The Refuge of Stories: Steve Almond, the son of therapists, author and writing workshop teacher, described in a New York Times Sunday magazine article the mushrooming popularity of today’s writing workshops, which he views as a version of the old “talk therapy”, so popular prior to the psychopharmacological and managed care revolutions in mental health. To be a student in a creative writing workshop today, according to Almond, does not carry the “stigmatizing” or “covert” nature of psychotherapy, yet it can serve a similar purpose as “talk therapy”: that of providing a sanctuary of sorts to tell an individual’s personal story. In his article, Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops On The Rise, Mr. Almond describes how “telling a story” is “the most reliable path to meaning” and cites as examples, the world-class fiction authors Kurt Vonnegut, William Faulkner and J.D. Salinger as examples of writers who found a “refuge” for, as Faulkner puts it, “the human heart in conflict with itself.” To underscore his point Almond cites as evidence Vonnegut’s response to a question posed shortly before his death, “What was the central topic of his works?” Mr. Vonnegut’s answer, “I write again and again about my family.” In one way or another, so do we all.
Telling Your Life Story Together: As a couples therapist, I have witnessed the powerful healing force that comes when individuals tell their personal stories, powerful anecdotes or snippets of momentous moments in their past, to me in the presence of their partner. To do the deep work of change that relationships in trouble often need, personal history is critical. And though couples share much of what they construe as the most relevant data about their past with their partner through the years, it is startling how much is missing. There are many reasons for the absence of shared, emotionally significant data; one most frequent is that many of the most profound memories remain submerged in a file hidden from day-to-day conscious awareness. However, in the safety of the therapy office, a place where archaeological digs psychological in nature are the expected and accepted format, stories unfold with imagery so true and uncensored that veils are lifted and vision returns to allow individuals to see themselves and each other in the touching and compassionate light of vulnerability that is at the core of human experience. Stories shared can shift perceptions and open new pathways for intimacy that are not about the marriage or even the courtship but center on earlier experiences that have shaped the adult next to you and are subterraneously impacting your relationship each day.
When Couples Share: Halting the “he said, she said, they said” counterpoint of many a couples session by digging into the history and the memory of the individual, while the other sits and listens, is an extraordinarily powerful tool for both partners, if the light of hope and a flicker of love remains in their Coupledom. Then something transformational and ultimately healing can occur with the reliving of experience through stories of conflict, pain, joy, celebration and confusion related in the presence of a partner, yet not about that partner. “Who I was then and am in part now is what you are hearing. But I am not telling the story because of you or for you. I am telling this story because the therapist asked me to.” Listening is possible, hearing and being heard can take place, because the threat is reduced. When adrenaline is pumping, triggered by the fight/flight state, our empathic listening device is turned off. When the story is not about “you” the hearing device with its attunement dial turned up can be a sensitive instrument indeed.
And today, through MRI and EEG imaging, we have scientific data that supports the long-held perception that interpersonal relationships influence the mind, the brain, the entire well-being of the individual and their relationship with the other.
Daniel Siegel and Interpersonal Neurobiology: Last weekend I attended a conference at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City entitled presented by Dr. Daniel Siegel, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, a man with so many areas of expertise that a quick synopsis here does an injustice to the depth and breadth of his knowledge about human experience. His work in attachment experiences, his continuing search for a definition of the “mind”, which he has achieved to his satisfaction, and his study of the neurobiology of health and interpersonal relations makes Dr. Siegel uniquely qualified to discuss how we humans impact each other in ways that affect the health of our brains (which is inclusive of our entire bodies) and our relational and natural world. With the availability of sophisticated brain imaging instruments, Dr. Siegel’s findings have been supported by hard science.
Rigidity and Chaos: Dr. Siegel aptly subsumes all illness as a consequence of and manifested by either chaos or rigidity in physical (neurological and all body systems) and emotional functioning (the two are inseparable.) Psychotic behavior is the most extreme example of chaos and Obsessional Compulsive Disorder an easily identifiable example of rigidity. Linkage and integration of all parts of body and being bestow health. Blockages and disconnections subvert health. The neurobiological findings of current scientific investigation support this model of how human functioning operates.
How Does Psychotherapy Work? These tenets of health, which include self-awareness, or as Dr. Siegel puts “How someone makes sense of their life” and their interconnectedness with another, couldn’t be more obvious or significant to me as a psychotherapist as when I am watching a couple pause in their “I” moments of fight/flight defensiveness to engage in the telling of or the listening to their partner’s story. The process of story telling offers a deepening personal awareness for the story teller, to quote Mr. Almond, who in telling, will find “the most reliable path to meaning” for themselves and an opportunity for linkage to the listening other who is integrating their partner’s “story” in a mind altering manner.
Impacting Each Other Through Our Brains: Studies show that psychotherapy as well as meditation and many other practices that increase awareness and allow for integration of self enhance brain functioning, peacefulness and health. And research studies over the years that have compared different schools of psychotherapy (such as psychoanalytic, psychodynamic or cognitive therapy) reveal that what heals and changes the individual for the better is not dependent on a particular philosophy or methodology at work, but the relationship between the psychotherapist and patient; the relationship is the healing tool.
The Healing Tool: Therefore, drawing from this hard data, it is clear that the healing tool(s) of couples therapy can draw from multiple sources: the relationship between patient and therapist; the relationship with the self through the awareness that comes from “story telling” which is facilitated by the patient/therapist bond; and the relationship between partners through knowing the other by their stories. Siegel defines integration as health, which occurs when blockages are opened up (for The Coupledom, that would mean rigid ways of knowing self and the other are no more) and chaos is reduced by allowing the linkages that now open to form a safe foundation of self with another “when present, flexibility and harmony result.”
The Unique Power and Potential of Couples Therapy: Couples that allocate both time, resources and courage to this expansive learning and healing process, from my experience, do something impressive and long lasting; they allow their vulnerabilities and histories to be voiced and heard together to form a cornerstone of intimacy, of being separate yet known, that supports a lifetime of “healthy love” and opens neural pathways of mutual caring. This is powerful stuff, believe me.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012