Realizing I was just having them enact their cycle … and we got nowhere

I was watching a tape with my amazing supervisor the other day and she helped me see that I was actually having the couple just enact their same cycle, versus enacting something new.

Let me tell you, the learning on this journey is c.o.n.s.t.a.n.t.

With my couples who are really struggling, and who the Gottman’s would say are in negative sentiment override, I notice I have much more trouble stepping outside their cycle.  (Negative sentiment override is when the brain sees even neutral acts from their partner in a negative light versus positive).

I’m trying so hard to grasp onto Anything positive, Anything that will read as a sign of love, that I didn’t even realize I was just in the cycle with them.  One partner will talk through something they saw that sent the message, “I’m not important to you.” The other partner gets defensive, says, “That’s crazy, how could you think that?” I had focused my goal on helping explain the defensiveness through the attachment lens. Something like, “It’s so frustrating that he doesn’t understand that you care, when inside that’s not at all how you feel?” Or, “This defensiveness pops up?  Because you’re trying to defend against the idea that you don’t care about him? Can you tell him that? I do care about you, I get defensive when I hear you don’t think that way.”

Sounds kind of ok, right? There’s some attachment stuff there. But my supervisor helped me see that I wasn’t fully fleshing out the action tendency, and once I saw what she was saying, it changed everything.

I also am starting to think that just like there is a secondary and primary emotion, I think there is also a secondary and primary action tendency. 

I had been seeing the defensiveness as the action tendency. And that’s there, certainly. But she helped me see that actually she has two action tendencies, and the one I’m seeing in the room is convincing. More than defense, her action tendency is to convince him that he’s wrong, he’s crazy for thinking she doesn’t care. So essentially, by having her enact that, I just joined her in trying to convince him that she does care and he’s crazy for doubting it. (picture the hand over the face emoji here)

And my supervisor helped me see she has a much bigger primary action tendency, which is to stuff down how bad this feels, and put on a positive face, and act like everything is ok. And that, that is the action tendency that makes her partner feel the most alone. That is the action tendency that actually detaches her from him. 

That’s where I imagine he’s feeling, “I’m over here dying, so upset that we’re disconnected, and you’re doing just fine? You just think I’m crazy for feeling this way?”

I will still have to work out how I unpack this with the couple, and help them go through Steps 2 and 3 of the dance, but I feel like I have so much more clarity now into the real action tendencies that are driving them further apart. 

It also helps me see that it’s hard to notice the process over the content in some of these moments. I was missing the process of convincing, telling him he’s wrong to feel this way. So I got sucked into the cycle and just participated in it. To catch that better, I need to be present and grounded, and be able to step back in the moment and ask myself, “What is happening right now?”

It also makes me so grateful for taping and supervision – how on earth do we get better without our amazing supervisors??