In a session I had recently with a couple, a husband told his wife that he wants to help her find peace when she is “off the rails.” He does this by problem-solving and suggesting different ways of looking at the situation. They both agreed that this almost never works, but only escalates her anger and frustration. I asked him how he would feel if it did work? He replied that he would feel calm, successful, and at peace. Upon saying this, he realized that he was behaving this way to make himself feel better, not her. He hadn’t explored with her what would truly help her to feel better. Then, I probed into his role as a child growing up in his family. It seems that he played the role of peacemaker and parentified child. When there was difficulty in his family growing up, he would try to smooth things over and make everyone happy again. Heightened emotions were seen as unacceptable, even dangerous. There was very little expression of emotion. Now, when his wife is emotionally expressive, he reacts to his implicit memory and tries to make it go away as soon as possible, using the tools he learned in childhood. This seems to happen automatically, without any thought.
As described by Diane Poole Heller, in her book The Power of Attachment”, the implicit memory is a non-conscious, sub-psychological, pre-verbal, “not integrated yet” experience encoded in the body. There are even pre-verbal memories from childhood that have been encoded in the body. These memories from early experience encode through fast-circuit learning, bypassing the hippocampus (the function that gives us a sense of time and place/location). Without processing in the hippocampus, implicit memory feels like the past experience retrieved is happening now—even if the incident occurred many years ago. The mind may know that, but the body does not—it does not feel it’s over until we can help this information to become explicit and be processed in the higher regions of the brain. When it is processed consciously, and spoken about, it feels as if it “moves” back into the past and we “move” into the present—and rediscover a sense of possibility and future that can be different.
My client falls back into his role as the nurturer, and problem-solver in his family. By going back into that memory state, and making the memory explicit, rather than implicit, he can move this experience to the present and examine his behavior in the present tense, his current situation. He realizes that this is not the same situation. He can be vulnerable now, and allow his wife to show her vulnerability, without danger.
Using Memories to create Connection
Clearing attachment wounds and unresolved trauma dissolves our conditioning and moves us toward connection, love, and compassion. In childhood or adolescence, we all form defensive structures to protect ourselves from excessive hurt. Through Imago Relationship therapy, these can be dissolved in a way that frees us. It takes courage and a feeling of safety to melt those barriers and become truly vulnerable and present to our pain—but also present to our authentic selves.
Bringing these childhood memories to the present moment, and understanding how they are manifested in our relationships, can be life-changing. The more traumatic the memory, the more “stuck” it may be. When people are too upset to access the memories, they are unable to reproduce the story. Safe connection in the present, as with an empathic, available partner, can help to make these memories more available.
Imago Therapy helps create that connection
- We help you create that safe connection, first by seeing your partner without judgment, or distraction. This makes it possible for your partner to connect to those memories, and the vulnerable feelings surrounding them.
- You create a more accurate image of your partner. You begin to see them as another wounded human being, struggling to be healed.
- You become more intentional in your interactions: more constructive and less reactive.
- You begin to accept the dark side of your own personality and take responsibility for it.
- You find within yourself the strength and ability to grow and change.
- You value your partner’s needs and wishes as highly as your own.
- You accept that creating a lasting love relationship takes work.
As a therapist, it is so heartening to see couples become open and available to each other, and to a new way of being. As a parent, it is humbling to understand how much childhood does have to do with it. There is no such thing as a perfect childhood or a perfect relationship. I see it as more crucial to be curious, courageous, and open to what lies in the past, present, and future, and to reframe it as interesting and instructive. This requires feeling safe enough to explore, and genuinely embrace your partner’s difference. Open yourself to a new narrative, rather than the old story.