In our Tele-conference today I am reviewing with you a session that I conducted with a couple, which for me was a first. It is a couple where the husband has had multiple sclerosis for 20 years out of their 27-year marriage.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease that eats away at the protective membrane of the brain, slowly shutting down muscle function and other bodily processes. You get around on a walking stick for a while, and then discover you need a walker. Soon, the walker can’t support you, and finally, you find yourself using a motorized wheelchair.
For him, the illness has progressed to the point where for the past six years now he has been confined to a motorized wheelchair, and his legs are paralyzed. He has movement in his hands but not the kind of free movement that he’s had. He can push the button on the motorized chair, but that’s really all that he can do with his hands and arms.
Since doing the Encounter-centered Couples Transformation work, I have not accompanied a couple where one of the partners is paralyzed in a wheelchair. There were enormous learnings for me in that encounter. I decided today to take the time to go over the session with the elements that I found to be real “learnings” for me.
I’d like to start by saying something quite general, which is: “I go into every meeting with every couple holding on to one firm guiding principle.”
This one guiding principle has two parts:
1- The Upward Trend: relaxed joyfulness in connection
I will invite the couple into their full aliveness, into their creativity, into their curiosity, into their open-heartedness, into their passion, and I will be their guide to facilitate their encounter. The encounter by definition is always an upward trend movement.
2- The Downward Pull: the reactive “survival dance”
I know that what pulls the couple down into the “downward pull” and disconnects them from each other again and again is their reactive “survival dance.” I know that I will make this dance official. I will name it. I will frame it. I will separate it from who they are in their essence as two people. I will invite them to experience their essence as separate from the unconscious survival pattern, which hijacks them, and makes them hostage.
And so, in every situation where I meet with a couple, I go into the journey holding the guiding principle of the distinction between the “upward trend,” the realm in which they can experience the dimension of the “encounter,” and the “downward pull” of the reactive “survival dance,” which automatically will disconnect them.
And so I enter into my session with this particular couple holding this guiding principle. I am amazed to see how both the “upward trend” as well as the “downward pull” make themselves fully visible, immediately and palpably, in the first task: the “dream section” of the journey.
As I always do, I start the journey with and invitation to the “wildest dreams,” and the “deepest aspirations,” for their relationship.
The husband starts, and here is what he says:
“I dream of closeness, that warm fuzzy feeling, that feeling of connectedness. I dream that when I am with my wife, I’m being touched by her, physically and not physically, embraced and that I am able to give her the same, even with this disability and my not being able to be as physical as I once was. I still dream that I find a way to give her physical love so she gets that feeling, to wrap my arms around her and give her that feeling and receive that feeling. I want to give these things, and now they are a challenge. They’re a hardship. It’s not in my realm. I missed it then, before the multiple sclerosis.”
And as he says this, he begins to cry. Deep pain comes to the surface. He begins to grieve deeply. He cries out regret and loss. He says mournfully, “When it was easy, when I could simply reach out and hug her, it was not on my mind.” And that very sentence, “when it was easy, it was not on my mind,” brings more sobs and more layers of pain.
I encourage the expression of the raw discharge of pain. I welcome each wave of emotion. The inner regulation begins to occur. The Central Nervous System is calming. And he says something that blows my mind. He says: “I can use this pain. I can do something loving when I feel this pain. I can do something that brings me close to my wife. I could use the pain I experience as a catalyst.”
What is so extraordinary for me about this statement is that he expresses it as a part of his first dream. As he speaks his dream, he feels the depth of the loss in his life. He goes to the core of the pain, and as he experiences the reunion grief, he begins the process of re-evaluation. He says: “Instead of becoming numb, I could instead feel the pain deeply, as I’m doing right now, and something that is right now bringing me close to my wife.”
Because as he is feeling his pain so deeply, in such a raw and authentic manner, his wife’s eyes fill up with tears, her hand reaches out to his knee, and she visibly feels close to him. He says to her: “I could let myself feel all this pain, and have something fresh come out of it every single time. I could open myself to experience the new things that can come out of pain.”
This is where I then talk to them about the “upward trend,” because the “upward trend” is the welcoming of what is in the service of a bigger and more creative life. It is to allow oneself to be inspired by what truly and simply “is.”
So here we are, at the beginning of the journey, and already the couple moves into the kind of connectedness that is an integral part of the “upward trend.”
He now shares his second dream: real, mutual and equal communication. He says: “Before the multiple sclerosis, I may not have recognized real communication as a need. I didn’t know then that that is a need. Now, I recognize it as an important need for both of us.”
So I share with them the quote by Virginia Satir:
Our basic human need is the need to be acknowledged, recognized, valued and understood.
I now can underscore how this amazingly courageous man has allowed the multiple sclerosis to be a life teacher for him. He has allowed multiple sclerosis to give him consciousness not only about his own humanity, but also about humanity as a whole, in terms of what our basic needs are of each other. The second dream he expresses puts in context how for him multiple sclerosis has opened him up on the inside to greater consciousness. Again an “upward trend” movement.
Now comes the third dream, and something really interesting happens here. He says: “I dream of physical pleasure. My desire is for satisfying, physical intimacy with my wife.” And at that point, he has to allow himself to experience pleasure. He closes his eyes. He just let out a big sigh, and says: “Yea…yea, that would be nice.” And he opens his eyes and says: “Saying this and feeling this is so satisfying. I feel whole.”
And at that moment, he experiences a moment of panic. His whole face becomes frozen. He says with fear in his eyes: “Should I say something else? I scared myself out of it. I pushed it away.” And that’s exactly what he does. He scares himself out of that moment of ecstasy, and pushes it away.
And so we talk about the reactive, automatic “survival pattern.” The moment he feels pleasure, the moment he feels bliss, the moment he feels ecstasy, panic shows up. I ask with curiosity: “Who just showed up?” And he says: “It’s the uptight, scared, silent boy.”
His consciousness of the uptight, scared, silent boy amazes me. We talk about regulation and de-regulation. He understands that in allowing himself to feel the bliss, he enters into a state of regulation, where everything is open. But the state of fear shuts it all down and de-regulates him. Because we slow the process down, he can actually notice how when he enters bliss, his system quiets and he feels whole. And when he enters fear, all systems shut down. He says: “When I entered the pleasure, I felt completely calm.”
I ask him: “What is your image of this satisfying physical intimacy with your wife? What do you see?” His face, which when I came into their home was just grey, suddenly blushes. As I look at him, I understand that he sees an inner picture of intimacy he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking aloud. I said to him: “Whisper it in her ear.”
And he whispers in her ear, and he speaks something that is intimate between the two of them, and makes her blush too. They giggle, and they have a moment of deep physical intimacy, through the mind, through the words, through the whisper and through the skin to the ear.
And he then says: “I see that I can weigh myself into this regulated state where everything is open, where I experience pleasure, and from there, I am open to whatever. From there, it’s easy. From there, the possibilities are endless. I feel calm, whole, self-assured, centered.” And I look at him, and I add: “And handsome.” His wife looks at him, and as if she sees him with new eyes, she says: “Yes, you are handsome.”
They smile at each other, and he says: “So I can see it now. I can see now that it is in my will to enter a regulated state in which I’m calm and whole, self-assured, and centered, and open to all possibilities. And I have noticed really how I then scare myself. And I must say to the boy from now on, ‘It’s okay. You don’t need to get panicky.’ And I need to say to myself, ‘It’s okay, you deserve this.’”
So the third dream becomes the possibility for him to see how the reactive survival pattern actually steps right in and doesn’t allow him to say to himself: “It’s okay. You can have pleasure. You deserve this.” The reactive survival pattern has him panicky, scared, uptight, and silent and numb. He is realizing how he can enter the state of pleasure at will, and can allow himself to feel whole, and calm, and self-assured, and centered.
And now I turn to the wife to express her dreams. And I see on her face an expression of bitterness, an expression of anger. Even before she can express any kind of dreaming, she is hijacked by the survival pattern. I look at her and I can tell that she has landed in the “neighborhood of hopelessness” in her world. She says: “There’s nothing I can dream about. I see other couples having normal lives. How can I not let the fears choke me to death, and choke our relationship to death?”
As I listen compassionately, comes a new realization: the dissatisfaction and the frustration with her husband have been there even before the multiple sclerosis. The multiple sclerosis has added layers of dissatisfaction and frustration to it.
I ask her, “What is this neighborhood of your world called that you’re in right now?” And she says: “If it wasn’t there before, how can it be there now?” And so I ask her: “That face, that bitter face, that angry face that you have right now, what do you call that woman?” And she says: “I call her Matilda the Martyr.”
And I now have the elements needed to introduce the metaphor of “the book of life.” I say to them: “The book that you guys have already written is the book called Matilda the Martyr with a Scared, Uptight, Silent Boy.” And together we laugh about it. And she says: “Yes, we started writing the book of Matilda the Martyr with a Scared, Uptight, Silent Boy even before multiple sclerosis ever knocked at our door.” And we joke around about that book, about which we can say: “Been there. Done that!”
And now I invite her to dream.
I say to her: “The neighborhood of hopelessness is an important one in your world. It has a lot of pain in it. It does deserve attention, but not right now. Part of growing and part of entering into the “upward trend” is growing your capacity to choose. It is making a conscious choice about ’What is the neighborhood I visit right now in my world?’” And I invite her and I say to her: “Come into the neighborhood of dreaming.”
She enters into her dream, and she says: “I dream of a sense of togetherness in my marriage that is not the role of caregiver and initiator. I dream to feel courted and adored. I feel that my life as a woman — and to feel that my life as a woman is happening. I dream of feeling wanted by my husband as a lover, a woman, a partner. The image that I have is that he initiates something. He researches a restaurant. He decides where to take me and when to take me to a movie. Let’s do this, he says.”
And she speaks with passion, excitement, zest, aliveness.
And he looks at her and begins to cry, and he says to her, “I love the real you. I love the lively zestful you. I love the storyteller you. I love the passionate you. And what makes me cry is seeing the real you, the essence of you.” And he looks at her adoringly. At that point she is challenged to let go of Matilda the Martyr and allow the adoration of her man in.
Right there, in real-time, he gives her the adoration she is longing for. I encourage her to stretch and to take it in. And she understands her challenge: to have this dream of adoration come true, she must let go of Matilda the Martyr, who’s been with her for such a long time. She must name it and let go of it, so that she can take him in when he shows up, and lets her know how much he adores her.
With tender warmth in his eyes he says to her at that point: “You brought me here many years ago. You believed in me, you brought me back to myself. Now it is my turn to bring you back to yourself the way you helped me come back to myself.”
And now comes dream number two.
She says: “I would like sacred space and sacred time that you and I can share.” And she explains that these would be special times in which they would be so connected to each other that the multiple sclerosis would actually disappear.
And it is what actually occurred on Day Two of the journey. At the end of Day Two she says: “This was a day of transcendence. It’s a day where multiple sclerosis has disappeared. I didn’t feel it here.” He said, “Yes, it was as if a miracle just happened, and we were just together.”
That’s when I re-read for them her dream number two of sacred space and sacred time. Now they can see that they are capable of it. Not that it can be there at all times, but that they can enter this dimension of transcendence.
Her number three dream becomes the biggest learning for me. She says: “My dream is for the multiple sclerosis to go away.” I stop there, and I say: “This is very important, because you both share this dream.” He says: “Yes, the multiple sclerosis is an uninvited guest, an intruder who does not go away.” And we take some time to talk about how can they together hold each other? Because the “uninvited guest” is not a realm to protect each other from; it’s a realm for them to share.
At that point, they share a story of being in the car together. He is in his wheel chair. She is driving. Their son is misbehaving. She is feeling helpless, and he is feeling helpless. But this time, when they come home, they sit at a very special corner in their living room, where there is a lamp over a bush that is vibrant and vital, which started as two scraggly leaves that he nursed back to life.
They sit there together at that corner, and for the first time, in depth, they share with each other the helplessness that they both feel as a result of their situation. And she says: “We were there together, and it helped center both of us.” And he says: “Rather than fix the situation, rather than get anxious, we were there together and we allowed ourselves to be sad together, sharing the depth of our sadness.”
I describe it to them as an “ocean of tears.” And they commit right then and there, that whenever sadness overwhelms them, they will sit under the lamp by the plant and cry together, because it feeds us with light, as it does the plant, who is revived.
The third dream: “I want the multiple sclerosis to go away; it’s an uninvited guest; it is an intruder” becomes a dream they share together. They both want this intruder out of their lives. It isn’t going away. So together they make the decision that they will hold each other not to fix anything, but rather to really be together.
By the time all the dreams are on the horizon, a few completely new things have occurred between them.
1- The couple has named their survival dance — Matilda the Martyr with a Scared, Uptight, Silent Boy.
They can see that it is a book they’ve written. They’ve written it well, been there, done that. It’s time to do something completely different.
2- The couple has shared a moment of deep, physical intimacy, when he whispered physical pleasures in her ear, and she blushed and laughed, and they laughed together in complicity.
In that moment they learned about this type of physical pleasure, where with their minds they are creating scenarios that they can share in total privacy and intimacy with each other and delight.
3- The couple has shared a moment of deep emotional intimacy when he gave her his adoration and she took it in fully.
Both of them were able to see what it’s like when he is not the uptight, silent boy and when she is not Matilda the Martyr, but rather the two of them in their creative love for each other.
4- The couple has found a way to tell each other about the multiple sclerosis as an “uninvited guest” and an “intruder,” and they have made the commitment to use the place with the lamp and the plant to hold each other in their sadness and helplessness.
The next task in the journey is the visit to the precious neighborhoods. A precious neighborhood is an inner place where we feel alive, passionate, vital, in our essence. In order to enter the precious neighborhood, I start by setting up the “bridge position.” This time setting up the “bridge position” takes the time it takes, because of the big wheelchair: How do we get close enough? How is it comfortable? How can she be high enough, so that it’s at the level of the wheelchair? Where does she put her feet? We take all the time in the world. And it gets to be funny. And so, just stepping into bridge position becomes a moment of lightness of being.
Then comes the gazing, the touching, the looking, the gratitude for the journey, the gratitude for this moment of life, for being together, for having had the courage and the resilience to do all that was needed to do to be living this moment right now. And as they touch each other, they create the kind of limbic resonance and limbic regulation that fully relaxes the central nervous system. They are breathing together. They are letting the blessing of this moment enter them fully. The landscape on their faces is completely new to each of them. They haven’t seen each other just relaxed, just there, just happy to be alive, just together, just breathing.
It becomes clear to me again that no other step should be taken until the limbic resonance has really been established, and the limbic regulation has had a chance to occur. The two central nervous systems must be completely peaceful before doing any kind of visiting to each other’s neighborhoods. And that for me is a very important re-learning.
And as they visit each other’s precious neighborhood, a surprise for me is that both neighborhoods are about movement.
She is the first host, and she invites him to her living room in her childhood home, when she was a little girl and she loved to dance. And she was a passionate dancer. She was the “queen of the forest.” Her father would play the piano. And she would want to be seen dancing, and she wanted to see the pleasure in his eyes. And as she describes this place, she invites her partner to dance with her. She can actually feel him joining her in that neighborhood of dancing with the little girl.
That learning is enormous for all of us. As he steps into the neighborhood of dancing, he is actually dancing with her. And as she invites him to dance with her, she feels him dancing with her. Our miraculous brain gives them the experience of dancing together.
And then, he invites her to a neighborhood where as a young man he used to love to walk and explore freely by himself, going places in the catacombs in Paris, in the pubs in London, in the streets of Barcelona. He’s walking, and she is over the bridge with him, and they’re walking. They’re walking everywhere together.
Slowly, sentence by sentence, he takes her walking with him. And you can tell, by watching them, that they are on a stroll. Both of them profoundly surprised to have been on a stroll together. And for me, there is an absolute first-time learning. It is that even when we cannot move our body, our mind carries all the memories of movement and we move in our mind. And these two moved together.
At the end of that visit she says to him, “I can walk with you forever and ever and ever. It is endlessly interesting to visit you. I could do it for days.”
An important moment of new consciousness occurs when she is hosting him in her precious neighborhood. Suddenly she notices a need on his face. He needs to pee. And so she immediately steps out of “host” into “caretaker.” And I freeze the moment so we can look at it from the point of view of “you were hosting right now, and you got hijacked into caretaker.”
As he observes this moment, he says to her: “It’s my job to take care of myself. I know what to do, and if I need to stop us officially, I can say ‘I have a need right now, let’s stop.’ But you don’t ever again need to automatically jump into caretaker. I take care of what I can take care of. I ask for what I need, and you right now can go back to hosting me, to be that carefree little girl that you were just introducing to me.”
That piece of freezing the moment in real life, and watching the hijack and the hostage into caretaker, and shifting it back to him giving to her — him being the visitor and the present one to her — is a very important moment for them to really again capture the distinction between the automatic, reactive survival pattern and their real connection.
And then I guide them to visit the neighborhood of struggle. I realize that we will be welcoming into the journey many interruptions: water, medications, a massage on the back, a hot pad against his lower back, pee brakes. And we make the interruptions part of the process, unconditionally accepting them, and dancing with them.
And in the neighborhoods of struggle, we find two little people who live in their relationship.
We find a bright and soulful little boy who lives in isolation in a family environment in which his unique sensitivity and depth is ignored. So he becomes really silent, scared and uptight — the way he really lived in his home and brought that boy to the relationship.
And we find a passionate joyful little girl whose zest and fire threatens her overbearing mother but delights her father who is scared of the mother. So there’s absolutely no room for her.
Both of them are scapegoated for their uniqueness.
They take the Time Machine, and they go back to each other’s childhood homes, and really give each other a sense of soothing in that place. She lets him know that she fully understands his story and she says to him: “In your future an intruder will come into your life and you will have many losses. But you will grow on the inside and you will be the core essence of you and everyone who meets you will be deeply impacted and inspired by you.”
As she visits him she understands how silent the boy became, but she also gives him a sense of who he would become as he really begins to welcome what this illness grows inside of him: You will become the core essence of you and every man who meets you will be deeply impacted.
He says to her: “You will grow to be a stunning woman, a splendid storyteller, and you will bring people to tears with your spirit and your wisdom where people will come from far and wide to be with you.” And in being able to really hold each other in that way, the depth of their encounter is stunning for me.
The question is always: how do we sustain this level of connection? For them, they make the following commitments:
1- They committed to co-create a sanctuary, a corner in their bedroom, that will have pictures of their whole journey from the very beginning when they met, before multiple sclerosis ever knocked on their door, their wedding, their first baby, their second baby, and then the pictures of the multiple sclerosis in the stages that it started to take over, a cane, a walker, a wheelchair, a motorized wheelchair. And that they would put all those pictures there including pictures of the little dancing girl and the silent boy so that they will, at all times, as they pass by there, in their bedroom, remember the space between them that includes all these people and that all these people find a safe space in that. This is a sanctuary that they will co-create.
2- They decide to have a weekly visit to a precious neighborhood to stay in touch with their strength and resources, especially movement. And they realize what strengths and resources have lived inside of them that they have completely ignored for years, and that the visit to the precious neighborhood would have them stay in touch with the power of movement in their life.
3- They will meet under the light near the plant when they both feel overwhelmed by the “uninvited guest” who won’t go away. The promise they make to each other is that whenever there is a time of overwhelm, of sadness, of helplessness for either one of them, they will invite each other to come to the place of the lamp and the plant.
4- They are committing to read and re-read together the report of their session, which illustrates their turning point.