by Bud Nye, R.N., M.S.
If “only love remains”, how do we go about loving each other while in hospice? Some people probably insist that we can and should “just do it”, perhaps based on instructions and commands found in a number of ancient documents. Many others, including me, more realistically consider the situation much more difficult and complicated than that. This essay points to many deep emotional issues related love, some related to our deeply held human supremacist beliefs, and all profoundly affected by the extremely high probability of near term human extinction.
While attachment issues play a critical role in our relationships, two other major motivational systems also play important roles in human relationships: identity and attraction. (For an introduction to attachment theory, see my essays “A Proposed Model For Near Term Human Extinction Support Group (ESG) Functioning” found here https://guymcpherson.com/2014/12/a-proposed-model-for-near-term-human-extinction-support-group-esg-functioning/, and “Integrating Attachment Theory With ESGs” found here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/02/integrating-attachment-theory-with-esgs/.) So, we have three major motivational systems central in human relationships: attachment, identity, and attraction. The importance of these relational processes when we find ourselves in conflict suggests repair work that focuses on three related sets of emotions: fear-anxiety, shame-powerlessness, and joy-love, as well as promoting three associated forms of behavioral relation response: nurture-comfort, empathy-validation, and warmth-liking.
In this adaptation, after providing a background description of identity struggles I focus on love, power, and dominance issues. Concerning love and dominance I have adapted pages 97 through 110 in Leslie Greenberg and Rhonda Goldman’s 2008 book titled, Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy, The Dynamics of Emotion, Love, and Power, for use by attachment support groups (ASGs) and extinction support groups (ESGs). (Leslie Greenberg supervised Susan Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, in her Ph.D. work.) The section describing identity struggles comes from other parts of that book. Mainly, I have translated their text into E-Prime—English without using the verb “is”—and changed wordings as needed for application in the ESG, attachment support group for singles and couples (ASG), and more general contexts. (One can see our ASG MeetUp here http://www.meetup.com/Attachment-Support-Group-For-Singles-and-Couples/.) In order to emphasize the strong scientific basis of the text, I have retained the research paper references, but without listing them. Many of the words remain Greenberg and Goldman’s; please see the book for much more detail and to follow up on any references. I strongly recommend that any seriously interested reader get and read the book, which covers far more ground, in good depth, and in an easily understood, well-written way.
Why have I written this heavily borrowed adaptation from Greenberg and Goldman? Because especially given the very high probability of near term human extinction (NTHE) I consider the subject matter extremely relevant and important related to many issues including: several experiences with people in our Tacoma emotion focused ESG; the dominance struggles I witness in the commenting that occurs at Nature Bats Last (NBL); our new ASG; the dynamics I see among my friends; arguments that occur at various blogs, such as NBL and Fractal Planet; and my own personal history, present relationships, and day-to-day life.
Related to all of this, note that the rate of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) equals about 6.3% in the general population, or greater than one in 20, with a higher rate among males than females. This exists as quite a large percentage, over five times the rate of Antisocial Personality Disorder (previously known as “psychopathy”). A dialog about love, dominance, and power issues with someone who fits the diagnostic criteria for NPD will almost certainly lead absolutely nowhere, no matter how long the discussion or how well formulated one’s reasoning and arguments. Why? Because—obviously!—their way “is the right way,” and anyone who disagrees with them deserves an attack on their clearly defective character.
In identity struggles, the central concern involves whose definition of “self” and “reality” those involved consider right, who has the right to define what they consider right, and whose agentic needs have most importance. People then fight to defend the view of reality important to their identity, and they defend themselves against the humiliation of others and/or themselves finding them wrong or lacking because this makes them feel unworthy, inferior, deficient, or incompetent. People also control in efforts to stave off possible imagined catastrophes and feelings of loss of control (as happens with the very high probability of NTHE). They also fight to influence decisions and courses of action in order to feel recognized, maintain status, confirm their identities, and operate by choice under their own volition rather than feeling coerced. When people find their identities threatened, they feel most concerned about whether others value and respect them and whether others recognize their influence and right to choose, and they argue passionately to try to change others’ views of them or what they did in order to regulate their self-esteem, and maintain their identities and their sense of agency. Alternatively, people may give up their identity needs and become fused to avoid conflict, but excitement and positive feelings then become the victims.
In terms of evolutionary development, first came the forerunner of identity: the assertion of organisms against others to define boundaries in conflict over territory, status, and position. Next came attachment to others on whom people depended and trusted for protection from danger. Third and only more recently came attraction to others whom people recognized as subjects just like themselves and whom they liked, appreciated, and felt compassion for and to whom they wished to give of themselves. In our view, people exist fundamentally as relational beings. As Kohut (1984) offered, people do not grow from dependence to independence any more than they can grow to become independent of a need for oxygen or free of other biological needs. People need contact and comfort for security, and they need empathic affirmation to have confidence in who they exist as. Relationship problems then do not arise from a conflict between people’s need connection and need for separateness, nor a struggle between dependence and independence, or intimacy and autonomy, as so often suggested. Rather, in their view, relationship conflicts occur as an issue of threats to attachment and threats to identity, and fears of annihilation and fears of abandonment govern conflict. Note the implications of this given the high probability of NTHE! Especially n intimate relationships, people protect their identities as though that identity occurred as life itself. After people move on from their earliest attachments, they generally resist letting anyone again have that much power to define them and determine what they do and how they will feel and see themselves. This remains so until they fall in love and form a new attachment. Then, once more, they let someone have enough importance to them to influence what they do and how they see themselves.
This sense of self, according to Stern, thus includes the sense of agency, the sense of physical cohesion, the sense of continuity, the sense of affectivity, the sense of a subjective self that can achieve intersubjectivity with another, the sense of creating organization, and the sense of transmitting meaning. These senses of self develop through life, and in adolescence an identity forms; this identity, plus its more basic substrate, needs attunement, recognition, and validation from others throughout life. Stern’s concept of “a need for affect attunement,” an essential part of developing a sense of a subjective self, becomes particularly significant in marital relationships in the validation of identity. Attunement to all affect, then, remains essential in the validation of identity, whereas only attunement to distress, separation anxiety, and needs for comfort prove essential in attachment. The invalidation of any of one’s feelings growing up as a child, or as a partner in an intimate relationship, results in a core injury to identity. People’s affects need mirroring and validation to help them develop clear and confident identities.
Adults develop far greater capacities than do infants for regulating their own affective disturbances, as well as greater capacities to attain joy, excitement, and satisfaction through their own agency. Adults develop identities, the validation of which they experience as almost as important to them as a close bond and sometimes as more important. We witness this in relationship ruptures that stem from fears of loss of identity, from damage to self-esteem, or from a feeling that one’s partner does not value or respect one’s preferences. Ultimately, threats to identity can prevent adult attachment. To protect their identities, people in conflict often hold on to attacking, controlling, or submissively yielding stances rather than risking change. “Stuckness,” or impasse, often occurs based on preservation of the integrity of the self’s identity. Resistance to change may occur based in fear sensed as “what will happen to who I am if I change”; hostility, “Don’t try to change me”; or shame, “If I change then how will all the times I’ve refused to in the past be viewed?”
Assertion of identity works as an evolutionarily developed, relational motive that derives from what observers of animal behavior have called the dominance hierarchy, referred to more popularly as the “pecking order.” Sociologists refer to position in such a hierarchy as status, and they refer to any moves to assert or improve one’s status in relation to others as the exercise of power. Observations of chimpanzees—and based on genetic cladistics, they occur as two other Homo species, not as a separate Pan genus—have revealed many displays of dominance and deference (de Waal, 1986, 1996). Quite typically, the leader of the group, an alpha male, asserts his power by shows of anger, bullying, and threats. The power occurs socially. Other members of the community acknowledge it in recognizable ways, such as by displaying fear (preparing to flee, screaming) and by deference (paying homage). When signaling power, the individual making the display expects to get his own way and will use force to prevail, perhaps in a sexual matter or in obtaining some resource such as food. The other members of the community accept this entitlement. The alpha chimpanzee looks bigger than others because in his displays his hair stands on end, while the hair of those who defer to him does not stand on end. These others offer submissive greetings. They bow, sometimes make offerings such as a leaf or a stick, and sometimes give a kiss on the feet or neck.
Animals not acutely aware of their rank endanger themselves, miss opportunities for acquiring resources (food, mates, allies), and could find themselves put down vigorously by more powerful dominants for inappropriate resource seeking. Animals behave differently if they live in high-rank compared with low-rank positions, and they change their behavior when they change their rank. This status-related behavior does not occur in a learned way but as an innate complex affective, cognitive, motivational, behavioral system just like an attachment system. We find humans, too, primed by evolution for concern about social rank and identity and to compete for resources, just as we find them primed to give and receive care by an evolutionarily developed attachment system (Gilbert, 2003; Gilbert & McGuire, 1998).
Individuals can use aggressive dominance, power, and control as a means of maintaining their identity, self-esteem, or status. In both human and animal groups, aggressive dominants try to control subordinates. We see this in extreme forms in humans such as in bullying and in violence in couples and families. In less obvious ways, humans also compete for position and resources in a manner that does not involve aggression. We do not have to think of the need for identity, self-esteem, and status as only engendering hostility (Gilbert, 2001). The way humans compete for recognition can occur aggressively, but more often it involves attempts to attract others. People strive to have status, value, and position given to them, and they benefit greatly from recognition and validation. People strive for others to see them as desirable lovers and friends, and as team players, by behaving in attractive and lovable ways. In this context, for many people the central concern involves avoiding low rank, others controlling them, other excluding them, or missing opportunities. For others to see one as attractive one must stimulate positive affect in the mind of others, not fear or fearful submission with aggression (Gilbert, 1997, 2001; Gilbert & McGuire, 1998). Partners, too, need their mates to value them. People in more stable and satisfying relationships see strengths in their partners that they do not see in the partners of others (Rusbult, Van Lange, Widlschut, Yovetich, & Verette, 200). People also will most likely see the best in others when they see the best in themselves (S.L. Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 2000). Cooperation and belonging thus have become more important than dominance for survival and reproductive success (Gilbert, 1989). Some marital partners who equate dominance or forced recognition of status with respect or love sometimes lack these skills.
Concerns about identity and ranking involve tracking other people’s views of one’s self and responding to potential threats to recognition of one’s identity. We consider gauging the reactions of others and having the ability to distinguish when people can trust and who truly values them one of the more daunting evolutionary challenges humans had to solve (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Nonverbal communication, which often occurs automatically, evaluating trustworthiness, identity concerns, and behaviors, occur as importantly as social rank, and as in attachment. Partners in loving relationships gaze into the eyes of each other, and this works as a clear signal of desire and affection, of both wanting to look at and wanting to be looked at. However, in conflict situations, dominant partners stare but submissive partners do not. For subordinates to engage in eye gaze would almost certainly increase arousal in both dominant and subordinates and increase the chances of fighting. A partner’s signal of shame will have an impact on the other’s anger. People in high states of shame commonly adopt submissive postures, have low eye gaze, feel inhibited, and cannot express themselves. This occurs as a highly defensive position, quite different from a caregiving or cooperative one, for example. A submissive, defensive position can click in even when a person consciously does not want it to. Evolution has primed people with emotions such as embarrassment, shame, and humiliation to adopt these roles. These emotions remain particularly sensitive to how people see themselves through others’ eyes and occur when they find their identities threatened or vulnerable feelings invalidated. When this type of shame occurs in intimate relationships, it cannot but lead to troubles in intimacy.
We often see the concepts of “love” and “power” as major forces in intimate relationships and marriage and they serve as key dimensions on which we often understand interactions. Love occurs as a complex emotion, but its interactional elements occur clearly: it moves people closer to the ones they love. Love occurs as many different things to different people, but it refers to all human ways for uniting, connecting, joining, and opening to one another. No one, scientist or layperson alike, however, feels clear on what love really entails. People report feeling loved when someone shows an interest in them, desires them, respects them, values them as a human being, and admires them or what they have done, and they wish to remain loved for every single aspect of themselves forever. Some theorists see it as a blend of other emotions: pleasure, compassion, interest, and joy. Some define different kinds of love such as compassionate love, romantic love, filial love (Singer, 1984), and others break it down on the basis of different physiological and/or biological system responses (Fisher, 2004). Historically, people have often seen love as involving sexual desire, and the Egyptians saw it as a disease, the only cure for which involved a dose of the beloved. Love also brings the possibility of suffering and feeling exposed, vulnerable, or intimately fallible. People can hate the one they love and fear the one they trust.
Love, of course, also brings positive emotions. Positive emotion in couples, such as joy, excitement, and the feeling of another valuing and cherishing them, which in intimate relationships come greatly from attraction and love, help engender positive interaction. Gottman (1999) suggested that a ratio of five positive to one negative interactions during conflict prove necessary to maintain a happy marriage (20 to one in non-conflict situations), whereas Frederickson and Losada (2005) reported that probably a ratio of three positives to one negative have importance on a more universal basis to help people and systems flourish. Love, whatever it consists of, and positive emotions of attraction and liking clearly involve a felt, physical sense experience—a feeling—and one that moves people closer to the loved one. In attempting to understand love, it helps to remember the following phrase on love attributed to Chaucer: “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.”
Power and influence, however, do not so much occur as emotions as complex relational concepts. Power does not occur in itself as a feeling. We do not feel power in the same way we feel anger, sadness, or love. Power works as an interactional term describing relations between people rather than as an emotion or even a motivation. Although one can refer to feeling powerful or powerless or to having a need for power, power remains fundamentally a highly interactional concept. Even feeling powerless, which seems more like an actual experience, refers to a cognitive description of an interactional position. We find the feeling or power or powerlessness based on more basic feelings, such as pride, excitement, shame, fear, and helplessness.
We best define power interactionally as the ability to influence others. Power can determine which person’s interests get met and, in a sense, who gets a better deal out of the relationship. Egalitarian relationships exist where responsibilities, decisions, and attention distribute equally between all people involved. However, we find some relationships moderately or extremely imbalanced regarding power. One exercises power to have their will prevail, to get what they want. What people want most involves having their identities confirmed, to maintain their position, and to have their status confirmed. A person manifests power most visibly when they find these threatened.
Love, then, exists first and foremost as an intrapsychic, emotional experience, whereas power occurs most fundamentally as a relational concept. A problem arises theoretically when we mix intrapsychic and interpersonal frameworks and try to compare concepts such as “love” and “power” in these different frameworks. Sensually experienced and interactionally observed phenomena occur at different levels of analysis. In work with people, however, we need to think at both levels and understand the significance of internal experience and observed interactional influence. The ability to simultaneously think interactionally and sensually has its greatest necessity in the identity-influence domain, where power, dominance, and control manifest (versus the attachment-affiliation domain). In the final analysis in Greenberg and Goldman’s view, power or control does not occur as a need. Instead, it occurs as a strategy for dealing with a situation, an attempted solution. People therefore do not have a basic need to control the other or a need for power, as some theorists have suggested. The terms dominance and control occur as observer’s descriptions of an interactional position or influence strategy rather than a need. They try to get what they consider important to them to feel good. The need involves maintaining identity, coherence, self-esteem, and/or a sense of agency. They thus engage acts of dominance or control to ensure that they get what they feel they need to maintain and protect their identities and their associated positions in a hierarchy.
Power and Dominance
Power and dominance do not occur as the same thing. Although we often use power and dominance interchangeably, it helps to see dominance as referring to the actual control attempts made by a person within an interaction. Power exists in all close relationships. Within these close relationships, decisions regarding who spends money, initiates sex, takes out the garbage, makes dinner, determines leisure activities, and so on, all bring power into the picture. The construction of reality, whose views of what to consider right and wrong will prevail, as well as determining who has the right to set the rules of relating, also involve power.
Power often comes from unrealized, unsaid, and even socially determined rules not necessarily overtly agreed on by any of the people involved. Thus, a powerful position often gets preserved through the self-maintenance of fear by the less powerful person or people or by social norms and not by overt expression of how things will happen. Unlike power, dominance occurs overtly, whether expressed verbally or nonverbally. Exhibiting dominant behavior, however, does not necessarily equate to having power. Often, people who have less power exhibit dominance in an attempt to attain power. Powerful people may exhibit very little dominance, because they already have power (Burgoon & Dunbar, 2000, 2005).
To identify dominance, which often appears in much more subtle forms than in overt controlling behaviors, we look at how researchers have measured dominance. First, in any conversation the one can code the form of the message as exerting dominance and control (a one-up message), as submissiveness (a one-down message), or as neutral (a one-across message; Rogers-Millar & Millar 1979). We call transactions in which both parties simultaneously make one-up or one-down utterances symmetrical transactions. Researchers have conceptualized dominance-attempt strategies as either indirect, for instance, using negative affect, pouting, or hinting, or direct, consisting of more open communication such as debate or negotiation (Falbo & Peplau, 1980) (both of which we have recently experienced in our Tacoma emotion-focused ESG). Women tend to use more unilateral or indirect strategies, whereas men tend to use more direct or bilateral strategies, although relative power, as opposed to gender, most determines which dominance strategy a person uses (Cowan, Drinkard, & MacGavin, 1984). Dominance strategies can include, for instance, talking more often or for longer periods of time, thereby restricting others from talking—a strategy very commonly seen in many meetings, and we have certainly experienced this in our Tacoma ESG meetings, thus we maintain our “balanced talk power” process principle, which a small percentage or our participants strongly dislike. Dominance also occurs through topic control and by control of the direction of the interaction through initiations met with compliant responses. Determining the content of conversations can become especially important in maintaining power. (Related to this, again, in our Tacoma ESG meetings we have experienced some strong resistance to the group as a whole determining a meeting’s topic, direction, and the content of our interactions, apparently because doing this makes it extremely difficult for some individuals to dominate the group as they would prefer.)
Jacobson and Whisman (1990) found both dominance through talking and dominance through listening inversely related to marital satisfaction. The listener, rather than the speaker, characterized this latter pattern with their lack of interest in what the other spouse says and by concurrently withholding information. In this form of interaction, dominant spouses disengage themselves from conversations, asking no questions, not responding, or giving short answers to questions.
One can express dominance nonverbally through spatial behavior, body movements, the instigation of touch, and close interactional distance; we see facial expressions such as a deep frown or a sneer as highly dominant (Leach, 1972; Schwartz, Tesser, & Powell, 1982; Spiegel & Machotka, 1974). In addition to spatial presence, researchers have also shown elevation related to dominance. Smiling, however, occurs as submissive (Guerrero, Andersen, & Afifi, 2001). Finally, eye contact serves as an extremely powerful strategy and measure of dominance. People who use high levels of gaze while speaking and low levels of gaze while listening usually demonstrate much dominance (Guerrero et al., 2001).
Felmlee (1994) argued that withdrawing served as a way of asserting dominance. Researchers have found a wife-demand/husband-withdraw pattern especially present when the topic had importance to the wife and pertained to the husband’s lack of involvement in closeness or housework (Christensen & Heavey, 1990). In this case, husbands had nothing to gain from discussing these problems, so maintaining discussion preserved the status quo as well as their dominant position. Minimizing communication tends to elicit pursuit from the partner with questions such as “What’s wrong?” or “Can we talk about this?”; Felmlee’s studies demonstrate that people perceive the less emotionally attacked partner (usually the man) as having more power.
Power and dominance can become problematic in romantic relationships when excessive, and to the degree that a submissive partner whose interests, needs, and wishes do not get met occurs. Power and dominance can become problematic in relationships when excessive, and to the degree that a submissive partner whose interests, needs, and wishes not met exists. In these relationships, the submissive person often meets control attempts with acceptance. Researchers have shown power imbalances such as these to lead to unhappiness, depression, and decreased relationship satisfaction (Halloran, 1998; Jacobson & Whisman, 1990). Dominant behavior reduced trust, reduced perspective taking, and increased conflict. Stets and Burke (1994) looked at how a person’s view of their actual versus their ideal control identity (the perceived level of control over others) led to overtly dominant behavior with their partner. Identity theory, they suggested, holds that people have “personal identities” that act as control systems to maintain congruency between identity ideals and perceptions of identity-relevant information. A person then enacts identity-influenced behavior to bring the identity perception in line with the person’s identity standard (Stets & Burke, 1994). The person then often becomes controlling.
The importance of emphasizing the influence dimension in interaction, in addition to the affiliation dimension, has come home to us by our clinical experience with couples. People often reach impasses in therapy that appear related more to their identity and the resulting issues of power and control than to connection. We often experience sessions filled with arguments about who has it right, who wronged whom, whose needs have more importance, and whose version of reality works as the more correct one. Each person tries to correct the way that the other portray them. People respond defensively: “I didn’t say it like that.”; “So you’re saying it’s really my fault”; “Let me speak”; “You’re not listening to me”; or “You’re the one who started this.” Although these arguments can be due to unmet desires for closeness, they often occur about not feeling valued, responded to, or confirmed. How people see and value each other, and the feeling that others do not consider one’s needs important serves as the underlying problem that fuels these recurring conflicts. The conflict remains about diminishment of their self-esteem and their identity, which appears deeply threatened when they do not get their needs, wants, and desires met. Does anyone reading this, other than me, notice any similarity with the discourse that so often occurs in the commenting here at Nature Bats Last?
In these conflicts, arguments often erupt when people react to how they feel others portray or view them. Of course, if people have strong enough self-esteem and/or a sufficiently developed sense of self, they may have the ability to tolerate frustration or withstand criticisms and not have this deflate their self-esteem. In general, however, when invalidated, people generally react so as to refute the way others negatively portray them. People cannot easily hold on to their positive view of themselves in the fact of disconfirmation by others, especially their partners. Thus, when these identities, felt so crucial to psychological survival, gets threatened, people mobilize all their resources to protect them and fight to defend themselves against disconfirmation of their reality and against any perceived loss of esteem.
Working With Dominance Issues
In working with dominance issues, we have found the basic emotion-focused therapy for couples (EFT-C) method of accessing underlying feelings has helped resolve conflict but that the set of feelings accessed differed from those involved in attachment conflicts. We found that the dominant partner had to access feelings of shame at diminishment and fear of loss of control, and the submitter shame of inadequacy and fear of abuse. These feelings involved more than the feelings of loneliness in the pursuer or fears of closeness and engulfment in the distancer in attachment-related struggles. We also found these feelings of shame and fear often more difficult to access in these influence cycles than the feelings of fear and sadness related to needs to feel close. The process involved in resolving dominance struggles often required helping the dominant person to tolerate and regulate the more dreaded affects of shame and fear. Dominant people appear to resort to control of others with secondary and instrumental expressions in efforts to regulate their own fear of loss of control, shame at losing face, or powerlessness. Struggles for dominance often do not seem to emanate from threats to connection but rather from threats to identity, but they clearly damage connection. An attack system seems to exist that gets activated when a treat to identity occurs, and this differs from the “attach” system activated by a threat to closeness and has different implications for intervention. The attack system originally related to boundary violation and maintenance of territory rather than to connection. Conflict in relationships thus sometimes occurs more about who “is right”, or has rights, than about who remains close or distant. We thus see attack and control often related more to threats to identity, status, and self-esteem than to attachment and abandonment. Intervention in this domain thus involves helping dominant people take more of a self-focus and regulate their own fear and shame rather than demanding that others treat them in responsive and soothing ways to resolve the conflict.
In a recent task analysis of the resolution of dominance interactions in couples therapy, all of the dominant partners in the resolved case could examine their dominance in a self-reflective, emotion-focused way, whereas none of the dominant partners in the unresolved cases did so. The dominant partners connected their interactional stances of dominance during moments of vulnerability to early experiences in the family of origin, recognized their dominance as a problematic stance for the relationship, and most important, experienced and acknowledged a primary emotion of fear or shame related to their sense of identity (Sharma, 2007).
Thus the dominant partners needed to express a genuinely felt account of what underlay this particular interactional stance, and unlike those in the unresolved group, they could let down their self-protective guard and interact authentically with themselves, their partners, and the therapist. They allowed themselves to truly feel the fear that drives their destructive interpersonal behavior and, in doing so, provided their partners with a “softer” glimpse of themselves and their motivation to look strong and in control of the relationship. The submissive partner, who has a new view into what the other partner truly experiences underneath the façade of dominance, now can react more responsively to the fear and shame. Why the dominant has to have the ability to self-soothe as well as receive other validation involves the fact that the submissive partner, however responsive, cannot heal the dominant partner’s self-esteem wound from the past. Some of the affect regulation of the fear and shame of doing wrong things or having defects needs to come from the dominant partners themselves.
Dominance conflicts do not occur based on feeling abandoned or alone, or about anxiety about loss or separation, as occur so importantly in attachment related conflict. Instead, dominance struggles occur about who makes decisions, whose needs get met, who determines reality, and who has “the right” to do so. For example, For example, a husband may criticize his wife for having too much sensitivity while they engage in solving problems in living. When they tackle projects together, such as rearranging furniture, and they hit any kind of snag, the husband analyzes what went wrong that got them into the situation, and in this points a finger at her. The wife, feeling put down the analysis, reacts and says this does not help them solve the problem and starts defending why the find themselves doing it in that way. They then begin to argue about whose way of doing it will work better. Or the husband makes suggestions or proposes ideas and the wife takes the position of approving or vetoing his suggestions. He then says, “You always put up constraints,” and she says, “You always criticize me.” He then says, “The problem with you is I can never criticize you. You are far too sensitive.” He says he needs to be able to criticize her and the problem is that she always points out what is wrong with him, or his suggestions, such as how to change the furniture, for example. In these fights, he also sometimes says she does not trust him or respect him, because if she did, she would just allow him to do things the way he wants. She says this is not true, that sometimes they just disagree and that’s okay. Then they fight about whether or not it remains okay to disagree.
These serve as some prototypical fights about who “is right”, who “is too controlling”, who “is too sensitive”, or who gets respected or takes initiative. In these fights, the regulation of self-esteem and validation of identity and the emotions associated with them have central importance. We need to see how the partners struggle with words in order to feel good inside, to regulate their affect. They need to feel “right” and have others recognize, validate, and respect them in order to feel good. Once struggles like these, which remain fundamentally about identity and self-esteem dominate, intimacy soon suffers. People often manage these fights either by one party giving in—in this case the wife, who, to avoid further conflict, goes along with the husband but resents him and over time withdraws—or by neither party yielding, so that they walk away from the argument, and they build another brick in the wall that separates them.
A particular intervention, that of identifying the dangers of improvement (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal, 1984), often highlights the importance of identity. When a couple has high conflict or remains stuck at an impasse, helping them identify the dangers of improvement or the dangers of change—changing one’s interactional position in the cycle—often leads them to articulate a fear of loss of identity. Some partners may fear that if they stop blaming or pursuing, they will find themselves unable to tolerate and regulate their anxiety; others fear that if they come out of withdrawal, the other will annihilate them. Others think that if they admit to having gotten something wrong, someone will consider them worthless; yet others feel that if they stand up and assert themselves, they may fail. People fear change because change threatens the sameness of identity with which the feel most familiar. The attempted solutions to their differences, which cause the negative interaction, all amount to efforts to protect their identities and to avoid a danger they see as worse than resolving the problem. The danger often occurs as some type of threat to the self and identity. People strive to have their identities validated because invalidation leads to feelings of others not accepting, valuing, and ultimately loving them because “if I don’t feel like you truly see me and respond to my needs, you cannot love me because you do not see me and treat me as important.”
The Dominance Process
Struggles for dominance arise when people begin to feel that others thwart their efforts to get their needs met as well as their goals and identity. They then often resort to influence, to attempt to control or dominate the other to get needs met, rather than focus on what they themselves feel. When people restrict in awareness the feeling of diminishment or lack, which arises within them, they do not simply eliminate the feeling of unease, threat, or vulnerability. Instead, they start attending to something in the environment and focus on it as a cause of the disease, thereby transforming their internal experience into a perception or construction of reality. Thus, dominant people, whose identities demand strength and who dread feelings of weakness, focus outward rather than inward as soon as they begin to feel the slightest bit vulnerable or not in control. They either attribute blame to their partners or project their weakness onto them. If they perceive or promote weakness in their partner, they then respond with either disdain or protection to their projected weakness. Those who adopt a dominant position thus tend to disown their own vulnerability and powerlessness and either blame others or project these feelings onto others, to protect their own identity and sense of control.
The first step in this process involves partners denying their own interior feelings of fear or shame. Second, they focus outward and blame or project. Third, often they succeed in producing these disowned feelings of weakness in others. However, the wish to submit or get protection from the submissive person occurs as a reciprocal response to the pull from the dominant person for weakness or for another to take care of them and get controlled. Submitters often give up their strengths and look for them in their partners.
To change, the risk for the dominant person involves experiencing and acknowledging their own vulnerabilities and powerlessness, rather than resort to control. The task for submitters involves feeling worthy, standing up, and asserting themselves. Both dominant and submissive people need also to have the ability to own their own strengths alongside their felt weaknesses. It takes strength to acknowledge weakness. It remains important, however, to note that when a person openly admits their vulnerability, that person can either put that out with quiet assurance or with an expression of weakness that can involve pleading and its implied demand. To experience weakness does not imply an absence of resources. People need to learn that they can have both weaknesses and strength, vulnerability and assertiveness, all at the same time. The ability to integrate strength and weakness has great importance as an antidote to dreaded feelings of powerlessness. To acknowledge felt vulnerability and to continue to remain present and in touch with one’s resources requires strength.
When a person reveals weakness in a helpless manner, without this accompanying attitude of assuredness, that person comes from a submissive mode and gives away power to the other. This weak-only presentation most frequently occurs instrumentally in that the individual seeks to have the other take responsibility for making one feel better. It thus proves important when dealing with weakness to distinguish between a person’s healthy need for support from a person and a coercive demand for the other to take care of the vulnerability. To experience vulnerability feels lonely and scary, and all people need a holding environment in which to open themselves to their vulnerability. The support required from another to help handle one’s weakness remains the same as the support of helping one to stay with one’s feeling of weakness; for the other to commit to remaining with one’s feeling of weakness; and encouragement from the other to find one’s own power. Partners or therapists need to convey “I understand you feel powerless, but I have faith in your ability, and I will stay here with you.” This does not take control or save the person but offers support to help them face their own doubts and vulnerabilities.
As helpers, then, we need to support people in acknowledging and owning their weakness, and we need to coach partners to encourage each other in admitting weakness and in finding strength. We must facilitate the expression of powerlessness rather than facilitate attempts at dominance. We can do this by noticing that the dominant person tries so hard to manage because they find it hard to feel powerless or out of control and by commenting, “It’s hard when you feel diminished. Of course you feel a need to assert or define to maintain your position.” This validates the effort to maintain control but reframes it as a protection against vulnerable feelings that people find hard to face. When encouraging contact with, and expression of, powerlessness and shame, we must use care not to leave people with only that message; we and they need to also bring their strengths into play alongside their felt limitations. This validates their sense of self. However, only by openly owning felt vulnerability can a person begin to differentiate what they really need and need to do. Once they have weakness in awareness , people can begin to look at their vulnerabilities in terms of past and present precipitators.
It also helps for helpers to point out that some of human vulnerability occurs biologically and existentially in that all people exist as mortal and vulnerable animals and that all experience the biological weakness of illness and loss and all remain ultimately alone and small in a large world. In addition, it remains important to recognize that vulnerabilities often derive from people’s past, because everyone has sustained wounds or become subjugated at one time or another—as children at home and in school, and/or as adults in relations with friends, bosses, and partners.
Primary and Secondary Emotions In Interactions
When affiliative and identity needs do not get met among people, their interactions evolve rapidly into organized negative cycles. We need to stress the importance of primary and secondary emotions in generating these cycles. (One can also see my essay, “Primary Emotions, Reactive Emotions, And Defenses” found here https://guymcpherson.com/2015/05/primary-emotions-reactive-emotions-and-defenses/.) For example, when primary attachment-related emotions, such as fears of abandonment, get activated but one cannot tolerate them they often get transformed into secondary emotions such as anger. When primary identity-related emotions, such as shame, get activated but one cannot tolerate them, they often get transformed into secondary emotions such as contempt.
Because people sometimes cannot tolerate their primary emotions, they protect against experiencing and acknowledging them and instead resort to expression of secondary emotions, such as blame and resentment, superiority and contempt, and indifference. These secondary emotions maintain negative interaction cycles and govern communications between people. Communication driven by secondary emotions generally results in negative attributions about the partner and subsequent blame and invalidation of the partner. The other reacts defensively with secondary emotions, leading to mutual blame and invalidation that intensifies the cycle. For example, Person A feels lonely and abandoned when his wife, Person B, works late. However, unable to tolerate these primary feelings, Person A instead feels anger, construes Person B as not caring, and then invalidates Person B by saying, “You should be able to finish your work on time and then leave it at the office.” Person B feels hurt and invalidated, construes Person A as seeing her as defective, but protects against this feeling by saying, “What difference does it make? All you do is watch TV at night,” thereby invalidating Person A. One can see this escalating negative process depicted in the figure below by the feedback loop between secondary emotional expression and invalidation.
This cycle leads to high emotional and behavioral reactivity, to dysregulation of emotion in both people, and to further invalidation. (Needless to say, we see many examples of all of this at commenting sites such as Nature Bats Last and Fractal Planet.) Effective support needs to counteract this cycle by promoting awareness and expression of primary emotional experience. This, in turn, will lead to reduction in blame and invalidation, to nonjudgmental acceptance of self and other, and to reduction in emotional arousal. This enhances the possibility of validation, closeness, intimacy, empathy, and compassion for each other, which will lead to positive interaction cycles.
Invalidation and validation appear to exist as core processes in generating negative and positive interaction cycles, respectively. In a qualitative analysis of change process in EFT-C, from couples reports, nonjudgmentalness or reduction of criticisms or blame seemed to work as a core factor in producing change in couples therapy (Greenberg, James, & Conry, 1988; Wile, 1993). One of the key issues in all couples conflict, therefore, involves reducing criticism, blame, and invalidation. Thus one of the key ways to reduce conflict among people involves doing just that: reduce criticism, blame, and invalidation. (Imagine the positive difference doing this would make in meetings and at commenting sites such as NBL and Fractal Planet. But for all of the reasons discuss here related to identity and dominance issues, this seem highly unlikely, indeed, ever to happen, certainly not without implementing some process requirements.)
As shown in the diagram, if invalidation from the secondary emotions involved in blaming leads to activation of maladaptive emotions, the escalatory process gets exacerbated, and the cycle becomes more rigid and destructive and leads to greater dysregulation of affect in both people. Thus, if loneliness or making mistakes does not get responded to empathically but rather gets invalidated, then this may evoke core maladaptive emotions of fear or shame leading to more intense distressing emotions and more negative interaction.
We might, for example, see the following negative processes involved in setting up a negative affiliative cycle. Beginning with the automatic activation of a primary emotion, say loneliness, the person scans for abandonment threat and, rather than acknowledging the primary emotion, engages automatically in a defensive attribution and construes the other as not caring, feels angry, and begins to criticize. The other person may feel shame, scan for humiliation, and think the other will see them as defective, and then protect the self by dominance, thereby evoking the other person’s shame or fear. In another couple, one person may feel afraid, scan for danger, and think, “I can’t survive without the other,” and feel anxious and distant. This distance then may lead the other person into maladaptive fear of abandonment.
To help people identify degrees of validation and invalidation in couples, Greenberg and Mateu-Marques (1997) developed an 8-point scale, presented below, that describes the processes involved and provides example statements a person might make. Although no one has subjected the scale to a full-scale study, it has shown preliminary reliability, based on a sample of 55 two-statement interactions during couples therapy.
If anyone would like information concerning our emotion focused ESG or our new ASG for singles and couples, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you our agenda(s), which will probably answer any questions you may have. One can also see the previously linked ASG MeetlUp.
Couples Validation System: 8-Point Scale
Validation involves communication to another that their experience or response makes sense in an understandable way. We do this by making sense of the other’s experience in terms of their current or past situation or life context. Validation involves accepting and respecting the other and communicating this, thereby demonstrating a true valuing of the other.
- The partner ignores the internal experience of the other. The partner does not hear what the other tells him or her or does not recognize that the other experiences something. For example, in response to “I’m feeling really tired,” the partner says, “Let’s go for an ice cream.”
- The partner criticizes the internal experience, actions, or identity of the other, showing a lack of acceptance. The manner and/or content are contemptuous, critical, or diminishing. Examples of criticizing statements include “You are wrong”; “You are stupid”; “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
- Dominant defining. The partner defines the other’s reality in an imposing manner, explaining the other’s experience or behavior in a negative or controlling way that does not recognize or fit the other’s view or experience. This disqualifies the other and conveys an authoritarian or paternalistic attitude, telling the discloser that his or her experience is wrong or that the discloser should not be having this experience or that the partner knows best what is going on for the spouse. An example of this is a partner saying, “You have no reason to cry. It’s silly.”
- The understanding that is conveyed is inaccurate or only captures the most obvious aspect, and one partner may misunderstand much of what the other is saying. The speaker does not recognize the meaning of the other’s experience and in addition may be unaware that he or she does not recognize the other’s experience. An example of misunderstanding is when a partner provides an inaccurate or reassuring statement that misses the other’s experience.
- The partner conveys both verbal and nonverbal understanding to the speaker. The partner conveys that he or she is listening and understands the discloser using at least minimal responses. There is no criticism. There is no attempt to change, interpret, or criticize the partner’s experience. The understanding is to a large degree accurate or captures some important aspect of the other’s experience, resulting in the other feeling understood. An example of this is when a partner nods and looks at the discloser while saying, “I hear how sad you are feeling.”
- Confirming. The partner conveys an acceptance of the other’s experience, communicating that the other’s feelings, needs, and behaviors are valid and make sense. This is done verbally as well as emotionally, with face, eyes, and voice. Verbally, the partner understands the other’s feeling either in terms of the current context or in terms of historical context. This confirmation helps to co-construct a stronger sense of identity by confirming the reality of the other’s experience, thereby validating them. For example, a partner may say, “I hear how sad my not calling left you feeling and how it felt like I was not thinking about you” (current context) or “I hear how sad my not calling left you feeling, because it reminded you of your father never calling” (historical context).
- Respect. The partner expresses respect for, and valuing of, the other and his or her experience and a deep interest and concern for the welfare of the other. The partner shows genuine involvement in what the other is saying, caring, and warmth to the other. An example of this is a partner saying, “I do care about what you need, and I want you to tell me when you feel I am neglecting you. When I get stressed, I can neglect your feelings, but I’m only too happy for you to tell me because I really don’t want to do that.”
- Attunement. The partner confirms the other’s emotional experience by being highly emotionally attuned nonverbally, sensitively following the other’s moment-by-moment experience. The partner shows a full and elaborated understanding and may add to or build on what the other has said such that the partner elaborates his or understanding and focuses on and confirms possibilities for contact and intimacy implicit in what the partner said but was not yet stated. For example, the partner’s rhythm and tempo match that of the discloser’s, and he or she elaborates and conveys value. He or she might say, “I hear how sad my not calling left you feeling, and how it felt like I was not thinking about you” (current context) or “I hear how sad my not calling left you feeling, because it reminded you of your father never calling” (historical context); then, “I know how awful it is to feel unimportant or abandoned like that, and I’m really concerned.” In addition, the partner might say, “I see how that led you to withdraw and be silent. I guess you were saying, ‘I feel too unsafe to reach out unless I get the message that you really do care,’ and I want you to know I really do.”
McPherson’s latest book is co-authored illustrated by Pauline Schneider. Ms. Ladybug and Mr. Honeybee: A Love Story at the End of Time can be ordered from the publisher here and Amazon here. Trailer is embedded below.
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McPherson’s latest book is co-authored by Carolyn Baker. Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind is available. Electronic copy is available here from Amazon.
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