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Archive for June, 2011

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “relationship” as a “continuing attachment or association between persons, firms, etc, specifically one between lovers.” A relationship between lovers is dynamic, not static. It is defined by an emotional process flowing between the two partners and is affected not only by shared experiences, but also by the  emotional processes they have “inherited” in their respective multigenerational legacies. A relationship between lovers or between spouses in marriage is almost always deeper than a relationship between friends. Each action and reaction between the two intensely involved people is co-determined. Thus, the interactional dynamic in a marriage or in a romantic relationship is a developing process of evolving sequences of interaction. Since the relationship is dynamic and informed by co-determined experiences, marriage counseling offers the potential for positive change. Indeed, forward movement may occur as a result of successful couples therapy.  If a therapist can help the partners direct their attention to their own improved self management in the face of extreme sensitivity to one another, each person may experience increased marital satisfaction or relationship harmony.  To become increasingly aware of the emotional process running between them–identifying and then changing the negative, “stuck” cycles–is a far more effective effort than getting so stuck in the “content”  without paying attention to the less obvious but pervasive emotional forces driving the content or presenting problems.

When relationship systems are “stuck” in negative interaction sequences, couples often feel hopeless that their dynamic will ever change.  From the perspective of the way I think about couples, what is most important is to shift each partner from an anxious focus on trying to “fix” the other to a deepening focus on managing one’s own reactivity and hypersensitivity to his/her partner instead. This means that one is freer to determine a thoughtful or less reactive response to the other rather than being governed or determined by the emotional process running between them.

To become increasingly adept at the fundamentals of self management in the face of  inevitable feelings of reactivity to one’s partner is a lifelong process. However, a course of therapy can set each partner on their way to achieving greater freedom in making intelligent, meaningful responses in the context of a connected relationship. In this effort to become less reactive and more reflective in one’s responses, one develops an increasing ability to shift one’s perspective from other to self and the ability to notice when the anxiety within is too high to do so (and taking a break till one calms down enough to renew one’s effort) . One becomes increasingly responsible for one’s responses.  This may be achieved by continually asking oneself the question, “What is my partner up against as a result of being married [living with] me?” This simple question may challenge one’s own stubborn and defensive mindset, thus shifting one’s sense from being at the mercy of the other to having an internal locus of control. “I cannot change the other person, but if I work on myself, something will change anyway.”

Self management skills involve the identification of triggers to reactivity to the other and the ability to modify or even modulate the reactivity. Developing a research attitude is a cognitive exercise that can cool down the burning reactivity. Such an effort may include learning more about the multigenerational aspects of oneself. This means asking questions of extended family resources that lead to increased awareness about one’s multigenerational legacy and how it may be relevant to one’s own currrent relationship functioning. It is kind of like being a detective of one’s own identity. Asking good questions. Reading a book or two about the theory driving the model of practice. Engaging one’s cognitive brain can calm down one’s emotional brain so that one can make better choices in the context of relationship challenges. What did people do when anxious in close relationships in my family-of-orign? How is one generation in my family in reaction to another–in other words, how did each generation shape the next generation, including, of course, my own?

The ability to bend into problems instead of turning away or avoiding difficult situations in the relationship is increased in effective therapy. Each partner can be thought of as an exercise machine for the other–fitness of the heart requires discipline, determination and an increasing willingness and ability to to take on endurance challenges. Being able to listen to difficult material from your partner without striking out in defense–to hear what is being said underneath the content and being able to consider it without needing to “retort”–is part of improving one’s ability to stay “in it” with another. To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of relationship counseling, please call her for a complimentary phone consultation or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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