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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.

Conventional therapeutic wisdom aside, people typically don’t hurt each other because they’re out of touch, unable to communicate, or can’t help themselves. All too frequently, they do hurtful things with impunity and entitlement simply to gratify their own needs. It’s an article of faith among many couples therapists that bad behavior in troubled relationships stems primarily from good intentions gone wrong. They see their clients as frightened children, who may hurt each other, but mean no harm. Followers of attachment theory feel that an underlying “fear of abandonment” drives couples’ conflicts, and the ultimate therapeutic goal is to create a warm, empathic experience, at least partly to make up for what the client missed the first time around.

Thirty years of working with couples and observing the limitations of this attitude has led me to develop an approach not focused on clients’ fears, insecurities, or wounded “inner child,” or on the deficiencies of their early attachments. Instead, it reflects the idea that people typically don’t hurt each other because they’re out of touch, unable to communicate, or can’t help themselves because of their early experiences: they usually know the harm they’re doing, and often it is quite deliberate. Rather than triggered by fear, shame, or insecurity, people do hurtful things with impunity and entitlement to gratify their own needs and wishes. It’s not that they’re “unconsciously recreating their past,” it’s that they’re engaging in the form of relationship with which they’re most familiar, one that, in fact, they prefer.

The key to grasping the roots of this “inner game” is to understand the brain’s ability to map another person’s mind—what I call “mind-mapping,” a process neuroscientists have studied as the Theory of Mind for the past 30 years. Mind-mapping is a survival skill that allows us to predict—and manipulate—other people’s behavior by understanding their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The ability to mind-map generally emerges at age 4, as children’s brains develop, heralded by the advent of their capacity to tell “fibs.” These cute, clumsy attempts to lie coincide with a child’s realization that a parent’s mind is capable of holding false beliefs, combined with the dawning awareness that what people do depends on what’s in their mind. Mind-mapping reaches adult form around age 11, when children begin to understand adult sexual motivations and complex interpersonal agendas. With the exception of people suffering from conditions like schizophrenia, autism, and some forms of Asperger’s Syndrome, most adults have mind-mapping capabilities; however, therapists may underestimate its role in our relationships.

Marriage is inconceivable without some degree of mind-mapping: you need it to share a life with someone and understand what he or she means, wants, and desires. Of course, it comes in handy if you want to be a good liar, manipulator, or adulterer. You can’t be a successful therapist without it, either! Fully appreciating the subtleties of partners’ ability to mind-map each other can lead to stronger alliances with clients, and faster, more intense, and farther-reaching treatment. But doing this type of therapy means being drawn into depths of human motivation that many therapists prefer to avoid. Consider the following case.

Getting Past the Games

Married for 25 years, Stanley and Kristin, a couple in their early 50s, came to see me for a sexual problem. Throughout their marriage, Stanley had ejaculated shortly after intercourse had begun, but he denied understanding how upset and frustrated Kristin felt about it. Instead, he insisted the bigger problem was Kristin’s affair two years earlier. According to him, Kristin had mentioned her dissatisfaction only a few times during their marriage, and, given that they were having sex twice a week, and that Kristin was frequently orgasmic, he insisted that, as far as he knew, his rapid orgasms were a problem only for him.

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