Couples therapy: Untangling the webs
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.