Mining Conflicts

In previous posts, I have explained why it is countertherapeutic to shut down the repetitive conflicts that bring couples to therapy.  Within those conflicts are the unmetabolized feelings that their right brains have been waiting to experience and voice.  The therapist’s job is to mine their conflicts for every possible ounce of meaningful emotions that the couple has been trying to bring to consciousness.

My consultees and students have frequently asked what this type of deep exploration sounds like.  Below are examples of the cluster of questions or reflections that can bring a couple to increasingly specific awareness of the feelings they have been attempting to expose.  Utilizing some of the key phrases I mentioned in the previous post, here are some ideas about how to mine a conflict.  The flow and sequence of the questions/comments will be determined by each partner’s responses.  Needless to say, these are my words–merely suggestions.  Every therapist will have their own ways of expressing their exploration questions and reflections.

Client –“I’m just trying to do this right.”  Therapist — “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘right’.  Is this your definition of right, or someone else’s?  Have you often felt that you are doing things wrong?  Has your partner told you that you are doing things wrong?  Do you go along with her characterization of you, or do you argue about it?  Do you think your partner does things right or wrong?  Who taught you what were the right ways and the wrong ways?  Did they punish you somehow if you got it ‘wrong’?  Did they shame you?  What do you imagine will happen if you don’t do this ‘right’?  Will you lose everything?  Will you feel ashamed?  Will you get angry at the person who is telling you you’re wrong, or will you just hate yourself?”

Client — “You’re a monster!”  Therapist — “I’d like to know what you mean when you use the word ‘monster’.  What is your partner doing that you find to be monstrous?  Have you tried to tell him to stop his monstrous behavior?  Does that work?  How do you feel when he won’t stop?  Is he the first monster in your life?  Who were the others?  Did any of them seem to care about how you feel?  Have you ever been a ‘monster’ to someone?  Who?  Do you feel ashamed about that?”

Client — “It isn’t worth it!”  Therapist — “What isn’t worth it?  What do you mean by ‘worth’?  How does one measure worth?  What would make it worth it?  Who determines worthiness?  Did you learn something in your family of origin about what makes things ‘worth it’?  Are you not worth it?  Does your partner tell you that?  Is it painful to feel that you’re not worth it?”

Commonly, at the end of this process with one partner, the therapist turns to the other and asks, “Have you ever felt any of these feelings?”  Almost always, the answer is “yes”, creating both surprise and a new level of empathy.

Next post:  Roadblocks in therapy

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