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.” Mind-mapping reaches adult form around age 11, when children begin to understand adult sexual motivations and complex interpersonal agendas.
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!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.
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 Kristin and asked, “What makes you think Stanley didn’t know you were unhappy and frustrated?”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.
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. 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 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 Kristin’s apparent naivety. I have to wonder if you took pleasure in tying her 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.
Over the years, I’ve realized that clients who look the most “skill deficient” are often the shrewdest manipulators. 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.This blog is excerpted from “Removing the Masks". Read the full article here. >>Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!
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