way to connect with them. Thus, keeping Toni present and safe, but still letting you get out what you need to get out. Marina, what are some things that help Toni feel safe, or cared for?”
“Touch, they like it when I touch them. And sitting next to, not straight in front of them.”
“Good. Toni if you’re ok with it, what if we try that right now?” Toni nods. “Marina, go ahead and take Toni’s hands into yours. Move your chair to their side so you’re not right in front. Make some eye contact, hold it, and say ‘Toni I love you and I miss you when you’re not here.’ Go!”
She holds their hands and moves next to them.
Then, she says without hesitation and with genuine love and care, “I love you, and I miss you when you’re not here.”
Toni is now crying in earnest and collapses into her arms. She holds them and begins to cry as well.
This is an example from an actual session. One that happened only about three hours ago in fact. It showcases what truly takes place in couples therapy. It’s not only a lot of talk, interpretations, and homework. This work is actual, at the moment, experience. We work with our bodies, our nervous systems, and our emotions. It’s intense, deep work.