One of my first experiments in trying to help a client engage in emotional reconditioning involved Steve, whose wife, Debra, had attended a few sessions and then dropped out of therapy. Steve continued on his own, recognizing that many of his relationship habits were dysfunctional. During previous conjoint sessions, I’d noticed that whenever Debra had voiced a complaint, Steve had predictably become upset and defensive. I knew that Steve would need some way to practice thinking differently at the moments when he was actually upset. So I suggested that he ask Debra if she’d record complaints on a cassette tape, which he could then use to practice being nondefensive. Surprised and intrigued, Debra agreed.
I sent Debra a message asking her to make short 15- to 45-second recordings whenever she felt upset with Steve—the more recordings, the better. After she’d made a week’s worth of recordings, she was to give the tape to Steve to bring to our next therapy session. During our next several sessions, Steve and I listened to Debra’s recordings together, and I helped Steve pay attention to his automatic reactions when listening to her critical tone. Without feeling the immediate pressure to respond to Debra, he came to recognize that when he felt criticized, his face typically flushed, his features scrunched into a scowl, and his hands tingled slightly. He also noticed that predictable thoughts popped up—such as She’s so controlling!—and that he always felt an immediate urge to dispute every possible detail of her complaint.
Together, Steve and I developed a practice plan that involved relaxing physically as he listened to her complaints, slowing his breathing down, reminding himself that he could afford to take his time and hear her out, maintaining eye contact without scowling, and then searching for and commenting on understandable aspects of her complaint. For several weeks in our therapy sessions, Steve practiced this sequence while listening to complaint after complaint. Then one day, he came to our session with a grin on his face, exclaiming, “I think this is beginning to work!”
A few days before, Debra had become upset with him when she’d learned that he’d forgotten to tell his parents that they needed to cancel their plans to get together. “You know what?” Steve said excitedly. “When she was yelling at me, I actually noticed that my breathing was slowing down, and I was really listening to her. I had the urge to justify why I didn’t make the call, but I remembered that I could do that later if I needed to and that I could take my time and hear her out.” Instead of offering an excuse, Steve told her that he should have made calling his mother a higher priority. “You should have seen the look on her face!” Steve beamed. The fact that Steve’s automatic reactions had begun to change after only a few weeks of focused practice made me believe that I was on the right track.
The Wages of Blame
Soon enough, however, I realized that the reconditioning exercises worked so well for Steve because he was highly self-responsible and motivated to change, while most of the people I saw in therapy didn’t think they needed to change—at least not nearly as much as they thought their partners needed to. Motivating partners to take personal responsibility was the most frustrating part of being a couple’s therapist for me. Every time I challenged partners to behave differently, they’d counter with some version of “Well, I wouldn’t be acting this way if my partner wasn’t so selfish (or insensitive, irresponsible, inattentive, immature, misguided, unrealistic, irrational, short-sighted, or biased.)”
They usually had a point. Their partners often behaved just as badly as they themselves did, but to them, it seemed that their partners’ actions were far more egregious. Before I could do anything even approaching “brain retraining” with such clients, I needed a way to help them see their negative habits and understand the role that these habits were playing in the deterioration of their relationships.
I honestly don’t know if I’d have succeeded in motivating these clients had it not been for the fact that I’d already read John Gottman’s book Why Do Marriages Succeed or Fail?, in which he reports on his research finding that the most effective partners in intimate relationships were able to avoid “negative affect reciprocity” (the tendency to respond to negativity with more negativity) and the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) when they felt provoked. Additionally, Gottman found that it was especially when partners were behaving badly that the differences between couples who were destined for satisfying relationships could be most clearly distinguished from couples who were destined for serious trouble.
Gottman’s research enabled me to cut through the blame game that so often plagues ailing partners and help them—at least some of them—understand that the ability to respond effectively when they didn’t like their partner’s actions was a nonnegotiable requirement if they wanted their relationships to thrive. Gottman’s research was also valuable because of its precision. He’d zeroed in on the specific habits that were required for relationships to succeed, which helped clients identify exactly where they tended to get off track in their relationships. However, while most Gottman-influenced therapists I talked to were trying to teach clients these skills, I knew that clients wouldn’t be able to conjure these skills at a moment’s notice as long as their automatic emotional reactions kept getting in the way. To successfully implement these skills, clients would first need to rewire some of their automatic reactions.
The Brain on Mindfulness
For almost 20 years now, I’ve been exploring methods for helping clients develop new, automatic inclinations that allow better self-regulation, self-attunement, perspective-taking, and empathy, especially in their intimate relationships. But one of the studies with the biggest impact on my approach was published in NeuroReport by a team of researchers from Harvard and Yale who’d found that mindfulness meditation may produce growth in brain areas known to be involved in mood regulation, attentiveness, and empathy.
As it turned out, this study was just the first of its kind. Since then, 18 additional studies have been published finding that meditators have significantly greater volume in areas of the brain that produce automatic tendencies relevant to social functioning, including several that found that periods as short as eight weeks of regular mindfulness created predictable changes in the brain. In fact, in 2013, a team of researchers from Brazil and the United Kingdom found that they could distinguish the brains of experienced meditators from those of non-meditators with 94.9 percent accuracy. The evidence is clear—meditation conditions the brain to produce automatic inclinations that help people be more attentive and optimistic and less affected by stressful circumstances and anxiety. In other words, the nervous system changes promoted by mindfulness can serve as a stable platform that enables people to act more skillfully in all areas of their lives.