Announcing WeConcile™

Architecting Your Own Intimacy – Repairing, Rebuilding & Creating Love

I have been deep in writing a new web-based and interactive program to help couples (or any two people) connect more fully and resolve conflicts, bringing harmony and peace to their relationship. This is something that I have been working on for nearly two years (and with some months to go before it is complete).

How I make my own life meaningful, and what inspires me, is the process of focusing on and stepping into the dark parts of myself, my relationships and my world in order to bring light, peace, beauty and love into those areas that are un-enlightened, fearful, suffering or in pain. As I look at the trauma and darkness in the world around me, this feels especially pertinent at this time. For me, life is a metaphor of bringing light into our own darkness, whether it is external in the outer world, or internal, in my own self and process. Consequently, bringing harmony, peace and love into our lives and relationships is a process that I am deeply involved in.

Because I grew up in an environment with emotional trauma, conflict and disconnection, and have spent years not only undoing the damage caused by that, transforming my own negative parts, and expanding and developing myself, this mission is close to my heart.  I believe that we can all learn to engage in the ‘underground’ processes of healing, and collaborate and support each other in this endeavor.

Over the years of working both as a therapist and a couples’ therapist I have come to believe that something more is needed to help all of us with our relationships.  Many of us just don’t have the skills we need. Therapy has limitations due to its cost, and many therapists, though effective with individuals, don’t have the specialized training needed to be effective when working with couples. The time constraints of people’s busy lives, and the stigma that therapy has for some also inhibit people seeking help.  Additionally, I have wanted to expand out of working one-to-one to a place where I could do more writing and impact a larger group.

I began to think about a low cost way to ‘teach’ people while overcoming these obstacles. I began to wonder if I could make experiential relationship help available to the many who cannot afford couples counseling – a place where they could learn, while collaborating and supporting each other. I found the idea exciting, although scary. Am I wasting my time? Can this actually be done and can I do it?  Couples therapy is hard enough with a therapist in the room. How could it possibly work on the web?

One day, a web programmer friend was visiting.  As he talked about his web-based product, a light bulb went off.  ‘This can be done,’ I thought.  At the time, I was continuing in advanced training in couple’s therapy.  So along with my knowledge of self-growth and healing and my ability to write, all the pieces were there.  Thus began the birth of WeConcile™.

Let me present some broad ideas about what needs to happen in any ‘self growth’ endeavor by starting with some observations and analogies.

I was watching TV the other night and a dancer/choreographer whose name I don’t remember was talking on a panel. The other 4 people on the panel were not dancers.  I was very aware of how evolved this man’s body and being appeared, how he moved his arms and gestured when he talked, how he carried himself, how his body and self seemed much more alive than the others.  It was clear that as a dancer, he had developed a relationship to his body, lets call it his mind/body, extensively, and in a way the others had not.  In comparison, they appeared almost unintelligent.

In contrast to those who are highly developed, are those of us who are ‘regular,’ with more typical levels of skill and ability.

And then there are those of us who have been deprived, neglected or even abused in some way while we were developing.  Our development has actually been suppressed, leaving us with gaps in our skill set, or perhaps having to adapt, almost the way a tree that is growing under a large object has to bend and twist and turn to find its way to the sun, or how one that is growing in bad soil or a harsh environment may end up smaller.

This is the spectrum, ranging from the full development of one’s capacity, even beyond what most people do, through the realm of normal, all the way to a place where there are scars or underdevelopment caused by abuse or limitations.

Lets apply these ideas to relationships.  Successful relationships often require all three things:

  • The correcting of places where our development had been hindered (which we are often unaware of, but our partners will be feeling the consequence of.)
  • The healing of actual emotional wounds that cause reactivity and pain.
  • The further development of our potential in ways that surpass the current norm, as the ‘normal’ level of relationship skills alone often isn’t sufficient to have a truly satisfying relationship at this time in history.

In overcoming a deficit or injury, we may actually have to overcompensate and develop capacities that are generally greater than what the ‘regular’ person has.

Given that relationships often bring up anything that is undeveloped or unhealed in ourselves, how do you get a relationship that is more peaceful, harmonious and loving?  Lets switch contexts for just a moment and look at a similar but different question.

How do you get a healthier body? You have to look at what you are feeding the body, how you are using it and taking care of it. We can put it in a list:

  • Learn and apply over time the guidelines of nutrition
  • Learn and apply over time appropriate exercise
  • Learn and apply over time the reduction of stress
  • Attend to and heal any injuries
  • Build up and support any areas of weakness
  • Utilize a community of people who continue to develop these ideas and/or     provide support.

That was easy.  We all know how to create a healthier body, whether we have the support to do it or not.  But we don’t all know how to create healthier relationships.  In fact, creating a healthier relationship can be incredibly difficult – just look at the divorce statistics.  But the same principles apply.  Lets look at what it will take:

  • Education – feeding your body new guidelines of ‘relational nutrition.’
  • Exercise – experiential exercises to help you ‘rewire’ and develop aspects of your brain to improve your ‘relation-ability.’
  • Communication exercises, tools and guidelines to help you and your partner learn to communicate in a different and more supportive way.
  • Questions and exercises to identify and attend to old wounds.
  • Questions and exercises to identify and attend to areas needing development.
  • A community of others who are involved in the same process and willing to talk about it and support each other.

So like changing your body, changing yourself or your relationship requires education and knowledge over time. It requires the application of that education and knowledge allowing for new habits to build, and support, whether from a therapist, a friend, or a community of like-minded others.

The first question I ask a couple or family unit who is coming to see me is, “What do you want?”  Or “What do the two of you want?”  Generally the answer I get is: “We want to get along, we want to stop fighting, we want a peaceful, harmonious and loving relationship.”

This is what WeConcile™ will help you do.  It should be out by the end of the 2013.

The Three Interdependent Dimensions of Our Relationships

(The material in this article comes from understanding gained by training in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples)

Working with couples effectively means you understand the three dimensions of our relationships: Attachment, emotions and cycles.  Learn about what needs to be focused on to do effective couples work, or to work on your own relationship.

1)   The dimension of attachment: attachment is a framework that underlies all intimate connection even if we are not aware of it.  Most of us aren’t.  It is a term more used by psychologists, therapists and people working with infants than the general public and many people don’t know anything about it.  Attachment means that we look at important connections through a lens that asks questions like, “Am I important to you?” or “Do you really care about me?” or “Am I enough for you?” etc. It is hard wired into us. As babies, connection means life. Disconnection is death. Attachment is about relationship and it brings with it questions about safety, belonging and meaning. It asks, “What do I mean to you?” “Am I safe with you?” “Do I belong?” It is through an attachment lens that we interpret the actions of our partner.   Events that are upsetting to us bring up attachment related questions.  We are often not aware of these attachment related questions, and when they get activated by a lack of connection or another attachment threat, they get translated into negative thoughts like, “You don’t care about me” or “You never put me first” and actions like yelling or withdrawing. We react because we are afraid that we are losing our connection or being overwhelmed by it. Our fears that we are not enough, or not important or valued enough emerge. What we aren’t aware of is that our partner is responding to his or her own attachment fears and isn’t yet conscious or, or doesn’t know how to sort through this.  The screaming partner is screaming for closeness. The withdrawing partner is withdrawing because the distance is how he or she maintains the relationship when he or she feels criticized, not understood, or not good enough. When we learn this lens and practice seeing through it, we will be able to re-interpret what is going on and understand it in a new and much more constructive way. Without this lens, it is very difficult to develop empathy for our partners when they are behaving in hurtful ways.  But once we see that they are struggling with their own attachment issues, it is possible to feel less threatened and have more empathy. This is important because we want to change our stance so we can reconnect more easily.

2)   The dimension of emotions:  when we feel emotion, we feel it in our bodies. It is visceral – we shake, cry, ‘see red’, hunch over, look away etc.  The dimension of our emotions is about feeling.  Exploring our feelings helps us understand more about ourselves, about our reactions, about old feelings that we are still trying to avoid.  Many people are uncomfortable with their feelings. Some people don’t have a very good vocabulary developed to describe their feelings, or their feelings have been compressed, pushed down and aren’t an active part of their reality.  This can change. We can and need to get to know our feelings better if we want to expand our ability to relate. The dimension of emotions can be experienced more deeply, navigated more easily and articulated more clearly. When our attachment questions get activated our feelings also get activated. And when our feelings get triggered, so do our attachment questions.  But as we understand our feelings more and experience them more fully, we can learn to witness them and talk about them rather than react from them. This helps calm down the dimension of cycles.

3)   The dimension of cycles: cycles occur in all relationships.  If we are struggling in our relationship, our cycle will be contributing to our difficulties. Our cycle is what occurs between us over and over again. I feel disappointed and cry, you get frustrated and yell or withdraw. I cry harder. You withdraw more.  The dimension of feelings and the dimension of attachment both interrelate with the dimension of cycles.  If I experience my relationship as unsafe because of a disconnect, I might feel sad and cry, while thinking, “nobody loves me” and as I do this, you withdraw because you think that you can never make me happy and this feels bad, shameful, scary to you.  I feel abandoned and sad. You feel alone and inadequate. We both want to be close. We cope by crying or withdrawing. Gaining control over our cycle is important. First, we must develop a conceptual picture of what our cycle looks like, of what actually occurs.  As we understand our cycle, and see how it relates to attachment issues and feelings, we aren’t so threatened by it and our reactivity goes down. We understand how it gets fueled, and that it doesn’t need to go on forever. As we gain control of our cycle and understand that we can influence it, we start to feel even safer.

Copyright 2010 Jennifer Lehr

Innovations in Couples Therapy

A while back I spent a week at a training workshop for therapists on Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. While I have been working with couples for years, there is always more to learn; I believe that this is the best couples methodology available today. Currently there are new frontiers opening in brain research, child development, and the need for safe secure connections in our primary relationships. These new areas of knowledge impact the practice of psychotherapy, especially around the areas of intimate relationships as well as how we have the power to alter our feelings, perceptions and responses.

What makes a relationship work? It is one of the questions I have been asking and answering in my own life. Because of my own history, developing the ability to have healthy nourishing relationships, to be present, direct and also be vulnerable has been a long and ongoing process. I remember once watching a romantic movie over and over again, gripped with the impending connection, the hope for absolute and complete harmony, for the feeling of truly loving and being loved.

Think about your relationship or what you imagine your relationship will be like. What do you long for? What do you dream about? What are the feelings you are looking for? Connection? Love? Safety?

As babies, we are held, fed, and attended to, and we grow in this context of connection. We continue to need connection throughout our adult lives. We long to be understood, to be cared for and to be loved. We long to know that we are important; that how we feel matters. We long to flow effortlessly between connection and autonomy. But our relationships are not so easy. Distressed couples are so because they do not feel safe connecting. As situations occur that frustrate that need for safe connection, disharmonies arise between us, as do both FEELINGS and behaviors. We develop strategies to not feel our grief, anger, shame and fear. We may cut off our own longing and not feel our need for connection. We may get angry and bitter to keep from feeling the grief that is underneath. These strategies that protect us, also limit our relationships.

As a therapist, I watch how couples interact. I notice how they talk to each other, who moves forward and how, who holds back. How we respond to each other creates a pattern. Noticing the pattern is important, because the pattern itself must be addressed.
This dance we do with each other stirs deep feelings that we act out causing painful cycles of interaction that repeat and repeat.

The other important piece is the feelings themselves. In therapy, we unpack feelings that are below the surface, below the mirage of the laundry that is never put away, or the frustration of a partner who wants to stay home instead of go out. Because we get stuck in the “above ground” issues, we don’t understand what is underneath; that we don’t feel cared for, loved, respected or understood. Most of us don’t fully understand our historical relational wounds and how they impact us. We often don’t face our partners and tell them about our hurts and what we need. When we do, they sometimes cannot hear us.

While straightening this out, both the therapist and the partners sometimes get caught in compromise. “If you do this, I will do that,” etc. Compromise doesn’t deal with the deeper longings for safe connection. It is like rearranging the furniture in a room that is falling down. Changing our relationships involves learning new ways of being, reorganizing our emotions and experience, and understanding ourselves differently EXPERIENTIALLY. As we interact with ourselves and partner differently, we are actually architecting a different brain. It also means that both parties will be emotionally uncomfortable for a while. And that is a big deal. I don’t know anybody who says, “Great, I want to be emotionally uncomfortable. I want to feel vulnerable, scared, or in pain.” It is inherently uncomfortable to connect with our primary feelings and communicate our vulnerabilities, yet it is an essential part of change. While the old pattern keeps us stuck, emotional responsiveness allows our love to grow. Are you willing to be uncomfortable?

Very briefly, here’s what has to happen:
We identify the relationship pattern.
We take responsibility for our part.
We get in touch with our deeper feelings including old wounds affecting our perceptions and needs.
We take responsibility for how our part of the pattern affects our partner’s feelings.
We listen to our partner talk about his or her feelings.
We share our own feelings.
We support each other in this process.

Lets suppose we have a couple where one of the partners is closed down and the other is more volatile (this is very common). The closed down person (let’s say he) often doesn’t really know his feelings. He got away from them a long time ago, as they weren’t fun. Maybe as a child, he was criticized or his feelings weren’t supported. He suppressed those feeling; packed them away. He tends to be cerebral and logical. He doesn’t know how to open up and be vulnerable, and the idea of it is frankly, scary. The volatile partner is more connected to her emotions, but often it is anger that is expressed, not her longing for connection, or her feelings of not wanting to be abandoned, or wanting to be considered more. That partner has learned how to try to assertively get what she wants rather than be open and vulnerable as well as feel and then communicate her pain. What happens when these two get together? When they run into a conflict, he will withdraw, and she will attempt to get what she needs by moving forward, often with some anger. He hides more and she pushes more. They get caught in a cycle. Neither realizes that the cycle is caused by both of them. Both feel like it is the other person’s fault. Neither knows how to change the cycle. Neither person feels safe.

The mission of the EFT therapist is to enable both partners to experience their primary feelings and longings, explore, organize, and ultimately communicate them to their partner. This requires the partner who doesn’t have good access to his feelings to DEVELOP access to his feelings. It requires the angry partner to stop blaming and see the vulnerability of the more withdrawn partner, and later to also show her own vulnerability and need. When a couple begins to do this, they are responding to, and caring for each other rather than reacting, closing down, blaming or pushing the other away. As each develops in their ability to feel, understand feelings that they were not aware of, and open to the other, they become a stronger couple. They feel safer and more secure. They both change into people who are capable of a nourishing relationship.

Safety & Reactivity in Relationships

How many times have we begun a relationship, full of hope, only to have it crash and burn, or one party flee?

Many of us have relational injuries from the past. This often manifests as a “fear of intimacy.” Beneath this phrase, lurks not feeling safe in relationships. Our fathers may have had tempers, or our mothers may have been intrusive. A past partner may have been abusive, or perhaps their neediness or jealousy was a burden. A multitude of possibilities exist. Whatever the case, we found that relating to another could be costly. We learned to defend ourselves, to shut down, cover up, disappear, attack, or protect ourselves in some other way. We learned to not be too vulnerable, to only let the other in so far, or to run if we got scared. We learned to make ourselves safe by controlling the depth of the relationship in a variety of ways.

Often when we get scared, we react, we become irrational, we move into our limbic brain and rather than being rational, we respond from fight or flight. Some of us have trauma that is extensive enough that we move into dissociative states, fragments of ourselves that look like Dr. Jeckle changing into Mr. Hyde. Irrationality is scary to the other person and a major problem in relationships. It can trigger a variety of defensive postures including early abandonment of a promising relationship. Anger, irrationality, and mood swings directed at the other person almost always create a feeling of not being safe with that person.

Interactions with an intimate other ultimately trigger our deepest wounds, our attachment needs, feelings of vulnerability, and our need for safety. Anything unhealed is bound to get touched and come up. These wounds can vary from feeling judged, to not important, abandoned, or even abused. Regardless, these wounds trigger deep and primal feelings, feelings of desperation, anger, confusion, shame, etc and can cause us to react.

The real problem emerges however, when we cannot own our wound, but instead blame the other person, or expect them to “take care of it” or not trigger us. Ultimately, we have to learn to tend to our own wounds, as well as ask the other to be kind and gentle with our fragilities, to be safe for us. Both parties have to take responsibility for his or her own behavior before we become safe for the other. This requires open and non-blaming communication.

What are your deepest fears in relationship to others? Are these fears related to how you were treated in your past? Have you started to take responsibility for them? Do you have a partner who is willing to stay open and talk to you when you are triggered, when you trigger each other?

A relationship has the potential to be a cauldron for growth and transformation, or pain, fear or flight. Everything unfinished and triggered in that particular combination emerges to step into the dance of that relationship. In the process, we get to decide if this situation is safe enough, or if we want or deserve more. If we are attempting an intimate relationship with somebody who allows us to feel nourished and safe enough, we can stay and do the work and play of learning to love and grow in the matrix of connection with another.