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"Mind-Mapping": How We Manipulate the People We Love

All too often, people do hurtful things with impunity and entitlement in relationships simply to gratify their own needs.

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While attachment therapists focus on children not feeling “seen” (internalized) by parents, a more common childhood trauma occurs when children see their parents. As in Stanley and Kristin’s case, good mind-mapping can be traumatizing because children see their parents as they really are. Lots of parents are unlovable, unworthy of respect, and some are even actively malevolent. When children map out these parents’ minds, they become traumatized. The combination of disgust and hatred such parents engender is so hard for children to cope with that it welds the child to the parent like superglue. These children become hypervigilant, “blind,” and skilled at masking their minds.

Kristin then said to Stanley, “When I looked at how you’ve tortured me—and sex isn’t the only way you’ve done it—I also saw myself. I torture you, too. I’m constantly late and make you wait, though I know you hate this, and I complain about how your mother tries to take advantage of you. I act like I’m standing up for you, but I’m actually pushing you to stand up to her though I know you don’t want to do this. This doesn’t mean I forgive you for what you’ve done to me. I’m not perfect, but I think you’re crueler than I am.” Stanley nodded in agreement.

“I’ll never get back the time I’ve wasted trying to be understanding and supportive. Those opportunities for good sex with someone who values me are gone, but I’m not willing to give this up forever. If Dr. Schnarch can help us cure your rapid ejaculation, I’m willing to see what happens between us. But if you torture me while we’re solving this—or afterward—believe me, this marriage is over.”

I wasn’t surprised Kristin was confronting herself. I’ve found that if I can get the best in one partner to stand up—by which I mean people’s ability to confront themselves and take responsibility for what they truly want in their relationship—it triggers the best in the other partner to do likewise. This isn’t reducible to lockstep reciprocity, because first steps are taken without knowing what the partner’s response will be, and without assurance the partner will do likewise. This virtuous cycle rests on unilateral self-confrontation, not coregulation.

In Praise of Differentiation

Conventional wisdom in couples therapy says troubled couples have to get more securely attached before they can differentiate. But repeatedly I see troubled couples differentiate first—which leads to stabler marriages. I believe couples have to stop manipulating their stories and tampering with facts to keep their relationship together. Far from being impossible or improbable, this is the way relationships really work. Realizing this yields a different kind of experience in therapy—not one of safety and hovering support, but one in which higher anxiety and pressure and faster pace of change emerge, as people realize their full capacity to meet the adult challenges of life.

My main focus as a therapist is to facilitate differentiation, by which I mean people’s ability to balance humankind’s two most fundamental drives: our desire for attachment and connection, on the one hand, and our desire to be an individual and direct the course of our own lives, on the other. The latter refers to the ability to hold on to yourself when important people in your life pressure you to conform. Differentiation yields emotional autonomy—the basis of healthy interdependence and the foundation for intimacy and stability in long-term relationships.

In working with couples, it’s crucial to distinguish two different kinds of intimacy: “other-validated intimacy” and “self-validated intimacy.” Other-validated intimacy is when one partner discloses and the other reciprocates with acceptance, validation, empathy, and support. This is a hallmark of attachment-based therapy. By contrast, self-validated intimacy results from confronting yourself, self-disclosing even if your partner won’t accept, empathize, validate, or support what you’re saying, and providing your own validation.

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