Hidden aspects of the transference
Couples frequently are unaware of the power of historical transferential aspects displaced from childhood, which revisit and become entwined within current relationships.
The “transference” occurs when an individual’s wealth of historical unexpressed affect, along with unconscious thoughts, becomes activate in the primary relationship of the present.
Buried feelings of pain, anger, fear or sorrow — often emotional scars inflicted by the primary caregivers of the past — become locked away, placed in cold storage (D Winnicott).
These powerful yet repressed emotions and thoughts may stem from embedded family “organizing principles” (R D Stolorow) that refuse to embrace and encourage the expression of a flow of healthy emotions.
Compliant and adhered to in early life, the unbearable suppression of such feelings now surfaces in adulthood, frequently finding its way into primary relationships. Often wreaking havoc, disruption, confusion and pain, the power of the transference takes root — despite the individual’s best intentions for intimacy and harmony.
Getting stuck or caught within the web of the transference may bring about the demise of a relationship. On the other hand, recognizing when a couple is in the grip of the transference may not only promote greater insight, understanding and intimacy, but lead to the saving and transformation of relationships.
Organizing principles and the transference
Organizing principles function as a way of “being in the world.” Often crafted and manifested as the result of indoctrinated unconscious experiences, organizing principles are powerful behaviors, beliefs and affect states that represent a person’s world view. How a person exists, sees and experiences the world and relationships.
These organizing principles are not always expressions of an authentic self. Instead they are representations of a set of mirrored experiences, feelings and beliefs formed by an “adapted self” in childhood — crafted and shaped in order to cope and survive in challenging, often unsafe, dangerous or traumatic circumstances.
Pathological adaptation (Bernard Brandchaft) is a behavior that combines a belief that may unconsciously state: “If I suppress my feelings and sacrifice myself for the family’s way of being in the world, I will be loved and I will be safe; if I express my true feelings, needs and perceptions, I will be shunned, shamed and told I am worthless.” An adapted child carries the burden of shame states for the family and the negativity embedded therein.
Ironically, it is often the deepest of these relationships that trigger wellsprings of unexpressed feelings — from shame to rage to pain to loss — and they are now visited on the one who is the beloved. Contemporary psychotherapy speaks of trauma repetition, a kind of repeating of experiences from our past, enacting the same behaviors over and over, thus experiencing the same negative helpless results. Interrupting this cycle is crucial for relationships to be successful.
Recognizing transferential aspects
Recognizing these dynamics within a relationship as they surface may arrest futile engagements, redirecting couples from despair to connectedness and restoration.
Example of organizing principles and destructive communication
Jeff experiences uncertainty about his wife’s desire to move to another city for a business opportunity. Jeff’s organizing principles, embedded from childhood, tell him he is not permitted to voice an opinion or express a feeling on any subject because the father figure in his history was the only one in the family who was deemed “wise.”
The children in his family were told they were ignorant, and their opinions were neither of interest nor value. Jeff’s mother acquiesced to this world view, and in his adult life Jeff has assumed unconsciously his father’s organizing principles.
Sarah comes from a childhood history in which alcoholism was dominant. Both parents suffered from the addiction; her father eventually rendered impotent due to brain damage from alcoholism. As a result, being the oldest child, Sarah took charge of the family. As the “parent child,” she became capable and responsible, dependable, and learned that her power in the world was based on these compensatory organizing principles, for which her parents praised her. She was called the little wise old lady at age 8. She quickly developed the principles of capability, ambition and the nothing-is-impossible world view — becoming invulnerable. Today, Sarah has strong feelings and thoughts, and is ambitious and curious about the world. She has moved through life never looking back at the wreckage and pain caused by her parents’ disease.
When Sarah met Jeff, she loved his easygoing ways, and his willingness to defer to her every desire. He never challenged her on issues, and generally agreed with how she viewed the world. If he disagreed, he would occasionally allude to an alternative view, but quickly extinguished his perspective if he thought it would upset her or their status quo. Crippled by feelings of low self-worth from his historical past, paralyzed to express his point of view or make key decisions in life, Jeff provided Sarah a perfect unconscious fit — until a critical moment in their relationship revealed the power of the hidden transference, requiring both parties to take a risk.
Sarah, in a rare moment of self-doubt and vulnerability, looked to her partner to take the lead in a life decision for the two of them. Confused by Jeff’s indecisiveness, Sarah saw her historical past trigger powerful feelings of unexpressed wrath, contempt and shame.
Jeff’s indecisiveness became a traumatic experience for Sarah as she was transported in a flash back to her childhood — captured by memories of terror and confusion, facing helpless alcoholic parents. Sarah’s old feelings of fear and helplessness, her longing to be protected, were thwarted once in the present moment, exploding with decades of unexpressed helpless rage.
Trapped within the transference, she accuses Jeff of being weak and unloving, hurling at him all the rage and shame she felt as a child, wrestling with the grip of annihilating trauma states. No longer is her partner standing before her; instead she faces the excruciating image of her father, mother or both. In these moments Sarah is unable to distinguish the dynamics with her partner from the painful experiences from her past.
Jeff withdraws, unable to confront Sarah, confused by her outburst, muted and muzzled by his own set of historical organizing principles. He retreats deeper into a familiar historical place, one of withdrawal and silence.
A portkey, or passageway back in time, is triggered in the transference, as couples return to the places where they adapted themselves for survival, paralyzed to express thoughts that might address a nurturing emerging sense of self and worth. Being surrounded by the pain of history, abandonment is often perceived or threatened at these times. Threats and expressions of betrayal ensue.
Old familiar behaviors take root, obfuscating the opportunity for the expression or emergence of an authentic self. To find relief, both parties must take what they see as dangerous risks, by behaving in life-giving ways both unfamiliar and scary.
Challenging organizing principles: Hope for transformation and change
Both partners are encouraged to expand their emotional experience, and broaden their capacity to express vulnerability — and in so doing, acknowledge and share their historical pain. In the case of Jeff and Sarah, while this may seem impossible at the start, the couple shares, each in his or her own history, the distorted organizing principles.
Jeff, having accepted that he has nothing to offer of value in the decision-making, life-managing fundamentals, can offer his vulnerability to his wife Sarah, who was given to believe that she had no value except in her ability to manage the basics of survival. Conversely, Sarah, who has received the message that her feelings are of no value, can gift her husband with her vulnerability — and shared history — in admitting that she sometimes feels lost and not so capable, which causes her to grow fearful and angry when Jeff doesn’t instantly take the helm.
In this way, both parties access a place where they are both able to recognize how they were both wounded from past childhood experiences, and as a result they dwell and grieve together, sharing the massive impact they both experienced in different yet similar ways.
Over time, utilizing courage and honesty, leading with their vulnerabilities that are newly recognized as strengths, Sarah and Jeff begin to feel the loosening grip of the traumatic transferences. Slow, steady trust develops with the recognition that experiences need not be suffered alone. Instead they build a relational home (R D Stolorow) for one another, no longer hiding in shame, fear and isolation.
Trauma from another perspective
By Katrina Wood, Ph.D
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD delayed (symptoms of PTSD displayed beyond six months) are defined as the results of experiencing single catastrophic life-threatening events (DSM IV).
The original criteria for PTSD emerged from observations of some combat veterans who, following life-threatening experiences on the battlefield, alternated between states of emotional numbness and emotional reactivity.
Current thinking holds that PTSD also is brought on by accidents, violence and other criminal acts, natural disasters — a broad range of perceived life-threatening situations.
Trauma, however, is not consistently derived from a single event. Post-trauma stress or trauma states often are compounded by the emotional revisiting of original traumatic experiences, or “trauma repetition.” This creates a painfully resilient memory loop.
The hidden battlefield on the home front (proposing a new diagnosis)
This article serves to introduce a more conditionally oriented type of trauma-stress syndrome, referred to here as domestic emotional stress disorder (DESD). To date, this syndrome has not been acknowledged as a formal diagnosis by the psychiatric community.
The DESD designation — currently identified in alternative diagnostic terms — seeks to highlight the layers of trauma states that exist in average U.S. families. These states, both persistent and enduring, continue to go untreated by the therapeutic community.
DESD is experienced in homes across all strata of income levels, ethnicities and family sizes. Borne of the daily emotional misattunement and emotional neglect of children — often inflicted unintentionally by parents or parental caregivers — DESD establishes the roots of a hidden and unacknowledged long-term stress disorder in young children.
A heavy price to pay for an ill-prepared emotional foundation
Absent the healthful relational home, such children (and later adults) emerge over time with unstable and often crumbling emotional foundations. They are ill prepared for the vicissitudes of life’s single-episode traumas.
Youth separating from childhood, with the inevitable desire for independence, can be overwhelmed to a disastrous degree when confronted with life’s visits of these traumas, or even phase-of-life transitions.
Lacking a vital solid emotional footing, these individuals — children, maturing into adolescents, young adults and even adults — simply cannot process and bear deep personal loss. Or perhaps even the threat of it. Their responses, as a result, are frequently of tragic and catastrophic proportions.
The absence of a relational home often leads to a domestic life in which a constant state of trauma exists. Terror is the underlying condition. Fear is consciously or unconsciously experienced and endured by all in the home setting.
How minimizing sows the seeds of hidden shame
Self-annihilating and destructive thoughts and behaviors may result. There are strong hidden strands of shame, the result of unrecognized painful trauma states.
Degenerative beliefs take root: “My experience does not matter, therefore I don’t matter. I am not important.” These thoughts become embedded in a person’s “organizing principles” (beliefs a person develops, based on experience of one’s self and others).
When emotional care is given little or nonexistent value within a home, the belief often takes hold that these normal needs are unnecessary and a sign of weakness. If human vulnerability and emotional dependency fail to be cherished and nurtured, a focused lens of compensatory rage and shame can emerge, resulting in destructive behaviors against property, the self, or others.
Parents and caregivers of DESD children are tuned into values popularly espoused by our media and society. In addition to housing and food, the providers are expected to provide, in some combination, entertainment systems, sporty transportation, stylish clothing, education and trust funds. As essential as some are to the well-being of youngsters, their well-intentioned providers sometimes focus too narrowly on providing this type of material custodial care.
This often leaves the fragile, creative, and emerging precious emotional world of the child outside the value proposition. The child’s true and inner self receives only the material goods in lieu of the support of a consistent relational home.
As this value set prevails, with emotional needs and the relational home relatively weightless in the cultural equation, trauma states steadily emerge. These unrecognized trauma states often manifest in familiar symptoms such as chronic pain, depression and anxiety. In children, the commonly diagnosed attention deficit disorder; in teens, the oppositional defiant disorder. Often these behaviors are therapeutically misdiagnosed.
Unfortunately, unless we reverse the course of some core family values to include emotional care with contextual meaning (R. D. Stolorow), we will continue to find ourselves on a trajectory of more medications, more personal electronics replacing human contact, and more children and teens crying out in defensive rage and shame — unaware of what they are seeking, only knowing that profound loneliness and isolation sit at the seat of their souls.
An additional aspect of DEST relates to the concept of a “closed family system” (Bowen).
Ideally, single-episode traumatic events are recognized, validated and given a particular meaningful value by families and the community. But DEST traumatic experiences or existences rarely are acknowledged — by extended family members, friends or the community — thus impacting and heightening the unbearable extremities (Alice Miller) of affect and trauma. They are endured without extended support, without collective exposure or awareness.
Hope for healing
Happily, most often parents and parental caregivers are simply “caught up” in the chase and lose sight of, or do not recognize, the importance and necessity of the strong relational home.
Improvement comes with a rededication to one’s children. Essential emotional support, including the creation of quality time. Inquiry into the child (or adult’s) experiences of life accompanied by ample validation, empathy and support.
This profound support for the family — and the embrace of vulnerability and emotional dependency as intrinsic to the human existence — becomes the first giant step toward a return to mental wellness.
Sometimes it feels safer to hide in this comfortable familiar place. But is it really all that comfortable?
Many people prefer to take the risk, for intimacy is what they crave the most. Those deep connections with others. Feeling seen, heard and cared for.
Yet fears of being hurt often prevent us from “being” with others in the ways for which we long. And so internal conflict results.
Try this, the leading edge.
Lead by thinking thoughts that reflect what you wish for in a relationship.
Begin with a self-affirmation: “There are aspects of me that are beautiful, lovable and worth knowing.” Or, “I don’t have to be perfect, I have a right to want to give and receive love.”
When faced with a relationship with someone to whom you want to be connected, but remain unsure of, draw from a well of validation that you create for your life.
When a tendency to be critical or harsh surfaces — often a defense against hurt — be kind and gentle with yourself.
It’s not uncommon to step into the unknown by leading first with criticism rather than praise or self-validation. Instead, see how it feels to lead with a thought that speaks to your worth and value, or someone else’s.
The leading edge with a child
A kid comes to into the house covered in mud after playing with the dog. The parent starts in immediately with, “Oh Joey, look at how dirty you are. What a mess. Let’s get those dirty clothes changed before you trail the mud in the kitchen.”
The parent’s intention isn’t to to criticize, but in this scenario what does a child actually hear?
Chances are the child hears criticism, that he has done something wrong. Or worse, there is something wrong with him because he played in dirt.
What if the “leading edge” instead is a validation: “Oh Joey, sure looks like you were having a great time in the back yard. Tell you what, let’s take those muddy clothes off and get you into something else now.”
This time, what does the child hear? That he’s having fun and getting dirty is all part of being a kid — that’s OK and he’s OK.
The end result is the same, the clothes still get washed, but the child has been validated for being a child. A win/win.
The leading edge with an adult.
Sarah agrees to meet her husband at the restaurant for dinner. Matt is running late. Sarah checks her watch. He’s 10 minutes late. Feelings of frustration creep in as she sits alone, telling the waiter her “date” will be here soon.
After 20 minutes, Sarah’s mood darkens. She begins to think she is not important enough, not pretty enough. She also is drawn into negative thoughts about Matt. What a selfish guy, she says out loud.
Suddenly she gets a text. Matt is stuck in traffic — stressed and so very sorry — and he’ll be there as soon as he can. Can’t wait to see her.
In that moment Sarah has a choice:
She can take the path of the leading edge and validate his efforts to get there on time. Have compassion upon hearing the stress in his voice. Reassure him that she’s OK and looking forward to seeing him.
Or she can go the critical route. Blame him for not being more mindful, for not leaving the office sooner.
Which approach is more likely to preserve the intimacy and connection — and make for a pleasurable evening?
In all things in life, first consider the leading edge with validation, not criticism.
Small but consistent rewards in the way of intimacy create a bedrock of greater security and trust, one that may serve to sustain over decades.
Many of our errors, flaws and imperfections are unintentional.
By focusing on the validation of who we are, and what we are — both within our relationships and out there in the world — we are likely to stay more connected. To grow stronger and more mature, with greater peace of mind.
We’re also pretty good at times at “guilting” friends, loved ones and even strangers into the proverbial “guilt trip” when we want things to go our way: “How could you be so selfish when I want things to go this way?” Have a familiar ring?
As with most conundrums in life, there’s guilt and then there’s guilt; making the distinction between the two can make a big difference in our lives.
There is an newish saying that may be helpful: “Feel the guilt, and do it anyway.” We’d be well advised to try this one for size once a while.
Take for example the lonely parent whose child has long been her “world.” The son or daughter has unknowingly sacrificed their young adult life out of guilt — curtailing dating interests, breaking plans with friends — because they don’t want to leave poor mom home alone on a Saturday night.
This is a perfect example of “feel the guilt and do it anyway.” This is a time in the life of a young adult when breaking free, finding one’s individualism is critical.
Mom must find a way to face her life transitions and her fears of living alone — to stop prevailing on her son or daughter (see “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst).
Another example of “feel the guilt and do it anyway” comes with a couple and their new baby. How hard it is in the early days, and even as the baby grows, for a couple to give themselves permission to go on date nights.
The feelings of guilt can be overwhelming at the thought of “leaving poor Ashley” alone in her crib and having to wake up to a babysitter. Leaving the baby at home with a stranger — such a wrench!
It’s so important to remember, however, that babies also enjoy socializing, playing and being with others. Mom and dad must remember they are not leaving their baby forever, just a few hours!
On the flip side there are many examples of, let’s say, well-deserved guilt.
A husband promises to leave the office on Valentine’ Day to join his wife for dinner becomes waylaid by friends to stay at the office and watch the last minutes of the game on TV.
His wife sits at home having spent the day preparing a beautiful meal for the two of them, unaware that her husband is taking time away from her on such a special night. The husband tells himself that he will leave soon, that his wife will be OK, but the time slips away. He is unaware of her growing suffering and anxiety.
When he finally arrives home an hour past the agreed time, he is greeted with tears of worry and bursts of anger. He is accused of “not caring enough about his wife to leave the office on time.”
Here is where a dose of good old-fashioned guilt might be just the thing.