Larry Heller, PhD is having a major influence over my work these days. Watch this to get a flavor of the work, called NARM or the NeuroAffective Relational Model. He frequently refers to SE, or Somatic Experiencing. For more about SE see Peter Levine’s book “In an Unspoken Voice” and other videos on my site and on the web.
When we made our wedding vows, one of the places my wife and I took inspiration from was Carl Rogers book Becoming Partners. In it he looks at different relationships and tries to distill out the properties that couples have that help them endure. I think these are worth ruminating on and make a good road map in good times and challenging ones as well. These are taken from different sections of the second part of the book and collected here:
We each commit ourselves to working together on the changing process of our present relationship, because that relationship is currently enriching our love and our life and we wish it to grow.
I will risk myself by endeavoring to communicate any persisting feeling, positive or negative, to my partner — to the full depth that I understand it in myself — as a living, present part of me. Then I will risk further by trying to understand, with all the empathy I can bring to bear, his or her response, whether it is accusatory and critical or sharing and self revealing.
III. THE DISSOLUTION OF ROLES
We will live by our own choices, the deepest organismic sensings of which we are capable, but we will not be shaped by their wishes, the rules, the roles which others are all too eager to thrust upon us.
IV. BECOMING A SEPARATE SELF
Perhaps I can discover and come closer to more of what I really am deep inside — feeling sometimes angry or terrified, sometimes loving and caring, occasionally beautiful and strong or wild an awful — without hiding these feelings from myself. Perhaps I can come to price myself as the richly varied person I am. Perhaps I can openly be more of this person. If so, I can live by my own experience values, even though I am aware of all of society’s codes. Then I can let myself be all this complexity of feelings and meanings and values with my partner — be free enough to give of love and anger and tenderness as they exist in me. Possibly then I can be a real member of a partnership, because I am on the road to being a real person. And I am hopeful that I can encourage my partner to follow his or her own road to a unique personhood, which I would love to share.
A few posts back I asked the question, what get’s in the way of our relationships with our spouses, friends, community and ourselves?
There are two important aspects that one can focus their attention on to improve the quality of their relationships: communication and emotional regulation.
Even though this article was written for a business publication, I think it is a great introduction to active listening, and can be very helpful in improving the quality of your relationships. After a friend read this and practiced it with his girlfriend he told me he realized how pointless arguing is, and that learning to listen was powerful and transforming to the quality of his relationship. Even if you think you have the argument won from an intellectual standpoint, no one ever ends up winning, that is to say, no one feels closer to each other when it’s done.
The principles of active listening are simple, but can be challenging to apply. One reason is that you have to consciously practice them. Try them the next time you get stuck with a friend, coworker, or your partner. It will sound awkward at first, but eventually I think you will find the results fulfilling. We’re taught communication in school to read, write, and speak. Most people are not taught how to listen though, and it’s a process that needs to be developed, just like reading, writing, and speaking.
The second reason active listening may be challenging to apply is poor emotional regulation. This then brings us to the second aspect of focus when trying to improve your relationships: improving your behavior that results from your emotional reactions.
It’s usually pretty clear to us when children are acting out, that is, they act out their feelings instead of expressing them in an appropriate manner. An example is when they fall on the floor screaming instead of saying to you, “you know, it really makes me angry that I can’t have a cookie right now.” I suppose we would look at a two year old with amazement if they did the latter, but acting out happens to adults as well, especially in places where they think they can get away with it like close relationships, as opposed to the workplace. How often have you heard someone excuse their behavior (like yelling and screaming) by saying what the other person did?
“WE HAVE FRIENDS COMING OVER IN 15 MINUTES!!”
“Why are you yelling?”
“Because the bathroom is still a mess!”
True, but it’s not an excuse for yelling at people you care about. Your emotional disregulation is your own, and has its own unique origins (differentiation), and you need to own it and get on top of it. Otherwise, you better hope your partner has got on top of their active listening and emotional regulation and can diffuse it: “Gosh, you sound really freaked out. How about I go deal with it and you just finish up the last of these hors d’oeuvres.” Otherwise what you’ll probably get is more yelling: “GET OFF MY BACK AND CLEAN IT YOURSELF!”
Listening is your best hope of being listened to. Yelling is most likely going to be met with yelling. The second one seems obvious, the first one a little less so. So to be our best selves, with our best responses, we have to have our behavior in relation to our emotional states under control.
This post could get lengthy if I’m not careful, so to wind this down, let’s briefly look at some of the components: emotions, feelings, thoughts, behaviors.
Emotion: this is the sensory input from the body, sensations. All animals have emotion, and I’m using Damásio’s convention for the terms emotion and feeling. For example: my heart is racing, I feel hot in my chest, I feel tension in my jaw.
Feeling: our perception of what those sensations mean. To continue with the example: racing heart, feeling hot, tense in my jaw means I’m feeling angry. It seems strange to make this distinction, but, for example, one can be experiencing the emotion of anger and not be aware they are angry. This can lead to the above scenario of acting out on our emotions unconsciously.
Thought: our cognitions. Thoughts can trigger emotions, and vise versa. Questioning your thoughts can help with emotional regulation. Example: “She’s doing this just to bother me.” Maybe. Probably not.
Behavior: In short, what you do. Our behavior is often based on some preceding thought or feeling.
What are some therapies that attempt to improve emotional regulation?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and how they affect each other, in an attempt to create better emotional regulation. CBT attempts to make interventions on the three components of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Somatic Experiencing is interesting, in that it is an attempt to get at the root of emotional disregulation not through a top-down method (i.e change your thoughts, as in CBT), but in a bottom-up approach. It works with body sensations to bring the body and mind into better regulation, and thus better regulation of emotional states. It’s based on the more recent understandings that have come out of neurobiology. It also pulls from attachment therapy and client centered therapy to help the client create a safe secure base from which they can disinhibit to explore difficult sensations. I will expand on this in the future, but for the curious, check out the work of Peter Levine, Rober Scaer, Bessel van der Kolk, and Steven Porges. It’s important to know though, that the roots of emotional disregulation can be in trauma, and trauma takes us out of relationship with ourselves and others. Trauma is a loaded word which we will unpack in the future as well.
Wrapping up, difficulties with relationships can be positively impacted by improving couple communication, for which couples therapy is effective, and improving emotional regulation, for which individual psychotherapy can be effective. As you can see, one can do a lot on their own if they’re willing to do some reading and practice. It all depends to what degree you are satisfied with the sate of your relationships.
The meaning of our relationships is often underestimated in our culture of the “individual.”
I was recently reading John Robbins’ Healthy At 100, and was again struck by this passage on p.230:
“It is a striking fact that mortality rates for all causes of death in the United States are consistently higher for divorced, single, and widowed individuals of both sexes and all ages.”
The importance of our relationships to our health is just beginning to be understood by the medical community. He continues on the next page:
“…Now the chair of the Department of Health and Social Behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Berkman led an intensive study of seven thousand men and women living in Alameda County, California. She found that people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties. The kinds of social ties didn’t appear to matter. What mattered was being involved in some social network, whether it was family, friends, church, volunteer groups, or marriage.
The dramatic difference in health outcome and survival rates was found to occur regardless of people’s age, gender, health practices, or physical health status. But what most astounded researchers about this study was that those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits. Needless to say, people with both healthful lifestyles and close social ties lived longest of all.”
A broken heart may be more literal that we had previously believed. The evidence is piling up on how our emotional states impact our physical health. Indeed the separation of those two, emotional states and physical health, may be a deadly illusion. Here we can see the impact the state of our relationships has on our health.
However, if that’s not enough for you, he cites another study only a few pages back (p.224) that profoundly impacted my attitude in my personal relationship.
“When researchers from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland studied almost ten thousand married men with no prior history of angina (chest pain from heart disease), they found that those men who had high levels of risk factors- including elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and electrocardiogram abnormalities- were more than twenty times as likely to develop angina during the next five years. They were amazed to discover, though, that those men who answered ‘yes’ to the simple question ‘Does your wife show you her love?’ had substantially less angina even when they had high levels of these risk factors.
In a related study… men who reported a low level of love and support from their wives at the beginning of the study were found to have more than twice as many ulcers in the ensuing five years as the other men. And those who said ‘My wife does not love me’ were almost three times as likely to develop ulcers. In this study, having feelings that their wives didn’t show them love and support was more strongly associated with ulcers than smoking, age, high blood pressure, or job stress.”
He goes on to give several more studies that continue to suggest that intimate and loving relationships can inoculate you from the negative medical effects of stress. Now that’s good medicine.
So then, what get’s in the way of our relationships with our spouses, friends, community and ourselves? If these relationships are so critical to our well being, what are the circumstances that cause a person to be taken out of relationship with others? The answers are becoming more clear and I will address that issue in upcoming posts. Stay tuned…