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|Lions Without a Cause - Page 7|
First I explain that control is: implying that she isn't smart or creative enough to decide things on her own, or that her perspectives and opinions aren't valid, relevant, or important. It's telling her what to do and then criticizing or withdrawing affection if she doesn't do it. By contrast, protective support is: respecting her competence, intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness. It's giving her encouragement to find the best course of action and then standing by her if what she decides to do doesn't work. The therapeutic practice I use is role-playing advocacy—he's her lawyer presenting her case (i.e., perspective) in a disagreement. This forces him to focus on the strengths of her position, rather than trying to undermine it. We practice this until the ability to see both perspectives simultaneously becomes automatic to him. The nice thing about this exercise is its built-in reciprocity effect; women tend to begin see both perspectives simultaneously, too, when their husbands start doing it.
A major challenge to lasting change in marriage lies in the fact that couples' day-to-day interactions operate largely on automatic pilot. Emotional response is triggered predominantly by unconscious cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and level of mental distractedness. Negativity in any of these inadvertently sets off the automatic defense system that's developed between the parties. Once triggered, the unaware couple can easily spiral into dysfunctional patterns of relating. They tend to get lost in the details of whatever they're blaming on each other, with no realization of what's actually happened to them—namely, an inadvertent triggering of the automatic defense system.
To offset the escalating effects of the automatic defense system, I try to get men to use their negative emotions as cues to protect. If he feels guilty, ashamed, resentful, or angry, she's most likely feeling anxious or afraid, even if those vulnerable emotions are hidden beneath harsh resentment or anger. I ask the guy to remember times when he first felt negative emotions in any given interaction with his wife. He recalls the feeling and briefly "physicalizes" it, noting what it feels like in his neck, jaw, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and hands. He associates these physical sensations with a moment's mindfulness of the things he most values about himself as a person, which is to be protective and compassionate to his family. He then shifts focus to the anxiety or fear underlying his wife's resentment/ anger. He makes some gesture of reassurance—a demonstration of protectiveness to ease her anxiety—usually making eye contact, touching her hand, rubbing her shoulder, or just asking if he can help. The gesture has to convey that he cares about how she feels and that he very much wishes her well. This level of compassion has to be established before they address the content of their dispute. Once emotional reactivity is regulated by compassion, any dispute becomes easier to resolve. We practice the exercise in treatment until it seems automatic to the couple.
This is sounding much more mundane and plodding than it is in execution. It's actually exhilarating to help a man use his protective instinct to strengthen his vulnerability. It's exciting to watch him move from perceiving his wife's requests (and complaints) as indictments of his ability to protect to experiencing them as cues to activate his desire to protect. He can then see, hear, and support—that is, protect—the most important adult in his life. When he's able to do that, she feels validated. They both feel "connected," for want of a better term, even though they're in different emotional states and doing different things for different rewards. Rather than forcing themselves to act like the same instruments playing the same notes in a duet, couples who begin to interact in this way become like two different instruments playing different notes to create something together that neither can do individually—relational harmony.
Steven Stosny, Ph.D., is the director of Compassion Power and author of Love without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One. Contact: email@example.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.