When I was being trained as a marital/relational therapist the focus was on interpersonal relationship-That is the interaction between two people. This consisted of enhancing communication, quality of intimacy, time together and apart, explicit and implicit contracts, anger and conflict management, problem solving skills, parenting and negotiation, for example. This work was necessary, but not always sufficient. Sometimes each individual might require more individual therapy to work on developmental trauma or neglect or parental attunements. The combination was often useful but often one individual either became intimate with the therapist in terms of self-disclosure, at the expense of sharing with their partner, or a polarization began in which one partner would tell their version of the recent interactions complaining or looking for support regarding their partner’s perceived misdeed’s. This frequently can made the relationship more difficult since hearing one side of a disagreement often led to bad advice.
Eventually a third more useful approach to relationships emerged. This was intrapersonal relational therapy focused, that is working on one’s relationship with self. Many individuals presented with internal core beliefs or schema of self-hate, perfectionism, feelings of depersonalization or being object-like, or shame like they were “damaged goods,” which influenced their choice of partner and what they were willing to accept and expect in the relationship. If one feels defective and undeserving often they recreate neglect or abuse in their relationships. Two people can actively recreate patterns from their childhood unconsciously in destructive relationships. If one hates themselves they often reject or fear true intimacy and can find themselves doing behaviors such as affairs, online pornography, workaholism, out of control anger to prove to their partner that they are “bad” or unworthy. In other couples one person becomes so over adequate to earn the other’s affection, that the partner has no job description to help with the house, garden, kids and chores that the partnership is shaped to be unpair.
Photo by Rod Long
So, in interpersonally- based therapy, the couple are seen by the therapist and the focus is each individual learning self-compassion and care, and developing the capacity to receive the partners mirroring of adoration affection and appreciation. This is done by having the individual identify the angry, lonely, sad, disconnected, scared parts of self that manifest themselves and form on internal intimate relationship with them as one might do with their own children or good friends and when they are sad or lonely, listen to their stories since in most circumstances these emotions are amplified by unfinished business from the past. When one is mistreated as a child or bullied by peers the injured parts of self-become disconnected if there is no-one to process these feelings and allow the individual to make sense of why others can be so cruel or neglectful. They might falsely conclude that they are bad, rather than understand their behavior in context, ie the bullies picked on them because they looked vulnerable because their dad was explosive which made them unable to pay attention in class -; often there is a domino effect that one problem creates the next one such that the individual is left with the conclusion that they caused it or was chosen or picked on because of being defective, bad, sick, ie shame. Healing those injuries to core care self are possible by facilitating self-compassion and nurturing: When the individual begins to say to themselves or feels the anxiety related to shame, they actively reparent themselves or talk to their partner and received kindness and “corrective emotional experience.” When an individual makes a mistake, or doesn’t know how to do something effectively the partner or self can reflect, that’s ok, no big deal, we can learn to do it differently. The new revolution in mindfulness teaching is to teach individuals that their minds are most often in the past fault finding or shoulding or in the future, fearing what might or might not happen. To increase self-control and focus on creating positive experiences, problem solving or doing the “next right thing” in the present a created happiness allowing oneself to learn from loss, pain, suffering and conflict or mistakes creates the wisdom of self-growth.
Thus as a wife watches their husband deal with his father beating him for a minor infraction as a child and feels sad for him, she might better understand his being critical with her for the kids and help him learn greater patience, while the husband recognizes that he is repeating a destructive pattern and mindfully notice his out of control angry part feeding himself negative voices – ie “she doesn’t respect me, that child need punished” and instead calm himself and do a time out until he can find a more compassionate constructive intervention at that point interpersonal (mentioned earlier) or parenting skills can prove very useful.
As an individual develops self-empathy their relationships with others change indirectly. As they received positive feedback + mirroring from others their self-esteem and self-cohesion improve creating more self-empathy this is the primary goal of relational therapy.