Moving from Conflict to Attunement
A couple of years ago, we found ourselves at “The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain” conference, which featured neuroscience expert Dan Siegel and noted Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. We’re long-time couples therapists and were attending because we were interested in the insights that neurobiology is bringing to the practice of psychotherapy, but we weren’t really attracted to the “wise heart” and “meditation” part. We knew that various forms of meditation had become wildly popular as adjuncts to psychotherapy over the past decade or so, but we’d never done it ourselves—like many on-the-go practitioners, we’d concluded that we just didn’t have time for a meditative practice. Besides, we weren’t sure that it was relevant to our own work with couples. So we were prepared to wait out the meditation part of the program in order to gather the gold nuggets of neurobiological insights.
Most of the first day had focused on the well-known benefits of meditation: it can help people become calmer, less reactive and defensive, more open, receptive, and compassionate to themselves and others. But the real revelations for us came when Siegel launched into his explanation of the evolutionary and neurobiological implications of mindfulness practice. We learned, for example, the mechanism by which one of the most common of all mindfulness exercises—focusing on the breath—calms and soothes people.
As Siegel explained it, the human brain evolved as an “anticipation machine,” constantly scanning the environment for threats in order to increase the probability of survival. Early humans were able to relax only when the environment looked and felt extremely safe. The challenge for many of us in our 21st-century lifestyles is that we’ve forgotten—or never learned—how to turn off this danger-scanning process. Mindfulness practice can provide a way of doing just that. When you focus on the breath coming in, you can safely anticipate that the next breath will go out, which will be followed by “in,” and then “out.” Breathing is predictable, so life at that moment becomes predictable and safe.
During meditation, when random thoughts enter awareness, you name them—“What am I doing for dinner tonight?” “I wonder why my boss doesn’t like me”—and let them go, without judgment. Then you return your focused attention to the predictable pattern of breath after breath after breath. You follow this procedure over and over again. Turning away from the “outside” world and focusing “in-close” on breathing calms the limbic system, the brain’s alarm center, creating a sense of sanctuary in the middle of the storm.
We also learned that focusing on a sensory motor action that predicts what Siegel called the “immediate-next-of-now”—like breathing—activates the middle prefrontal cortex, the executive part of the brain. This area, he said, is critical to the kind of emotional states and behaviors that all therapists strive to evoke with their clients: attuned communication, emotional balance, fear modulation, response flexibility, insight, empathy, body regulation, moral judgment, and intuition. Siegel referred to these integrative states of mind as “The Magic Nine.”
One brain mechanism that appears central to experiencing The Magic Nine is the firing of the much-celebrated mirror neurons, which can make us “intuit” what other people are about to do. As pioneering brain researchers first discovered some years ago, when humans, monkeys, and presumably other animals see others doing something that predicts the next behavior, the “immediate-next-of-now,” the mirror neurons fire and cause the activation of the prefrontal cortex as if they themselves were performing the action. For example, when a monkey watches a researcher, or another monkey, peel a banana, the prefrontal cortex is activated in the observing monkey as if he, too, were about to eat a banana. Similarly, if you watch someone lift a bottle of water to her mouth, the mirror neurons fire and activate the prefrontal cortex just as if you were taking a drink; indeed, watching the action might even make you feel thirsty. So when we become calmly attuned to another person, that person will likely become calm and attuned to us.
It was halfway through the second day of the conference that we had a eureka experience. Suddenly, Francine leaned over and whispered, “Oh my God, what we’ve been doing with couples over the past 20 years is a form of mindful meditation!” A similar light bulb went off in my head.
On that day, hearing mindfulness practice discussed in a way we’d never heard before, we began to see a connection between what mindful meditation practice is trying to achieve, and what we hope to accomplish with the couples we see in therapy. During times of high tension—like your average marital fight—as emotions escalate, partners typically react in anger and fear, doing damage to each other, themselves, and the relationship. In the Imago Relationship Therapy approach, which we use, the key to helping them prevent escalation is to teach them a slow and measured form of dialogue. It takes lots of coaching and practice, but we’ve observed over the years that couples who follow the Imago Dialogue protocol consistently feel safer and less reactive together, even during moments of conflict and mutual antagonism.
The more we thought about it, the more it seemed to us that this dialogical practice might be conferring on couples some of the same benefits as meditation—Siegel’s Magic Nine, in fact. The big difference, of course, is that two people are engaging with each other in doing this protocol. When most people meditate, they’re still essentially meditating alone, even if they do it with other people in an ashram and benefit from the communal energy. What seems distinctive about the Imago Dialogue is that it brings mindful meditation directly into “reciprocal relational practice”: each partner is, in effect, focusing on the other’s words in a nonjudgmental manner, rather than on the breath or on a mantra. This relational meditative process can develop so much safety that both partners can allow themselves to feel more fully vulnerable in each other’s presence.
At this conference, we recognized that, without realizing it, we’d been teaching couples to replicate the “immediate-next-of-now” experience. Instead of focusing on the in-and-out of their own breath, however, they concentrated on each other and, during the dialogue, engaged in a formalized process of mutually mirroring each other, creating safety by engaging in predictable behaviors. Using the Imago Dialogue, a couple does three things: mirror (accurately repeat to the speaker what was said until he or she feels safe and deeply listened to); validate (let the speaker know that what’s being said is clear, that the perspective being articulated is valuable, and that it makes sense); and empathize (try to take the position of the other and to convey the feelings that he or she is experiencing).
The goal of the process is to shift a couple from an angry, mutually reactive stance to a calm, accepting, listening one. Being the receiver, learning to mirror what the other is saying in a neutral and accepting manner, and learning to validate and empathize, possibly activates the same areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, as mindful meditation does. Learning to stay grounded and focused on your partner’s words even when every fiber of your body wants to shout, “Stop! I don’t want to hear that. That’s not true. That’s not how it was. You’ve got it all wrong!” constitutes a powerful meditative practice. Structure brings safety.
Here’s an Imago Dialogue we had recently. The first thing that happens is that the speaker makes an appointment. It’s important to make an appointment so that both parties in the dialogue will be able to stay in the structure. As we were walking together, Francine said, “I’d like to have an Imago Dialogue. Is this a good time for you?”
This set her up as the speaker and allowed me to take a moment to center myself and move into a listening mode. Frequently, a couple sits facing each other. We usually dialogue while walking side by side or driving in the car.
“This is a good time for me,” I said.
Once the dialogue has begun, the first stage is mirroring, in which one partner describes why he or she is upset, and the other mirrors what he or she has heard. Francine began by saying, “I’d like to talk about your taking ‘a day off’ from me in Paris last week.”
I mirrored what she said: “You’d like to talk about my taking a day off from you in Paris last week.”
I repeated what Francine said word for word, only reversing the pronouns, so that she could remain calm, knowing what the “immediate-next-of-now” would be. This structure is what keeps her feeling safe. It’s often tempting for the “receiver” of the message to change what he or she has heard, subtly reinterpreting what the speaker has said, or using “better” words. But this only makes the “immediate-next-of-now” unpredictable and the speaker feel unsafe. Clients are taught to give a hand signal—raising a hand if they’re sitting and facing each other, or gently squeezing the other’s hand if they’re on a walk—to ask the speaker to pause so the partner can mirror word for word.
“I really felt awful. I felt punished,” Francine continued. I squeezed her hand to signal a pause. “You really felt awful. You felt punished,” I repeated.
From there on, we continued the dialogue in which Francine made her points, punctuated by my hand squeezes to slow the process down enough to enable me to genuinely hear and mirror everything she said. The gist of her upset was that by going off by myself for a day, I’d made her feel that I was always choosing the agenda and, on this particular day, was punishing her for not wanting to do exactly what I wanted to do.
Born and raised in France, Francine added at this point, “You aren’t the king of France, you know. We got rid of kings long ago.” A little later, she started crying and added, “I felt chastised like a child.” The feeling brought back memories of her unhappy childhood with a highly punitive, blaming mother, she said. “Several times, she said she was going to kill me and kill herself, and we’d both go to hell, and it’d be my fault!” Francine explained. Now she felt it was hard for her to trust me—she didn’t know what I’d done all that day. I squeezed her hand after each remark and mirrored back exactly what she said.
Later, after Francine had been silent for a moment, I asked, “Is there anything more you’d like to say about this?” When she answered, “No, not for now,” we proceeded to the first step of the next stage: validation, in which I summarized what she’d told me and asked whether I’d gotten it right. When Francine said I had, I continued, “I follow what you said. Your perspective is important and valuable to me, and you make sense.”
During the next stage, empathy, I said, “I imagine you might have felt angry, abandoned, and betrayed about this. Is that what you were feeling?”
Francine said, “Yes, I was feeling angry, abandoned, and betrayed. Right now, I’m feeling heard and calm,”—words that I mirrored once again. I concluded by saying, “Those feelings make sense to me. I can see how you might feel that way.”
There’s always a response in an Imago Dialogue, which must stay on topic. Giving a good response takes practice. Being defensive or setting the record straight isn’t constructive. Two good ways to start a response is to own what you can own, or say something like, “One thing that touched me in what you said is.…” Since it’s important that each stage of the dialogue be clearly structured, I began by saying, “I’d like to respond now,” and Francine answered, “OK.”
In the response phase, the listener mirrors the speaker once again, but this time, it was Francine doing the mirroring. I said, “I’m really glad you asked for a dialogue. I’ve been feeling that you’ve been more distant recently.”
After a hand squeeze, Francine repeated what I’d said, reversing the pronouns. “You’re really glad I asked for a dialogue. You’ve felt that I’m more distant recently.”
During this phase of the dialogue, I told Francine—with each statement punctuated by her hand squeezes to allow what I was saying to come out in manageable, repeatable segments—that I was touched by her tears and passion, and that I could really see how hurt she was and how much she wanted to feel connected to me. I then explained—with Francine mirroring, word for word—that I’d spent my day alone working on our joint article, “messing a bit” with the stock market, and seeing the new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris. I added that I’d loved the movie and I’d wished so much she could’ve been with me. “It included places and museums we’d just visited the day before,” and after squeezing my hand, Francine repeated, “It included places and museums we’d just visited the day before.” Then she squeezed my hand again and said, “Pause a minute, I need to calm myself.”
After her pause to center herself, we began again. I said that the day off was helpful to me, that the two of us had been together day and night for the previous three weeks on our workshop training tour of Europe, and that I was beginning to feel an uncomfortable sense of “symbiosis” with her. “I think I was too abrupt, and I’m sorry for that, but the individuation felt really good!” I added, which Francine mirrored.
Francine then validated what I’d said by summarizing it, asking me whether she’d gotten it right, and, when I said yes, telling me, “Your perspective is important and valuable to me, and you make sense.” Following this, Francine expressed her empathy by saying, “I imagine that how you felt and feel now is relieved. Is that what you felt and feel?” I concurred and, when she asked if I had any more feelings to express, I said I felt grateful and connected—which Francine mirrored.
To those unfamiliar with Imago, this long, formal dialogue can sound stilted and artificial at first. How can anything good come out of repeating back what each partner says? But, paradoxically, the slowness and repetition is part of its strength. Once the dialogue begins, it flows along predictably from moment to moment. The structure of the dialogue basically ensures that there’ll be no nasty surprises, no sudden attacks, and no comments out of left field.
It should be clear that the tone of voice counts enormously—it should be calm and neutral, conveying nonjudgmental listening, with no impatient or snarky undertones. The dialogue essentially contains the couple’s interaction in a state of controlled mindfulness, which not only prevents blowups, but keeps each partner purposefully focused on the other and what he or she has to communicate. Since the process is predictable and the mirroring is exact—each partner knows what’s coming next—the limbic system is calmed and the prefrontal cortex is activated. The couple feels less defensive, more relaxed, more attuned and empathic toward the other, and better able to hear what the other is saying.
Clearly, we need more research to learn what the impact of the Imago Dialogue is on the brain; however, we know through experience that learning and practicing relational meditation via this dialogue can have a transformative impact on individuals and couples. Just as it usually takes years of consistent, regular meditation practice to bring about deep, lasting neurobiological changes, so, too, practicing Imago Dialogue won’t transform a marriage overnight. We encourage couples to enter marital therapy thinking about the long haul, just as they would if they were serious students of yoga or meditation. Couples in trouble need healing, not problem solving. The life-transforming skills that’ll heal and change them take months and years of practice.
Even with many years of Imago Dialogue under our belts, we haven’t become a pair of saints. We still have disagreements and times when we aren’t attuned. We’ve discovered that even when we feel the best with each other—safe, connected, and close—we can still move into painful disconnection quite suddenly. This is because when we feel safe, we’re most vulnerable, and at those moments—when our hearts are open and vulnerable and our defenses are down—we often feel the pain of disconnection even more deeply.
It’s clear that Eastern meditative practices are singularly helpful in calming the nervous system and enhancing a sense of relaxed well-being. As we’ve discovered, alternative forms of structured mindfulness can be helpful for couples hoping to explore the underlying heart of relationship
Photo © Patrick Mac Sean / Es / Corbis
CategoriesClinical Practice & Guidance Couples Mind, Body, Brain
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