Awakening the Consciousness Within
A central insight of RLT is that what matters in couples’ interactions isn’t primarily external circumstance—for example, whether the boat’s motor should or shouldn’t have been turned off. What matters isn’t even primarily the dance between the partners, like Self-Righteous Indignation Meets Self-Righteous Indignation, or Withdrawal Meets Withdrawal. What matters most occurs not between the partners at all, but within them. The question is: which part of the person is talking— the mature, present-based part (associated with the prefrontal cortex), which wants a solution, or the immature-child part (associated with the limbic system), which wants to be proven right, control his or her partner, or vent frustration, anger, contempt, and self-righteousness?
Implicit in RLT’s focus on internal states is the belief that people can change those states, but changing them is a matter of choice and practice. This is different from most forms of therapy, which consider issues like shame, grandiosity, and triggering fairly intractable—structural parts of a person’s character. In RLT, we see character itself not as deeply wired-in structure, but as nothing more than one’s internalized repertoire of relationships. Common wisdom has it that the goal of couples work is behavioral or systemic change. If you want deep character change, you must do one-on-one therapy, often for months or years. By contrast, we work to change the system by transforming the consciousness of those within it, using relational mindfulness.
I’d argue that increased relationality—connectedness to self and others—is the very definition of character transformation. RLT uses the data from the actual relationship and the leverage of being in relationship as the crucible in which relationality is taught and practiced. This method makes no distinction between intrapsychic and interpersonal work; they’re flip sides of the same coin.
Following the work of my mentor, Pia Mellody, RLT personifies the refractory, immature part of us as the “adaptive child,” a conglomerate of all those inner parts that developed during childhood to help us adapt to our families as we grew up. The adaptive child is our first consciousness, our knee-jerk reaction: fight, or flight. It’s what Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (of Orgone Box fame) would have called our Character Armor, what psychiatrist James Masterson called our Character Defense. Our adaptive child has everything to do with our family role and our childhood experience. It’s first consciousness in action, the repository for all our trigger points and hot buttons.
One hears all the time about how marriage will “push your buttons,” but rarely is the nature of those buttons described. Let’s go back to the waterskiing incident. Julie’s request that Jimmy turn off the motor was simply a fact, an occurrence. That’s the button’s first layer. Jimmy, like all of us, then gave meaning to that occurrence. He told himself a story in which he was (unfairly) mistrusted. The meaning Jimmy gave to the occurrence is the button’s second layer. Why is Jimmy prone to ascribe that particular meaning to the incident? It should come as no great surprise to learn that his mother was critical and controlling. She found fault with much of what he did; she was continually in his face about what he should have done or how he should have done it, whether homework, behavior at the dinner table, or who his friends were. Family-of-origin resonance is the third layer of his button. Jimmy adapted to his mother’s intrusion with anger and rebellion, treating her pretty much the way he now treats his wife, with sullen resistance or open defiance. Similarly, he flat-out refuses to honor his wife’s request and turn off the motor because, in that moment, he’s back asserting his much-challenged autonomy against his controlling mother. In other words, he’s been completely taken over by his adaptive child.
Here’s the bitter pill: the adaptive-child part of you has no interest in intimacy; it’s wary, doesn’t like feeling vulnerable, and is preoccupied, above all, with self-protection. None of these traits sustains a loving, trusting, relationship. I have a favorite question I use with volatile partners: “You can be right or you can be married, what’s more important to you?” Ask that of the adaptive child and the answer is instantaneous: “Being right isn’t the most important thing: it’s the only thing.”
In moments of whoosh, like the incident between Julie and Jimmy on the water, most couples don’t manage to find a solution because once their immature parts take over, they’re no longer interested in solution; other agendas have hijacked love. Through RLT, we teach couples to identify 5 of those self-protective, vulnerability-avoiding, relationship-ruining agendas:
- Being right
- Controlling your partner
- Unbridled self-expression
- RLT also teaches 5 winning strategies:
- Going after what you want
- Speaking for repair
- Listening with compassion
- Responding with generosity
The winning strategies are all effective, but only if they’re used! How do we help clients get into a frame of mind that allows them to consider and then act on these strategies?
Beyond the Knee-Jerk Reaction
The critical first step, when one feels the pull of whoosh taking over, we call “remembering love”—reminding yourself that the person you’re speaking to is someone you love. Or, if that’s a step too far, then at least recalling that you must live with that person, and that you’re speaking to reduce the current impasse and make things better. Before blasting your partner, ask yourself this crucial question: Wait! Why am I talking? If you’re talking to prove that you’re right, control your partner, vent excessively, retaliate, or flee, then it’s better to shut up. By asking someone like Jimmy or Julie to take up the practice of mindfulness in heated moments of whoosh, we invite them literally to stop their old selves in their tracks—take a walk around the block, splash some water on their faces, breathe, have a little chat with themselves, and come back when they really want to work things out.
Remembering love is precisely what Julie and Jimmy aren’t doing when they yell at each other, nor when they stomp off in disgust. I’m not suggesting that all my clients learn to go from attacking each other to feeling all gushy inside every waking moment. But when a couple like Julie and Jimmy reach for second consciousness, when they practice relational mindfulness, they begin to commit to what we call “full-respect living,” neither dishing out nor passively tolerating disrespectful words or behaviors. Gushy love all the time? No. Respect in both directions? Twenty-four/seven. As we teach the practice of relational mindfulness, we help bring clients like Jimmy and Julie into nonviolent lives—nonviolent between them and others, and nonviolent between their ears—because you can’t simultaneously remember love and do violence to someone you care about. Mindfulness is a violence-dissolver.
Another difference between responses is that first consciousness is always linear: someone’s doing something to you, or you to them, and the natural logic is a straight line toward retaliation or escape. Second consciousness, by contrast, is ecological: you don’t see yourself or your partner as standing apart from the two-person system and controlling it. In all of our relationships, whether within a marriage, a family, a work environment, or a community, we’re parts of systems and living inside them. What we chose to do or not do in one place has consequences for us in another. Your release of emotionally toxic energy in the living room results in your partner’s coolness in the bedroom later on.
So, in the moment when Jimmy is arguing with Julie, he’s angry, quickly shedding his adult self, and reverting back to his negative, childhood-based, self-protective state of being. How does he rescue himself, reclaim his adult self, and shift the tenor of the exchange before it’s past all hope of repair? He does all this simply by being aware and bringing mindfulness—the exercise of meta-attention and self-reflection—into play in moments of whoosh.
Let’s go back to the session in which they describe the boating incident. Jimmy is trying to explain himself and getting into quite a state as he does so.
“Look,” he tells me, “I know I’m supposed to be big about it,” (Jimmy’s phrase for second consciousness), but I mean, give me a break. Her need for control drives me insane, OK?”
“Actually, Jim, it’s not OK,” I say. “You’re in two counts of boundary failure, but we’ll get back to that. First, I want you to do something for me.”
“You want me to breathe,” he says, the put-upon student.
“Close your eyes,” I answer. “Slow your breathing down a bit and deepen it a little.” He does so. We can all feel the immediate shift in the room’s emotional temperature. “Now—.”