About 2,200 years ago, the Greeks carved words for the ages on the Temple of Apollo: Know Thyself. Today, in the hands of a skilled therapist, that same edict can transform a lackluster relationship into a thriving interplay between two people who are emotionally aware, bonded and fulfilled. How can something so seemingly simple, be so profound?
When Dr. Mark Schwartz Harmony Place was trained as a marital/relational therapist, the focus was on the interaction between two people, the interpersonal relationship. To improve this, we worked to enhance communication, create intimacy, increasing time together, identifying explicit and implicit contracts, managing anger and conflict management, designate time together and apart, clarify explicit and implicit contracts, manage anger and conflict, and improve problem-solving, negotiation and parenting skills. All of this work was necessary, but rarely sufficient, to fully restore the relationship.
It fell short because one partner often required additional individual therapy to address issues like developmental trauma, neglect or parental miss attunement. Seeing one partner alone can cause difficulties for several reasons. The partner might be open and self-disclosing when alone with the therapist while choosing not to share with their partner, or the couple can become polarized as they separately tell their respective interactions or want the therapist to validate the other partners’ perceived misdeeds. Hearing only one disagreement obscure realities which can lead to inaccurate assumptions by the therapist, making the relationship more difficult to heal.
Eventually, a third more useful approach to relationship therapy emerged: intrapersonal relational therapy focused on strengthening one’s relationship with self. A person who has internal core beliefs surrounding self-hate, perfectionism, depersonalization, feeling like an object, or shame at being “damaged goods,” is often unsure of what to expect or accept in a relationship. They may choose a partner who is a poor fit, putting them both in a destructive relationship that actively-and unconsciously recreates damaging patterns from childhood. The person who feels defective and undeserving will often recreate neglect or abuse. If the male partner, for example, hates himself, fears true intimacy and rejects it, he will likely escape into illicit affairs, online pornography, workaholism, or out of control anger to prove his partner that he is “bad” or unworthy. In other couples, one-person over-delivers to earn the partners’ affection, making that partner feel unnecessary, with no defined role in the house, garden, chores, or child-rearing, and the foundation of the partnership is destabilized.
At Harmony Place Monterey in interpersonally relational therapy, the couple is seen together by the therapist. The focus is on partner learning self-compassion and care and developing the capacity to receive their partner’s love, affection, and appreciation. Each partner identifies their angry, lonely, sad, disconnected and scared parts of self. Next, they learn to form an internal intimate relationship with these parts, similar to the connections we form with our children or good friends. When part of the self feels sad or lonely, the partners learn to listen compassionately and accept them. If stronger emotions arise, like anger, frustration or disgust, the partners acknowledge that these probably result from unfinished business from their past.
If we are mistreated as a child or bullied by peers, and no one helps us process these feelings or understand why others can be cruel, the injured parts of ourselves can become discounted. The mistreated child might conclude (falsely) that he or she is a bad deserving of that treatment. He doesn’t learn to understand the bullying in context, that the bullies targeted him because looked vulnerable. He looked vulnerable because his dad often exploded with anger at home which frightened him and made him unable to pay attention in class. One problem creates the next until the victim concludes he was selected to be bullied because he is defective, bad or sick, and he feels shame.
Creating Kindness toward the Core Self
Self-compassion and nurturing can heal such injuries to the core self. Let’s say that Harry and Sally are seeing a therapist for difficulties sharing emotions and feeling close to each other. Harry often feels anxious. The voice in his head tells him he is not good enough, not deserving of happiness or pleasure, the same comments he often heard from his parents growing up.
Through intrapersonal therapy, Harry learns to share these thoughts with Sally. She listens, comforts him, and changes the message to one of encouragement and support. Harry also learns how “re-parent” himself, replacing the parental script in his head with a positive message. Together, Harry and Sally can now revise the damaging and anxiety-provoking experience with kinder, compassionate emotion. Partners in intrapersonal therapy help each other recognize reactions triggered by past trauma, think through what is really happening and reflect on how to strengthen each other relative to triggers in the future.
Enhancing Therapy with Mindfulness With Harmony Place Mark Schwartz’s
Reflection and staying in the present moment are key components of mindfulness training, which is gaining popularity as an important aspect of a couple’s therapy. Mindfulness pulls clients out of the past, which can be full of fault-finding, fear, and “what ifs?” It brings calm and attentiveness to the present experience, increases self-control, problem-solving and positive emotions. Mindfulness allows us to learn from loss, pain, suffering, mistakes, and conflict, and then move forward to achieve the wisdom of self-growth and create authentic happiness.
Today’s relational therapy often adds an intra-psychic component as well. One partner, let’s say, Sally, is the focus of a session. Harry silently witnesses as Sally and the therapist work through her angry, sad, lonely and disconnected parts of self. This gives Harry greater compassion and clarity as to why Sally may act in ways that upset him. At some point, the roles switch. Sally now watches quietly as the therapist help work through Harry being beaten as a child by his father for minor infractions. Sally can feel sad for the innocent child Harry, understand what prompts him to be critical of her or their children and have greater patience in helping him learn a better approach.
Harry also recognizes that he is repeating a destructive pattern. He mindfully notices his out-of-control angry part fuels negative voices saying his wife and children don’t respect him and must be called to account. Instead, he learns to calm himself, take time out, and find a more compassionate, constructive intervention. At this point, therapy-led strengthening of interpersonal and parenting skills of both Harry and Sally would be in order.
Modern therapy at Harmony Place Dr. Schwartz offers an array of approaches designed to fit the needs of individuals and couples with a common thread of learning to accept and love the self. As we develop self-knowledge and self-empathy, our relationships with others begin to change and improve. These subtle changes garner positive feedback and mirroring from others, which increases out self-esteem, self-cohesion, and self-empathy. This healing, upward spiral toward an intimate relationship with our selves is the primary goal of relational therapy. It starts with that Greek mantra from thousands of years ago: know thyself.