One of the seemingly magical elements of the neuropsychology of couples is that their brains hold matching pain. Mirror neurons cause the attraction of intimate partners to be nonconsciously dictated by highly similar unmetabolized painful emotions from childhood. A cornerstone of Neurodynamic Couples Therapy is that this process between partners who are falling in love is an inborn, natural opportunity for perfect empathy. Couples have some sense from their first encounter with each other, “I already know what it’s been like to be you.”
Partners who were both conscious of the sources of their childhood pain before they met will be attracted to someone who is also outwardly similar. They are not afraid of the painful elements of their past, and it actually feels good to be with someone who has come to understand and accept the same emotions from childhood experience. On the other hand, partners who are not conscious of their painful emotions from childhood will be attracted to someone who has experienced the same pain, but looks like their opposite externally. Both brains are so frightened of their similar childhood feelings that they will go to great lengths to camouflage the existence of their matching pain.
Most couples who seek therapy have some combination of pain they are conscious of and much that they are not. They have developed opposite-looking behavioral styles and defenses against their matching pain. One partner may frequently respond to conflict with fear and the other with anger. Perhaps one implodes and the other explodes. It is the therapist’s job to help them discover that the source of their feelings is very similar childhood pain and that both of them are needing to metabolize all of the feelings that have been split out between them.
As I have written in previous posts, it is often quite helpful to a couple to find simple, childlike phrases that encapsulate their matching pain. For example, in cases where there has been an affair, it is common to view one partner as the victim and the other as the villain–opposite-looking roles. I have found that one of their matching unmetabolized feelings is usually shame, even though it may appear that only the one who initiated the affair is consciously feeling shame. Both partners are struggling with the same experience from childhood–“No one loves me.”
Some experts in couple relationships advocate precautions about too little differentiation between intimate partners. They advise us to guard against forms of “twinning” or co-dependency in couple relationships. These are actually ways of getting all wrapped up in one partner’s feelings instead of both and thus avoiding conscious awareness of genuine matching pain. I more regularly see couples exhibiting exaggerated separateness, because they are terrified of their matching pain from childhood.
The safe therapist guides the gradual discovery of matching childhood pain. Finding it together releases the natural empathy that has been there from the beginning of the relationship.
About the author:
Jana Edwards, MSW, LCSW, BCD is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specialized in treating couples in her private psychotherapy practice in Denver, Colorado, for 35 years. Through her experiences with around 200 couples, she developed Neurodynamic Couples Therapy. She has taught workshops for therapists on her method for the past 10 years and provides consultation services to many couples therapists.