It’s an article of faith among many couples therapists that bad behavior in troubled relationships stems primarily from good intentions gone wrong. They see their clients as frightened children, who may hurt each other, but mean no harm. Followers of attachment theory feel that an underlying “fear of abandonment” drives couples’ conflicts, and the ultimate therapeutic goal is to create a warm, empathic experience, at least partly to make up for what the client missed the first time around.
Thirty years of working with couples and observing the limitations of this attitude has led me to develop an approach not focused on clients’ fears, insecurities, or wounded “inner child,” or on the deficiencies of their early attachments. Instead, it reflects the idea that people typically don’t hurt each other because they’re out of touch, unable to communicate, or can’t help themselves because of their early experiences: they usually know the harm they’re doing, and often it is quite deliberate. Rather than triggered by fear, shame, or insecurity, people do hurtful things with impunity and entitlement to gratify their own needs and wishes. It’s not that they’re “unconsciously recreating their past,” it’s that they’re engaging in the form of relationship with which they’re most familiar, one that, in fact, they prefer.
The key to grasping the roots of this “inner game” is to understand the brain’s ability to map another person’s mind—what I call “mind-mapping,” a process neuroscientists have studied as the Theory of Mind for the past 30 years. Mind-mapping is a survival skill that allows us to predict—and manipulate—other people’s behavior by understanding their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The ability to mind-map generally emerges at age 4, as children’s brains develop, heralded by the advent of their capacity to tell “fibs.” These cute, clumsy attempts to lie coincide with a child’s realization that a parent’s mind is capable of holding false beliefs, combined with the dawning awareness that what people do depends on what’s in their mind. Mind-mapping reaches adult form around age 11, when children begin to understand adult sexual motivations and complex interpersonal agendas. With the exception of people suffering from conditions like schizophrenia, autism, and some forms of Asperger’s Syndrome, most adults have mind-mapping capabilities; however, therapists may underestimate its role in our relationships.
Marriage is inconceivable without some degree of mind-mapping: you need it to share a life with someone and understand what he or she means, wants, and desires. Of course, it comes in handy if you want to be a good liar, manipulator, or adulterer. You can’t be a successful therapist without it, either! Fully appreciating the subtleties of partners’ ability to mind-map each other can lead to stronger alliances with clients, and faster, more intense, and farther-reaching treatment. But doing this type of therapy means being drawn into depths of human motivation that many therapists prefer to avoid. Consider the following case.
Getting Past the Games
Married for 25 years, Stanley and Kristin, a couple in their early 50s, came to see me for a sexual problem. Throughout their marriage, Stanley had ejaculated shortly after intercourse had begun, but he denied understanding how upset and frustrated Kristin felt about it. Instead, he insisted the bigger problem was Kristin’s affair two years earlier. According to him, Kristin had mentioned her dissatisfaction only a few times during their marriage, and, given that they were having sex twice a week, and that Kristin was frequently orgasmic, he insisted that, as far as he knew, his rapid orgasms were a problem only for him.
When I asked Kristin what she thought, she acknowledged keeping her disappointment to herself all these years because she didn’t want to embarrass Stanley, who’d been reluctant to seek treatment. Nevertheless, sometimes she cried after sex, and occasionally she suggested they have a second go-round.
Upon hearing this, Stanley immediately objected. “Oh come on! You rarely did that! Do you expect me to read your mind?” Kristin acknowledged that she’d rarely proposed this, and Stanley appeared to emerge as the victorious and aggrieved party.
I then asked Kristin, “What made you think Stanley was embarrassed about his rapid ejaculations?” She described how he’d turn on his side with his back to her after sex and wouldn’t talk to her, so I asked, a bit skeptically, “So Stanley has been embarrassed a couple of times a week for 25 years?” I was pointing out what Stanley and Kristin were avoiding: the incongruity of thinking someone would continue to be embarrassed about something repeated so frequently over so many years, or if he was, considering the question of why his interest in sex hadn’t waned in the face of such humiliation.
Kristin replied, “Well, that’s what he said whenever I asked him.”
It’s important for a therapist to pay close attention to provocative remarks. I immediately noticed that in response to my comment questioning his embarrassment, Stanley looked at me and smiled. To me, it was the sly, slightly abashed look of someone being found out. At this point, Stanley interjected in a guarded tone, “Do you mean you don’t think I was embarrassed?”
I said, “I’m not sure if you were embarrassed or not, but I’m asking Kristin for details so I can figure it out.”
When Stanley smiled again, I took that as an opportunity to ask directly, “Should I take your smile to mean you’re embarrassed about us talking about your rapid ejaculation, or you’re embarrassed about me questioning whether your embarrassment is real?”
A bit defensively Stanley said, “I was just too embarrassed to go for treatment.”
I replied, “That may be true, but that’s not the same as being embarrassed when you come quickly with Kristin. But let’s focus on what’s happening right now. You haven’t answered my question about what you’re embarrassed about now.”
Stanley continued as if he didn’t get my point. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal because Kristin could still have her orgasm with me. We usually came together.”
Suddenly Kristin glared at Stanley. “You put your embarrassment above me, above our sex life, above our marriage! Even if you didn’t know how frustrated, angry, and disappointed I was, you knew this was a problem! If you really cared, you wouldn’t let your embarrassment stop you from taking care of this!”
For a moment, I was taken aback by Kristin’s outburst—not by her anger, but by what she was angry about. She’d been triggered when I’d raised the possibility that Stanley wasn’t embarrassed about his sexual performance, but she was still assuming his embarrassment to be an established fact in their relationship. It was as if she was trying to close off our discussion by starting an argument—a familiar tactic in troubled couples.
“For crying out loud,” replied Stanley, “I’m a business guy! I know about making money. I don’t know about relationships. My family was cold and distant. We never talked about feelings.”
Neither Kristin nor Stanley wanted to consider a darker view of their last 25 years than the one they presented. In my approach with couples, I see these moments as opportunities, rather than things to be avoided. I turned to her and asked, “What makes you think Stanley didn’t know you were unhappy and frustrated?”
“That’s what he said whenever I brought it up. He’s said that a lot since my affair, and he’s even saying it now. According to Stanley, I’m more at fault because I knew he’d be hurt by my affair, but he didn’t know I was so sexually unhappy with him. This is so mind-twisting! For 25 years, I’m not supposed to move during sex because it’ll make him orgasm quicker. Now it’s my fault because I didn’t express my dissatisfactions more clearly! He’s even making my ability to have orgasms quickly the reason he didn’t go for treatment!”
Kristin suddenly seemed willing to confront unsavory aspects of their marriage she’d previously overlooked, but the possibility that Stanley’s sexual pattern wasn’t due to embarrassment was darker than her mind willingly tolerated. I figured she’d be upset if this turned out to be true, but therapy built on a false picture of their lives wouldn’t provide a long-lasting resolution.
I said to Stanley, “It looks like Kristin is really angry at you.”
“I can see that,” said Stanley glumly.
“But the real problem is Kristin may be angry at you for relatively minor reasons. If you’re interested in saving your marriage and putting the past behind you, it’s important that she be angry at you for the right reasons.” I was purposely adding intensity to the moment. Building the significance of a couple’s situation in the midst of crisis can encourage the best in both partners to stand up.
“Like what?” Stanley replied warily.
“Well,” I said, “for bigger things than being embarrassed or ashamed about your sexual problem, and double-binding Kristin about expressing her dissatisfactions.” Thirty minutes into our first session, things were starting to deepen. The foundation was being laid for the hard work to come.
Confronting the Masker
Like most therapists, I continually assess clients’ strengths and weaknesses and gauge my interventions accordingly. What’s different in my work is that while most therapists avoid saying things that their client might find upsetting, I push things further, earlier than colleagues who initially focus on their clients’ frailties, fears, and hypersensitivities. From the beginning, I tune into people’s strengths—their sense of right and wrong, their personal integrity, their willingness to tolerate pain for growth. Every day in my office, I’m impressed by people’s ability to act out of their deepest principles and values, even while thoroughly petrified and unsure of the outcome. I see effective therapy as being grounded in people’s resilience and their highest aspirations, rather than calling forth their fears, insecurities, and immaturities.
Many couples who come to see me are in crisis and on the verge of divorce. Perhaps an affair has been discovered, or arguments are escalating, or one or both partners are ready to leave. Crisis presents powerful opportunities for personal growth and relationship change if therapists don’t rush in and try to make things “stable” and reestablish the status quo. I see my role as challenging clients to confront and deal with dilemmas and conflicts in their current crisis, rather than dampening the situation, or making “security and safety” the primary focus of interventions. I avoid positive reframing to mollify people’s anger and resentments. I make no assumption that people operate out of misguided attempts at self-protection. Instead, I believe that couples’ current instability is their best chance to “clean up their mess” and build a solider relationship.
Challenging whether Stanley’s sexual pattern was driven by something besides embarrassment threatened to smudge the picture that Stanley and Kristin were painting. Posing necessary challenges that profoundly disorient a couple is a major part of my job. So I said to Stanley, “I see the possibility that the way you and Kristin have understood your sex life may not be accurate. Despite what you’re saying, my impression is that you’re actually good at figuring out what other people are thinking. How do I know that? You’ve been doing that with me since this session began. When I asked Kristin how you rolled over after sex, you asked me if I questioned your embarrassment. You correctly saw where my questions were headed, and you reacted to it. Several times you flashed a smile of recognition before I finished making my point. Once you actually finished my sentence for me. Another time you said, ‘You’re probably wondering why I didn’t go for treatment.’ You couldn’t do these things if you couldn’t map my mind and see where I was headed. In fact, you’re not only an excellent mind-mapper, you’re also excellent at keeping other people from mapping your mind. That’s how you’ve been able to keep this going with Kristin for decades.”
Stanley took his time responding. “How do you know I could read Kristin during sex?”
“This isn’t an ability you’ve recently developed. Kids usually develop mind-mapping ability around age 4. And from what I’ve seen so far today, I’d guess you were quite aware of Kristin’s dissatisfaction, frustration, and unhappiness.”
Stanley looked down sadly, and then at Kristin. “If I knew it, I didn’t know I knew it. It must have been unconscious.”
I couldn’t let him off the hook so easily. “On the contrary, someone can’t operate as effectively as you are without consciously mapping other people’s minds,” I said. “I’m not going to debate this with you. One possibility is you were just doing this to protect yourself from being rejected because you felt inadequate. This is the explanation you and Kristin seem to like best, and the one most therapists will give you. But I keep thinking about you having sex twice a week for 25 years, and I can’t imagine you emotionally dying each time. So another possible picture is that you enjoyed taking advantage of her apparent naivety. I have to wonder if you took pleasure in tying Kristin up in emotional knots, having such control, and keeping her ‘captive.’”
“That would be a really cruel thing to do,” Stanley remarked.
“It would indeed,” I replied.
Stanley and Kristin locked eyes for an eternity. Neither said a word. Stanley’s face was impassive. The silence in the room was deafening.
“I’ll think about it,” Stanley said, implying he’d do it later.
“I hope both of you do that,” I replied, looking at Kristin.
“Why are you encouraging Kristin to be suspicious of me?” asked Stanley, trying to map my mind.
“You just reinforced my belief you have mind-mapping ability. You mapped out that I was encouraging your wife. But I’m not encouraging suspicion of you, I’m encouraging Kristin to confront herself, confront what she knows. If she resolves this by sticking her head in the sand or lying to herself, neither she nor you will ever really be secure. I’m not against you. I’m trying to help you, but not by encouraging you to trust me or my judgment blindly. I want you to look at this for yourself.
“If any of this is true, Stanley, you’re in a tight spot because if Kristin realizes this after you’ve supposedly made a new start, your relationship is likely over. But if it’s true, and you handle this in ways that demonstrate remorse and Kristin can respect, you may save your relationship. In any event, you can rebuild your own integrity, and at least have a relationship with yourself. I can’t promise what Kristin might do. What’s important is that you handle this in a way that best fits your true self-interest.”
A critical assumption in my approach is that clients understand more about their own motives and the reactions of their partners than many therapists give them credit for. We prefer to think clients are so “out of touch” they don’t foresee the impact when they say or do cruel, hurtful, inconsiderate things. This is how we maintain the cherished shibboleth: “People always do the best they can at the time.” Unfortunately, basic decency isn’t something we can take for granted. “Ambivalent attachment” and “insecure attachment” don’t begin to address the depth of hatred, animosity, and resentment that develop in many families and marriages. I use the term normal marital sadism to describe the nonreportable domestic violence that partners often inflict on each other.
People like Stanley look like they can’t mind-map because they’ve gone one step better: they’ve learned to map others surreptitiously and screen their own mind from being mapped. They’re often so good at this they slip under their therapists’ radar—which is why therapists frequently believe clients have less awareness than they actually do. Over the years, I’ve realized that clients who look the most “skill deficient” are often the shrewdest manipulators. Their mind-masking ability develops as an essential survival skill with parents who were intrusive and controlling, manipulative, emotionally unstable, overly dependent, violent and impulsive, or sexually inappropriate. Mind-mapping and mind-masking allow defensive and hypervigilant clients to see where other people’s minds are headed and “play three moves ahead” to fend off perceived threats, giving them more maneuvering room to dodge issues they don’t want to face. Likewise, if they’re having an affair or want to torture their partner, mind-mapping their mate and masking their own mind are all-important abilities. Clients are always mapping their therapist’s mind, while often masking their own minds, and they’re frequently better at this than we are.
Stanley and Kristin left that day not knowing the future course of their relationship. This often happens after a first session with a couple. From my viewpoint, Stanley and Kristin’s marriage wasn’t falling apart: they were embarking on a path I’ve been down with many clients, a critical turning point in which they are confronted with the conscious decision to choose to become the people they want to be.
Stanley and Kristin Return
At the start of their second session, Kristin said, “I’ve had a very rough time since our last session. Your confronting Stanley made me look deeper into myself than I’ve wanted to, and face things I’ve avoided in Stanley, in myself, in my marriage, and in my family. I never saw this coming. This isn’t how I expected treatment would go.” She looked healthier and more attractive, and seemed more grounded and empowered, than at the start of our prior session.
“Several times I had the impulse to tell Stanley to get the hell out. I’m still not sure I can ever forgive him. But what he’s done doesn’t come as a complete shock. Truthfully, I’ve always known Stanley is a selfish bastard, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I always make excuses for him in my mind because I love him. I’ve learned to ‘ignore’ what I read in other people. I’m good at lying to myself, from years of practice with my parents.”
Kristin continued, “As a child, when I realized my mother was having affairs, I was disgusted—at first just with her, but then with my father, too. I’d thought he was a good guy, the good parent, someone I could count on. I’ve always wondered why he didn’t see what she was doing. Since our last session, I remembered a time when it was so obvious I realized he did see it, but wouldn’t confront it. I thought he was so great for always praising my mother to us, until I realized he was selling us kids out. He didn’t want to deal with the mess. I was always afraid that if I confronted our ‘wonderful family’ façade, my parents would separate, and my brother and I could end up with relatives, because neither of my parents would have taken us in by themselves.”
Kristin turned to Stanley and said, “Do you want to say what you realized too?” Whereupon Stanley brought up several childhood vignettes illustrating how cruel, dishonest, and malevolent his parents and relatives were. Stanley’s dad was often out of control, beating Stanley’s older brother with a belt to “instill discipline”—which, Stanley mapped out, was really an expression of a need to feel respected and a desire to punish and hurt. Then Dad made Stanley’s brother apologize, trying to break the boy’s spirit.
While attachment therapists focus on children not feeling “seen” (internalized) by parents, a more common childhood trauma occurs when children see their parents. As in Stanley and Kristin’s case, good mind-mapping can be traumatizing because children see their parents as they really are. Lots of parents are unlovable, unworthy of respect, and some are even actively malevolent. When children map out these parents’ minds, they become traumatized. The combination of disgust and hatred such parents engender is so hard for children to cope with that it welds the child to the parent like superglue. These children become hypervigilant, “blind,” and skilled at masking their minds.
Kristin then said to Stanley, “When I looked at how you’ve tortured me—and sex isn’t the only way you’ve done it—I also saw myself. I torture you, too. I’m constantly late and make you wait, though I know you hate this, and I complain about how your mother tries to take advantage of you. I act like I’m standing up for you, but I’m actually pushing you to stand up to her though I know you don’t want to do this. This doesn’t mean I forgive you for what you’ve done to me. I’m not perfect, but I think you’re crueler than I am.” Stanley nodded in agreement.
“I’ll never get back the time I’ve wasted trying to be understanding and supportive. Those opportunities for good sex with someone who values me are gone, but I’m not willing to give this up forever. If Dr. Schnarch can help us cure your rapid ejaculation, I’m willing to see what happens between us. But if you torture me while we’re solving this—or afterward—believe me, this marriage is over.”
I wasn’t surprised Kristin was confronting herself. I’ve found that if I can get the best in one partner to stand up—by which I mean people’s ability to confront themselves and take responsibility for what they truly want in their relationship—it triggers the best in the other partner to do likewise. This isn’t reducible to lockstep reciprocity, because first steps are taken without knowing what the partner’s response will be, and without assurance the partner will do likewise. This virtuous cycle rests on unilateral self-confrontation, not coregulation.
In Praise of Differentiation
Conventional wisdom in couples therapy says troubled couples have to get more securely attached before they can differentiate. But repeatedly I see troubled couples differentiate first—which leads to stabler marriages. I believe couples have to stop manipulating their stories and tampering with facts to keep their relationship together. Far from being impossible or improbable, this is the way relationships really work. Realizing this yields a different kind of experience in therapy—not one of safety and hovering support, but one in which higher anxiety and pressure and faster pace of change emerge, as people realize their full capacity to meet the adult challenges of life.
My main focus as a therapist is to facilitate differentiation, by which I mean people’s ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives: our desire for attachment and connection, on the one hand, and our desire to be an individual and direct the course of our own lives, on the other. The latter refers to the ability to hold on to yourself when important people in your life pressure you to conform. Differentiation yields emotional autonomy—the basis of healthy interdependence and the foundation for intimacy and stability in long-term relationships.
In working with couples, it’s crucial to distinguish two different kinds of intimacy: “other-validated intimacy” and “self-validated intimacy.” Other-validated intimacy is when one partner discloses and the other reciprocates with acceptance, validation, empathy, and support. This is a hallmark of attachment-based therapy. By contrast, self-validated intimacy results from confronting yourself, self-disclosing even if your partner won’t accept, empathize, validate, or support what you’re saying, and providing your own validation.
That’s what Stanley did when he acknowledged his hidden agenda in his sexual relationship with Kristin. Rather than getting a sense of safety, security, reassurance, or commitment from her, he had to “hold onto himself,” stand on his own two feet, and tell the truth. Under the right circumstances, I see people do this all the time. Shifting from depending on other-validated intimacy to doing self-validated intimacy fundamentally changes the dynamics of relationship and revamps partners’ maps of each other’s minds.
Like many couples, Stanley and Kristin dramatically turned their relationship around. Seeing the best in each other come forward made a huge difference in accepting their past, putting it behind them, and building a present and future based on self-respect, greater honesty, and more willingness to address difficult issues as soon as they arise. In fact, it’s not hard to resolve rapid orgasm, even when it has existed for decades. It can require the reduction in anxiety that Stanley and Kristin established by confronting their dark truths. Without this reduction, sexual techniques focused on delaying ejaculation often don’t work. Mapping each other’s minds during sex and allowing themselves to be mapped profoundly deepened their intimacy.
Reality in the Consulting Room
Many therapists fear clients will take offense and walk out if they’re as direct and confrontational as I appear to be. In fact, in my practice, that virtually never happens. My clients say they stay because they know I can see them, and they trust me because I talk straight and confront them about difficult topics. Clients are likelier to walk out if you suddenly adopt a style of honesty and directness that conflicts with your prior interventions. When you’ve soft-pedaled difficult issues and sugarcoated harsh truths, confronting them about doing cruel or selfish things seems judgmental and pejorative, as if you’re ceasing to be supportive and you don’t like them anymore.
Collaborative confrontation doesn’t seem like a departure from therapeutic business as usual when it is business as usual. If you don’t use positive reframing to put a smiley face on everything, and your questions demonstrate your willingness to see people’s darkness (and their goodness), clients can handle their darker issues better when they’re exposed.
Having gone through this process with many couples, I’ve learned that, paradoxically, the bigger the lurking bombshell, the more tenuous the situation, and the greater the impulse to approach this in small incremental baby steps, lest things blow up, the more important it is to approach tough issues directly, with their implications fully visible, and shepherd couples through this stage quickly. Progressively unpacking timid disclosures of difficult truths saps partners’ endurance, courage, and belief in themselves and each other. In contrast, watching your partner confront himself unilaterally, without guarantees of acceptance, builds mutual respect, earns forgiveness, and induces you to act in kind.
Here are things therapists can do to encourage clients to decide their best option is going through the process of differentiation and self-validation:
- Use collaborative confrontation to wake people up by exposing their games and encouraging their best to come out.
- Work quickly. Speed creates hope, and a brisk pace yields greater traction with clients.
- Use honesty to harness clients’ innate desire for intimacy and partnership. We can’t be safe and secure while we hide, because our partner really doesn’t know us. When we’re finally known, we can truly relax. Difficult truth-telling makes couples feel productively and profoundly connected.
- Foster a sense of unilateral responsibility and differentiation to enhance people’s collaborative alliances.
Whether unwittingly or by design, therapists co-construct how clients function, feel, and look, to such a profound degree many of us can’t imagine. We lose sight of how we co-construct clients in ways that support our favorite theories. Attachment therapists don’t really believe they are co-constructing abandonment fears: they believe they’re treating it. I readily concede differentiation-based therapy is co-construction too.
Since therapists always co-construct clients, do it well. Co-construct clients as resilient and resourceful, capable of deliberate malevolence as well as knowing right from wrong, strong enough to acknowledge their failings, to act with integrity, and to be worthy of respect. Don’t reduce them to well-intended wounded children, who do misguided things out of overwhelming insecurities and fears of facing the world on their own. To support this approach to therapy, it’s important to build in signposts that signal clients that their experience with me will differ from conventional therapy. To start with, I don’t try to convince clients that my office is a “safe place.” Instead, my office, I’m clear, is “a place where change happens.” Of course, the first rule of therapy is “Do no harm.” But ineffective therapy isn’t harmless, and systematically underestimating clients’ abilities, whitewashing darker motives, and squandering clients’ time, money, and patience isn’t a safe clinical stance. However radical my approach may seem from the perspective of attachment-based, conventional psychotherapy, I’d propose another perspective: there’s nothing conservative about treatment that underestimates people’s ability to confront difficult truths and ignores their vast potential to face up to the challenge of transforming their relationships and their lives.
Illustration © Noma / Sis
David Schnarch, PhD, director of the Crucible Institute, is the author of Intimacy & Desire, Passionate Marriage, and Constructing the Sexual Crucible.