Boynton Beach Marriage Counseling
Constructing a secure and satisfying long-term marriage is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of life. However, the majority of us are given little to no information or guidance into how to do so. Moreover, we remain ignorant of the skills and qualities that are needed to achieve this goal.
Historically, psychotherapy did not offer much help either. Theories abounded as to how to create a fulfilling and rewarding marriage, but scientifically-validated approaches were basically non-existent, and what little research was available showed that the prevailing models of marriage counseling displayed little benefit and no long-lasting improvements.
Characteristics For A Successful Marriage
Then along came Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couple’s Therapy. She was influenced by the work of British Psychologist, Dr. John Bowlby, the developer of Attachment Theory. Although it may sound simplistic now, Dr. Johnson had the groundbreaking idea at the time that instead of developing theories about how to craft a successful marriage she decided to actually study satisfying marriages and attempted to identify the characteristics of what made these relationships different from the others.
After videotaping and studying hundreds of couples Dr. Johnson concluded, what has now been verified through research, that relationships are all about attachment from cradle to grave. Human beings have a biological need for secure connection. Sure. Some of us have differences in how much closeness and solitary time we need. But the scientific data clearly shows both the positive and negative health impacts of lack of, or attainment of, secure emotional attachments.
The Impact of Attachment
Current studies show the average age of death for a married woman is eighty one years old. For a married man it is seventy seven. For a single man it is fifty eight. Some studies have revealed that lack of secure attachment can be more detrimental to one’s health than cigarette smoking. The biggest resource against the stress and challenges of life is secure emotional attachment. Everything from cancer, heart disease, mental health issues, and addiction has exhibited negative correlations with deficiencies in secure connections.
In marriage counseling, the goal is to equip couples with the emotional regulation and attunement skills needed to form and maintain secure bonds with each other that have been missing. It’s about constructing an effective process for reconnecting with each other when situations and circumstances cause disconnection, rather than attempting to clarify the FACTS believing this will reconnect us. In almost every instance, this only creates more conflict and disconnection.
This type of marriage counseling is much deeper than providing common sense solutions or encouraging you to use “I” statements. The real source of our inability to create secure bonds stems from the deficits in our skills to reattune with each other following misattunements. This understanding comes from Dr. Bowlby’s attachment theory. There is a constant dance of attunement – misattunement – and reattunement. It is an emotional right brain to right brain nonverbal process.
Every individual on planet earth lives in a subjective reality. We each have a unique history and place personal meanings on other’s behaviors and outside events – the stories we all tell ourselves. Furthermore, a large percentage of these attributions are outside of our conscious awareness. This contributes to the constant misattunements we all experience on a daily basis in our closest relationships. Research in attachment theory reveals the highest we can be attuned is roughly 33% of the time. This exhibits the crucial need for the skills to reattune.
The Need to Feel Felt
The misattunements can be minor, such as in a misinterpretation of a tone of voice or major like in an infidelity. Once the misattunement has happened we have a need to be emotionally felt. Again, a nonverbal, predominately right brain process. If you use left brain processes such as language, it will only create a more severe misattunement. Reflect on a time you asked your partner to acknowledge something, they did it verbally, but it did nothing to repair the disruption. Why? You didn’t feel they were sincere; it was devoid of the emotional response you needed.
This is why marriage counseling that is too focused on how one talks, or understanding the historical origins of the conflict, or developing hypotheses bares little to no impact for an actual couple. The couple will leave marriage counseling without the emotional regulation and reattunement skills needed to repair the recurrent misattunements they will inevitably encounter. Furthermore, these skills need to be learned while feeling actual emotions. This is what is referred to as state-dependent learning; you need to learn it in the state you will need it in.
In regards to learning, you may be familiar with attachment styles. The four major ones people tend to be familiar with are secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized. In real life, none of us fall neatly into these categories but are more likely a mixture of them depending on the situation or context we find ourselves in.
Avoidant attachment typically develops when there was not enough of an emotional response to a child or the response was critical or shaming. It is painful to turn into emptiness or disapproval. Ambivalent attachment stems from inconsistent parenting. There was enough response to stay open to attachment but it could not be trusted to be consistent. Perhaps, the caregiver was emotionally volatile or addicted or struggled with mental health issues but was caring at other times.
Lastly, the last major pattern is referred to as disorganized. The previous styles of ambivalent or avoidant are adaption patterns based on the circumstances the child found themselves in. When there is severe neglect or various forms of abuse, it can be difficult or impossible to develop an effective strategy. In child development, this is referred to as ‘fright without solution.’ The child is forced to dissociate or engage in chaotic or erratic behaviors.
Stuck in Old Adaptions
Again, these concepts have been useful at times but are not comprehensive enough to capture the full complexity of human experience. From my perspective, we develop patterns of behavior or parts of our personality structure that form certain adaptive behaviors to navigate the failures of our early attachment experiences. It was the best we could do at the time. The problem arises when these historical strategies no longer fit the reality of our present relationships.
If I shut down and withdraw because my parent is inaccessible it was adaptive. However, if I do this every time my spouse and I are in conflict it is no longer an effective response. We are limited in our range of behavioral reactions. Even more complex is the fact these responses are stored in the more primitive parts of our brain, are faster than the cognitive regions of the brain, and are not able to be shifted through insight and information, what we refer to in psychotherapy as ‘top down’ (thinking-emotions-body) processes.
‘Bottom-Up’ versus ‘Top-Down’
They need to be altered experientially in a ‘bottom up’ manner (body-emotions-thinking) through a process referred to as neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to rewire and change itself through experience. In psychotherapy, this is achieved through a felt sense in the body with focused attention. We use a neuroscience concept referred to as memory reconsolidation. You must activate the old learning or emotional memory then have a new emotionally corrective experience to shift to a new learned experience.
Let me give you an example of how this works in an actual session of marriage counseling. I once had a couple who entered the session with all the signs of being conflicted, such as being agitated, not making any eye contact with each other, and sitting as far apart as they could from one another. The husband began speaking and said they went to their church the day prior and the wife got out of the car and began walking a considerable distant in front of him.
According to him, the wife then interacted with numerous individuals at their church and ignored him. The wife responded, “We fought all day Saturday, and I just wanted to have a peaceful day.” The husband then informed me he left the service early and sat in the car feeling sad and insignificant. The wife then came out to the car looking for him, found him, and asked him what was going on. He said, “I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever done.” The wife then became angry and believed he was offering a blanket apology and not taking responsibility for specific behaviors.
As I was tracking the husband emotionally, I noticed the strongest emotions came up when he talked about being in the car all alone. I asked him if he could tell me more about what it was like for him emotionally when he was in the car, as well as what he was now feeling in his body as he recalled being in the car. He said he felt a sensation in the middle of his chest and that he always felt this whenever his wife was upset with him. The emotional/implicit memories are stored in the body and are experienced as a felt sense without conscious thought, images, or any sense of linear time.
I then instructed him to remain focused on the chest sensation and just observe without expectations where his mind went. After approximately thirty seconds he said, “I can’t believe I’m remembering this, but I’m five years old and I’m standing in the driveway as my dad is driving away abandoning the family.” Tears began to run down his face as he recalled this event. The wife softened, reached for his hand, and expressed compassion as the five year old inside of him came forward to finally be responded to by his current attachment figure, his wife, who supported him in feeling these painful emotions to completion.
Not The Real Issue/Root Causes
Now the average couple will enter the session and debate over whether they arrived at 9 or 9:30 or if the wife spoke to three or five people. Meanwhile, her walking several feet ahead of him triggered his five year old abandonment causing a painful misattunement created from his past. He could not see that this was happening, only feel it. Then the five year old inside of him did the only thing he could do which was shut down, dissociate, and withdraw, which is what my client did in the present.
It may have been somewhat beneficial to provide him with language such as, “I feel unimportant when you walk away from me.” However, this cognitive approach would not have accessed his emotional experience at a deep enough level to generate memory reconsolidation and release the emotional burden from the past. I hope this example gives you a better understanding of the difference between experiential marriage counseling and the typical cognitive approach.
In some form, our unprocessed emotional memories, outdated adaptions, and lack of attunement skills is at the heart of every couple’s distress. It makes little difference whether the topic is money, sex, or differences in how to raise your children, these are the root causes of what pulls us into our unique conflict cycle. If you would like to learn more about experiential marriage counseling or schedule an initial session, please contact us today.
Hawkins Counseling Center
If you are looking for marriage counseling in Boynton Beach, call Hawkins Counseling Center today at (561) 316-6553.