Will couples counselling work for us?
There is one question that is asked by virtually every client new to counselling, "Will this work for me?"
The answer is up to you. The couple in love literally conceive the dream of a new relationship in which they can be safe, whole and loved. Like conceiving a child in most cases this a lot of fun and a very connecting experience. What follows is discomfort of pregnancy in which we discover that we live with a most unsuitable person. Like pregnancy this second stage is a struggle marked by discomfort and challenges. However as the birth approaches the couple enters the next stage in which they need to commit to the challenging process of birthing this mature relationship. Most couples enter counselling in crisis when one or both is at the point of exiting the relationship.
What most couples don't know is that this crisis of connection is an essential part of the relationship journey. Like a birth process we are in the grip of powerful important emotions and desires struggling for psychological life.
The crisis alerts the couple to the fact that if they are to grow they will need to exit the destructive cycles of blame and disconnection they have co-created and embrace the challenging painful and rewarding process of authentic relationship.
Why is it so difficult for men and women to talk?
This hilarious video highlights an important truth about empathy that can cause lots of problems in relationships or be a powerful source of connection.
Imago Therapist Pat Love in a recent talk commented on the fact that the brain actually has two empathy networks. The first is the one most woman are familiar with called the mirror neuron network.
This network enables us to literally feel into the world of another. Mirror neurons were discovered by accident during some trials on monkeys brains. During a break one of the researchers grabbed some of the monkeys’ peanuts and began shelling and eating them. The watching monkeys’ brain lit up as if they were actually eating the peanuts themselves.
Fun point: A similar version of this experiment can be tried by getting some men to watch any of the many Jackass episodes where one of the guys gets kicked in the testicles – observe how the watching men silent curl up around themselves and moan in a classic empathy display.
The second network is what Pat Love calls the TPJ (Temporal Parietal Junction) network. This part of the brain assimilates incoming data in order to assess a best course of action. It’s what enables firemen, ER nurses, doctors and paramedics to come to a disaster scene and triage how to most effectively help.
Men obviously are socialised more towards the TPJ network in fact Pat Love’s book How to improve your marriage without talking about it trades on this fact.
So when men are doing offering help and suggestions what they are actually offering is empathy - when their help is rejected or judged it creates a very unsafe atmosphere and many men tend to withdraw and withhold love and support to avoid being attacked.
There is a handy technique that can avoid these kinds of conflicts in your relationship. If you are upset and want mirror neuron empathy tell your partner something like this, “I’d like to share something and what would really help me is if you listen to me hold my hands and try and imagine what it feels like being in my world. This would make me feel loved and understood by you and I will probably feel more connected to you (and you might get lucky – is an optional but very effective ending).”
If you partner is wanting empathy but you don’t know which type simply ask, try, “I’d like to listen to listen to you well and it would help me know if you are wanting me to simply listen and try and understand your world or if you want me to think up some brilliant solutions?” Then give them what they asked for.
Finally the important thing to remember is what you appreciate is what you get more of. If you partner gets this even partly right, tell them how much you appreciate what they did right and the impact it had on you – this gives your partner the tools to be more successful in loving you.
How can I get my man to talk?
What most woman are looking for in a listening conversation is Empathy, a right brain limbic response. Despite the protests about men trying to fix their problems the fact is that women offer solutions all the time to other women and to their men and are happy to receive solutions IF they feel the sense of limbic resonance that occurs when someone activates their mirror neuron network (see the article above for more on the mirror neuron network) and feels with them.
What men are typically looking for is Validation. Validation is largely a left brain cortical response that says, "You make sense to me, you are not a crazy person, I understand why you think the way you do. Note it does not necessarily mean you agree. When a man gets Validation he is then open for Empathy, which enables him to feel more connected and a man will feel very loved when he receives care in this order.
So the first rule is Validation first, then Empathy. When a guy has a problem he wants to fix it and so he will be collating information in the back of his head at the TPJ (Temporal Parietal Junction) and feeding it forward to his left prefrontal cortex to problem solve. He will actively be avoiding his emotional connection with his right limbic brain so that he does not get overwhelmed and feel helpless. A woman who listens to his work issues and says, "wow that's so tough, or so unfair, you must feel really humiliated," i.e. showing wonderful Empathy is actively drawing him into his right limbic brain - which for most guys is unfamiliar and highly uncomfortable.
There is a very real brain reason for this difference. Most women have up to 80% more connections in the corpus collossum the thick band of neural connections that bridge the left and right hemisphere of the brain. This means that jumping back and forth between right and left hemisphere's is quick and easy. This is what enables women to link emotional and logical processes very easily whereas men tend to do them one at a time. First logic then emotion. Reversing this order is additionally difficult for men for a reason I will discuss in the next article
However when a woman Validates a man's actions or thought processes, "Yeah it makes sense that you felt mad, I can see why you hate that guy, I understand that you wanna move to Alaska and live in an igloo," it acts as a clearing house for his thoughts. NB you are not agreeing to go to Alaska to live in an igloo with him you are just saying that you understand his work environment today was so tough that Alaska sounded awesome." Validation in this context is essentially thought empathy and men find it incredibly soothing - and it enables them to move on to more productive thoughts and problem solving.
The biggest benefit for the woman is that the guy just learnt that he can share his slightly crazy thoughts and he will be understood, accepted and loved - and men will take a bullet for a woman like that. I have on countless occasions coached a woman to listen, summarise what her partner says and say, "I listened carefully to you and what you said makes sense to me," and seen the man's eyes well up with tears and he breathes out this huge sigh of relief - because suddenly he is not alone in his world. At this point empathy can be added and it provides an additional layer of connection.
So try it this week, just casually in a conversation with a man, just nod as he talks and then just say, "yeah I get that it makes sense to me." You may find this introduces a new problem for you where they want to talk to you all the time (or they may just grunt and nod - but they are 100 times more likely to talk to you again) ...