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I have found being fully present in my experience to be ultimately enlivening, and extremely difficult.  Being aware of and expressing my sensations, emotions, intentions, and thoughts, allows others to see me more completely, and thus allows contact.  It also allows others to touch me more directly, and I feel more vulnerable.  In working with couples, I have focused on the process of presence and enhancing real contact, trusting that knowing each other more intimately would provide a basis for moving closer to, or further away from, each other.  At the very least, it is mutually exclusive with destructive forms of communication, such as blaming, name-calling, criticizing, shaming, etc.  Sometimes, changing to subjective communication is all that is needed to get a couple unstuck.

Mike and Janet, in their late thirties, were referred by her gynecologist for sexual issues.  They argued frequently, and gradually their sex life had deteriorated to a point where neither enjoyed it, both were avoiding it.  When they came in, they each expressed grave doubts about ever being able to feel loving or even open to the other again.  They felt dead toward each other.  After a careful individual and couple history, we began working on their communication of hurt and anger.  I pointed out that anger is the body’s way of mobilizing us to defend ourselves from loss.  I asked them to begin to specify what they had lost or were afraid of losing.  To their surprise, the other did not become defensive, and even expressed empathy.  Their ability to speak about their losses and fears increased until one day, they realized that they were indeed feeling much safer and spontaneously made soul-satisfying love.  After a few occasions of falling back into the old patterns, they were able to speak their truth, and be accepted, even loved, much to their amazement.

Differentiation is essential to presence, and to intimacy.  We have to distinguish between what is our thought or feeling or action, and what is the other’s.  This is not to deny the systemic element in human interaction, but to clarify what is happening within us, what is our choice, and what is not.  Real contact occurs at the boundary between us.  If either of us moves into the territory of the other, it is not contact, but attempted invasion.  Fortunately, we can resist the invasion, except in rare instances, such as torture, intentional or unintentional intoxication.  By owning my response to what others are doing, it supports me in owning my actions toward them.  If I use an authority to bolster my control over the other, or to defend myself from the invasion, I am not present, and will have invited the other to take a child role in relationship to me.  If they rebel, we have needless fighting.  If they play “good boy” or “good girl”, then they will likely be passive-aggressive in some way, and ultimately resent me.  I advocate supporting the subjective nature of our thoughts and feelings, rather than attempting to search for an objective truth.  Differentiation means supporting my own experience, and that of the other.

Valerie and John (not their real names) were engaged.  In their early 40’s, each had teenage or older children.  Valerie was more ready for marriage than John, who was wary of being hurt, as he was in his first marriage.  Valerie experienced his caution as withholding and unloving, and criticized him for it.  She was well-versed in 12 step ideology, and used it to bolster her contention that he was immature and needed a 12 step program and a lot of therapy.  He acquiesced to her demands at first, and then he rebelled.  They entered couples therapy, afraid they were going to foolishly give up on a good relationship.  We began to work on what was at stake for each, in the actions, thoughts and feelings of the other.  It became clear that each was using a part of the other to “fill in” parts of the self that were undeveloped or in hiding within themselves.  Valerie was playing the part of the conscience, super-ego, or “critical parent”, and John was playing the part of the “good boy”, or “adapted child”, with occasional flashes of “bad boy” or “rebellious child.”  Valerie’s fear was that John did not or would not love her and would abandon her, as her father had done to her.  Not surprisingly, she used the threat of abandoning John to try to control him.  John grew up in a family where anger was expressed in destructive ways, and he “went numb” whenever anyone got angry with him, as a way to keep things from escalating to violence.  In the vacuum of his silence, Valerie experienced her fears as if they were real, and attacked him for abandoning her.  As we were able to have them restate their losses and fears, Valerie’s fear increased because she equated letting John have his own experience with being abandoned, and she gave up expressing the subjective and viciously attacked his love and maturity.  John responded by portraying her as a “bad object” or unloving parent, and withdrew, only adding to Valerie’s feelings of abandonment.  I referred them for individual psychotherapy, for work on differentiation, which includes working on their narcissistic wounds.   Ultimately, they decided not to marry, based on a better understanding of their differences.

Selections from R.D. Laing’s, Do You Love Me?, illustrate arguments without content.  One in particular that I am fond of is, “Stop it:”

                          SHE:   stop it
                            HE:      you stop it
                          SHE:   I can’t stop what I’m not doing
                             HE:      you started it
                           SHE:   and you stop it
                             HE:      I can’t stop what I’m not doing
                           SHE:   you think you’re going to get away with it
                             HE:      get away with what?
                           SHE:   you’re not going to wriggle out of it this time
                             HE:      wriggle out of what?
                           SHE:   don’t kid you’re daft
                             HE:      I’m not doing anything of the kind
                           SHE:   come off it
                             HE:      I’m not on it
                           SHE:   cut it out
                             HE:      cut what out?
                           SHE:   will you stop it
                             HE:      stop what?
                           SHE:   that
                             HE:      what?
                           SHE:   you know perfectly well
                             HE:      I’m afraid I don’t
                           SHE:   I’m afraid I don’t
                             HE:      I’m gong to sleep
                           SHE:   you’ve never woken up

  These routine exchanges or “games” (The gender can be easily reversed.) are ways of avoiding vulnerability by trying to coerce the other into giving us what we want, without saying we want it and what it will do for us if we get it.  In short, circular patterns allow us to appear to be present, when we are not.  I suggest that instead of trying to finish one of these contests, that they recognize them as futile, immediately drop the game, and move to the subjective form of communication.  Being present does not stop conflict.  It makes it clearer what the conflict is, and thus makes solutions more likely to be good for both. 

I have found that ordinary people are able to achieve extraordinary results by using these very simple and very difficult techniques.  By pressing themselves into this mode of communication, they become more fully themselves, without the pitfalls of other, slower pathways to change, and they invite the same from those around them.