Understanding Resistance

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines resistance as “the refusal to accept or comply with something”; and “the ability not to be affected by something, especially adversely.”  Our training histories as therapists have unfortunately tended to focus more on the first definition.  I would like to challenge us to think more about the second one.

Understanding resistance is exactly what it says, with the emphasis on understanding.  Trauma theory has helped us to see resistance as a type of self-protection that was adaptive and life-sustaining in the client’s past.  As the second definition above implies, resistance is the ability to maintain control over not being adversely affected by circumstances or another’s actions that feel unsafe.  I have often thought, “Isn’t the ability to refuse to comply a strength?  Isn’t my need for compliance about me?”

Therapists tend to spend too much time dwelling on how to get their clients to stop resisting, rather than seeing a client’s resistance as an important window into understanding what it has been like to be them.  Because resistance usually presents in a defensive tone, it often provokes counter-resistance in the therapist.  People who are capable of resisting are often in better shape mentally and emotionally than those who cannot.  Our job is to search for a deeper understanding of what the resistance (or lack thereof) means to the couple.

It can be particularly triggering to a therapist to hear, “Our problems have nothing to do with my family or my past.”  But the natural following question or comment might be something like, “It’s very important to me to know what you think your problems DO have to do with.”  There may well be a difference of opinion between the partners about what their problems are about and what they are not, with one partner taking the role of the complier and one the resister.  Seeing these roles split out between the two is a significant clue that their system probably supports a developmental struggle within both partners around the ability to comply or resist appropriately and flexibly as a situation warrants.

As we all know, resistance can be largely nonconscious.  In Neurodynamic Couples Therapy, we understand this as the right brain doing its job–protecting the brain from affect that cannot be tolerated consciously without threat of flooding and potential disintegration.  The therapist must always respect both partners’ timing for experiencing and expressing the feelings that accompany the conscious unfolding of painful memories, as well as their ability to protect their own brains as long as they need.

As I was being trained, I always had a visceral negative response to the word resistance.  I suppose one could say I resisted the word resistance being applied to my client’s words.  I view this as pathologizing a behavior that is normal and often essential.  Resistance is a signal to work harder on taking our clients in, rather than trying to convince them to take us in.

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