Transformational Change in Couples Therapy


Today, I am exploring with you the exciting new frontier of Memory Re-consolidation in Couples Therapy. I am going to look at the distinction between two types of changes that occur as a result of the therapeutic journey of a couple. I will look at the distinction between “counteractive change” and “transformational change.”

“Counteractive change” as defined by Ecker, Ticic and Hulley in their book – Unlocking the Emotional Brain – is “the cultivation of preferred responses through new learning that suppresses and overrides unwanted responses.” They explain that this kind of change does not dissolve or nullify the existing old learning that produces the unwanted response. It is a decision we make to alter something in our lives, because we see it as more integrative, more useful, more mature, and we push ourselves into this shift in behavior. “Counteractive change” is incremental change, and it needs our ongoing awareness and management. It is change you must pay attention to at all times, and be vigilant about. It is called “counter-active” because it “counter acts” some deeper, transparent, limiting and implicit constraining belief. Counteractive change is not sustainable because it requires enormous continuous vigilance and alertness.

On the other hand, “tranformational change” exists in a completely different dimension. “Transformational change” is the kind of change that I call Level Three Learning. It is change based in cellular, neuro-biological change and therefore is internal and sustainable.

In order to take a closer look at “transformational change” let me go over the Four Levels of Learning Theory: the learnings span from Level Zero, no new learning at all, to Level One, the learning of a new skill that we do not know how to integrate in our life as it is, to Level Two which gives us a useful new skill that we integrate, and as a result we upgrade our life. Level Three Learning however is in a different dimension. It is “transformational change.” There is a before and there is an after. We are never the same person we were.

I am discovering with enormous enthusiasm, that when a couple is guided to embrace Level 3 Learning, genuine and dependable change occurs. This change is a visceral, cellular, internal shift, in which old implicit learnings, which underlie the couple’s “survival dance”, are dissolved, nullified or greatly weakened. Adaptive behaviors based on the old implicit learnings cease, and cannot recur as they once were. A new coherent, life-affirming and creative reality can be welcomed by the couple.

I am quoting Winston Churchill who says: “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” I have found to my utter amazement that indeed the knotty and complex tangle of the couple’s “survival knot”, with its intense complexities, dissolves and a stunningly simple, life-giving, and life-affirming reality sets in, a reality which has always existed and is now visible. It is Albert Einstein who said: “When the answer is simple, God is talking.” Our complex problems and conflicts do not get resolved, but rather they dissolve when we enter the dimension of the simple, basic truth of the nature of our being, our essential vital and connected nature.

The developmental journey then is to wake up to our essence. William James says: “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped; our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” Level Three Learning and “transformational change” wakes us up to our true potential as human beings. I am thinking about the charming Jewish legend from the Talmud. Here is how it goes:

“When we are in the womb, we are blessed with all-knowingness. We are awake to all the potentialities that life promises and offers. When we are born an angel gently puts a finger under our nose, and creates a little indentation. We forget everything. All of life then becomes a remembering.” Level Three Learning and “transformational change” is a remembering of a deeply known truth. And that is why it is dependable and sustainable change. It is a return to our essential beingness. It is like coming “home” after having lived “next door” for a while.

Today’s Tele-conference was inspired by a phone call I received from a young woman. I will call her T. This young woman and her husband volunteered to do a demonstration during the March Reunion session of the first Master Class in Washington D.C. The journey they took is the “Unraveling of the Survival Knot.”

Five months after the Reunion, T. called me. She wanted to say Thank You. She was grateful because she says: “I feel that my story has been re-written. It is as if my old narrative has been covered over by a completely new one. I feel transformed after our session with you. My relationship with my husband has a different feel to it. I feel like myself again, maybe for the first time.” She had experienced Level Three Learning, a kind of transformation which reminds me of the saying: “I used to be different…… Now I am the same.” This could be translated as: “I used to live unconsciously, from within the implicit messages of my survival adaptations, and now I am learning what it is like to be the living author of my real life.”

So I asked T. to write to me about her experience. And here is what she writes:

As cartographers of our lives, we sketch fragmentary impressions of the things that happen to us onto a language-memory map in our brains:
“this happened,” “there, on the marble steps,” “she was there,” “I felt that,” “better take this detour from now on.”

Over time, the Story of I-Myself emerges from these sketches, because our map contains the visual history of our lives.

Each continent, each neighborhood, each staircase shelters our younger selves encountering life.

Certainly, our map has enchanted streets and wild forests. But it charts, essentially, an escape route into the present.

Essentially, our life map is a survival map. And it is survival that guides us.

Hedy Schleifer posits that our map, as well as we know it, is incomplete.
To reveal the full map, she sponsors a deep encounter with one’s life. A pilgrimage into ourselves.

This pilgrimage dips us into the map of our lives under such conditions that our eyes see the same streets differently.

The terrain, once familiar, becomes novel.

And the brain is invigorated, and has no choice but to integrate the new story that emerges from the old landscape. We rewrite our story and are transformed.

The conditions that make transformation possible begin in Hedy’s preamble.

Before embarking on your journey, she assures that you, a historian and expert on yourself, are about to uncover something fundamental and entirely new about your life.

This creates a climate of curiosity and exploration.

Then, she teaches you and your partner how to lock hands and eyes intentionally, as this journey succeeds in connection.

Once you have spent some time with your travel partner and each says “yes!” to the big jump into your survival map, curiosity turns into a childlike sense of adventure.

And so, you begin to explore your map holding hands that seem to cherish your hands, gazing at pupils that dilate with curiosity as they visit an old street for the first time.

This being safe and liked is another essential condition.

Once you enter your old terrain through the golden gates that your partner’s interest has built in your honor, you enter your life bold and victorious.

Once there, you guide your partner through familiar terrain with excitement when, suddenly, the connection (or the sensation of brilliance from their exquisite attention) ellicits a new memory that seems to come from the body and not the brain.

“Here’s a hidden street you never walked before,” the body says. This moment, this essential surprise, is another condition for transformation.
There is a sense of awe and humility when you gain insight into your own life from another.

And there is a feeling of delight, pure delight, once you contemplate that there might be more to you than you had estimated.

And there is more. In itself, the connection with your partner has unleashed a wave of energy into your landscape. And this wave moves you. You move.

It feels like a drop down into the earth, a falling in. You fall into love, into your essential life.

This terrain could be called the Well of You. It is a deep reservoir of what is true about you beyond the labels and stories you have sketched onto your survival map.

Hedy invites a slowing down. And you linger at the bottom of that well and feast on your life. And your body, again, speaks to say “Ahhhh…. this is what being me feels like. I love it!”

Your body wants to laugh, and probably does, because you feel profoundly in love. You are IN yourself, feeling at home.

This encounter is the pinnacle of the voyage; the rock that the pilgrim touches with sweaty hands.

And it marks the point of transformation. In this hallowed space, in the jubilant company of your partner, you re-write your story.

As you gaze at your survival map that once seemed so fixed, and recall the survival stories calcified in its streets, you realize they don’t resonate with you anymore.

This history of unsatisfactoriness doesn’t capture the profound size and love and possibility that you now embody.

And so your brain offers forgotten memories once more. These are fresh, innocent, uncured, unlabeled images. And as they arrive you are, again, in a climate of exploration, of “yes!”.

These new buildings, cities, countries offer a parallel history. The Story of Deep Me, of things leading me gently into this magnificent moment, feels charitable and true.

This story redefines pain as growth. It underscores our golden dream of connection, and reveals that when we have been in connection we have been in touch with our wholeness, and when we have not, we have merely survived our experiences.

This insight shows the way forward. And you give a little squeeze to your partner’s hands and exhale.

After the pilgrimage, your life circumstances remain relatively unchanged, but the space of your life is wider.

And now you know the way down into the well. You visit as often as you can, and take up wider and wider space.

You remember Hedy’s intuition that the map is incomplete, and you nod, realizing it is, of course, because your terrain has no end.”

This poetic rendition of what it is like to experience “transformational change”, and to come “home” to oneself and to one’s relationship, is spoken in “limbic language.” Ecker, Ticic and Hulley define “limbic language” as the opposite of everyday language, and the opposite of social phrasing. They say that our everyday language tends to “intellectualize, minimize, depersonalize, and avoid facing the living emotional vulnerabilities involved. “Emotionally deep experiential work requires “limbic language” they say. “Limbic language” has softer tones, slower pacing, silences, gentle touch, tender gazing, the surfing of emotional waves. “Limbic language” is highly candid emotionally, and it is alive in maximally personal terms. It is in exquisite attunement with the emotional landscape being traveled. We need “limbic language” to discover the terrain of our spirit, and to come to know the geography of our souls. And once you are there, at the core of your own being, Ecker, Ticic and Hully use a wonderful metaphor. They say: “Once you have arrived, pitch a tent. Set up camp here.” This deeply integrated place of coherence is what I like to call the Main Square.
I will never forget a moment in my own life, when someone speaking “limbic language” made all the difference.

It was twenty years ago, in 1995, the time that I was on the operating table to undergo a lumpectomy after a diagnosis of breast cancer. The anesthesiologist came close to me. He took my hand. He looked deeply into my eyes with a gaze I will never forget. It was a warm-hearted gaze that said: “I am with you. You are beautiful. I will hold you tight. There is all the time in the world just for you. All is Well.”

He then said: “I will be giving you medication that will make you unconscious for a while, so that the surgeon can remove the cancerous lesion from your breast. While you are unconscious, I will watch over you at all times. I will hold the consciousness for both of us. At no time will you be alone. I am here just to keep you safe and sheltered. When you wake up, I will be here, looking at you.”

This moment in my life’s journey yielded profound, definite, fundamental “transformational change.” It was for me what is called in the Memory-Reconsolidation literature a “juxtaposition experience.” I now know scientifically, that what I went through in that moment was a synapse-unlocking, construct-erasing “juxtaposition experience.” As I was wheeled into the operating theater, I felt alone, scared, forlorn. I knew such a place of loneliness and isolation deep in my psyche. And the transparent belief I lived with was: “At times like these it is inevitable. You will be alone. Brace yourself.” And the miracle that happened to me is called: experiential dissonance. Experiential dissonance is an extension of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. But it involves the whole entire body rather than the mind only. Ecker, Ticic, and Hulley define “experiential dissonance” as a phenomenon whereby “one’s whole body experiences the emotional and sensory aspects of mutually incompatible knowledge.” I expected to be all alone, terrified, powerless and paralyzed with fear. Instead I felt loved, seen, protected, sheltered and cherished. These two extremes had never come in contact inside of me.

Amazingly the brain we have has miraculous neuro-plasiticity, and it is structured in such a way that it both forms emotional learning and memory, but it also has the capacity to unlearn and to erase emotional learning and memory. And the way it works is that there are in the brain specific regions and networks dedicated to detecting inconsistencies between the current experience we are having and the old implicit messages. For me this lumpectomy operation was going to definitely be a lonely, terrifying, and powerless experience, and that kind of climate was a known, internal emotional memory for me. However, the doctor’s unabashed love and care launched my brain’s built-in “mismatch detection” mechanism. My “mismatch detector” was actively working, because these two pieces of mutually antithetical knowledge, on the one hand “alone, cold, powerless and isolated”, and on the other hand “connected and warmly held”, had been stored separately in my brain. The were sitting in two different memory systems. And suddenly, the powerful current reality brought them together. The two of them had never been in contact by being consciously and simultaneously experienced in juxtaposition. And so, the new learning erased the earlier learning, and re-encoded or re-wrote a new memory through Memory Re-consolidation.

This event was in my life a marker of profound change. It is eternally branded in my memory as a highlight of my journey as a person, when I deeply knew that in the full, loving, aware, unconditional presence of another I could go from terror to serenity, from powerlessness to agency, and I could thus achieve internal regulation with a calm central nervous system. Only in that state of relaxation could I surrender and allow my body to welcome the needed knife, that would cut into my breast. What this doctor knew in the fiber of his being was: “Look at the person you are with with full, warm unabashed love. Have a pleased, happy expression on your face. Say true, appreciative, life-affirming supportive words. And let them know that in this moment ALL IS WELL”

So “limbic language” is more than language. It is a way of being in connection. It is a relational stance.

I once had the opportunity to observe in vivo the results of such a relational stance.

We were sitting in a Jacuzzi with friends, while their 7 year old daughter was playing at the edge of the Jacuzzi with a coke can. She suddenly lost her balance, and fell into the water. But none of us noticed it, thinking she was playing. As she did not surface, we realized she could not get out from under the water. Her mother pulled her out, and the child was coughing, and could not catch her breath for quite a while. But what I witnessed subsequently was a miracle. I saw the effects of the relational stance of “limbic language.” The mother stayed calm. The expression on her face was like what I had experienced with the doctor. It was a tender message that said: “I am with you. I am holding you. I am protecting you. I love you. There is all the time in the world just for you. All is well.” The child fought, and thrust, and sputtered water, and then screamed. The mother held and sheltered her in her strong and loving arms while the child was restless and agitated and vigorously trembling. More screaming and loud crying, howling and shouting. The mother steady, secure, reliable, unwavering. And then something interesting occurred. The child got out of the Jacuzzi, stood at the edge, and threw herself into the water. As opposed to the first time, when no one noticed that the child was in the water, this time the mother quickly pulled her out, and the little girl hung on to her mother for dear life, screaming and crying. The mother steady, loving with all the time in the world. This scenario of the child “rehearsing” the new and different scenario repeated itself a few times. The new reality of a present, attentive, vigilant and loving mother was in juxtaposition with the first experience of the terror of possibly drowning with no one there. The child was intuitively making sure that there would be no memory consolidation of the first scary, lonely event, but rather that the memory that would consolidate is one of danger that is then followed by loving connection. Finally, the child jumped into the water, and when her mother pulled her out of the water, the little girl laughed hysterically. The mother joined her with laughter, and it had become joyful and relaxed playfulness in connection. And then the little girl just went off to play.

I witnessed the miracle of connection. I witnessed that we are wired for connection, and that in aware and loving connection trauma is simply dissolved, and not consolidated and stored in a separate, and not so easily accessible part of our brain. I was a witness to corrective emotional learning. Here is how Ecker, Ticic and Hulley define emotional learning: “Emotional learning is learning that occurs in the presence of strong emotion. It includes the formation in non-conscious or “implicit” memory networks of the brain, of a mental model (or schema) that is the individual’s adaptive generalization of the raw data of perception and emotion. Emotional implicit memory operates to detect the arising similar situations, and generates a self-protective and benefit seeking response with compelling power and speed.” What I had the honor of witnessing is how in loving supportive connection we simply discharge the raw emotion connected to the strong emotional event. The raw discharge occurs in predictable emotional waves, from shouting, crying, pushing, screaming, shivering, shaking, howling, with the raw emotional waves getting smaller, and the piercing emotional expression diminishing continuously and predictably, until we ultimately and naturally get waves of light-hearted laughter and giggles. We are wired to “rehearse” the strongly distressing, traumatic emotional event in close connection with an available regulated “other”, in order to achieve personal full internal regulation and lightheartedness. And then we can simply go and play.

I have titled this Tele-conference – Becoming a Creative Couple – because as human beings we are continuously expanding, because in connection with each other, our relational brain reveals more and more of our innate, essential and limitless potential.

I will repeat the words that T. said at the end of her magnificent description of the journey:

Here is what she said:

And now you know the way down into the well.
You visit as often as you can, and take up wider and wider space.
You remember Hedy’s intuition that the map is incomplete,
and you nod, realizing it is, of course, because your terrain has no end.

Yes, as Winston Churchill said: “Our of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.”