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Empowering Communication by Steven Lee

Relationships are a work in progress in which certain attributes create harmony and connection. There are three important steps that make relationships more fulfilling and successful: agreement, mutuality and reciprocality.

Agreement is a mutual intention that we wish to see and be seen, and are willing and fully committed to mutual processing of joys, sorrows or conflict. The sharing of ourselves with ourselves and each other is the art of life, and an essential aspect of recovery from the problems life has handed to us.

Mutuality, or having substantially the same basic core beliefs and values, also is key. There should be some degree of seeing the world in its plethora of beauty and suffering through a common lens. Finding the commonality is one of the most powerful healing agents.

Reciprocality is any stimulus that gets some kind of response interpersonally, which certainly is preferable to non-response or indifference. Conscious or unconscious withholding creates an ever-widening ‘zone of disengagement’ in a relationship. Alternately, relationship engagement is enhanced through non-defensive communication.

Waking Up to Empowerment Our interpersonal tendencies come from our emotional legacy, some of which are 'invisible instructions' derived from our upbringing. Some of the messages we receive growing up are overt and others are unconscious. Waking up and becoming conscious is the yoga of life, empowering us as individuals and as partners to make overt and better choices and decisions. While it can be daunting to experience the emotional pyrotechnics and contentiousness that often may occur in couples therapy, in that cauldron of conflict is a wondrous potential for transformation and shifting of perspectives that can result in the couple finding and uncovering common ground they may not have known they had.

Let’s look at the example of narcissism at one end of a continuum to co-dependence at the other. The first is about selfabsorption and self-centeredness while its opposite, co-dependence, refers to the need in one individual to change the other instead of focusing on change in oneself. These two attributes are likely to result in both partners accusing the other of various failures to accommodate, be present, empathize and more.

Effective Communication

One of the major emphases in the psychodynamic mediation approach is on language, or the very words we choose to communicate our needs, wants, desires and assessments of one another. We begin with the concept of meta-communication, that is, what is actually being said and what exchanges are actually taking place versus what we think we are saying. Our communications with one another often become, to borrow from the movie title, ‘lost in translation’.

Accusations leveled between partners, often beginning with the ‘you’ pronoun followed by various negative adjectives could be translated to mean, ‘The leak is on your side of the boat, not mine’, thereby not realizing our fundamental interdependence. In couples therapy, in the earlier example, we would identify both narcissistic and co-dependent tendencies and attempt to shift the focus over to interdependence and mutual problem-solving and connection. The new nonjudgmental, open-ended statements become, ‘We are in this together. What can we do now?’, ‘What is going on with you right now?’, ‘What do you need from me?’ or ‘What can I do for you in this moment?’ When both individuals are primed with this language, it truly is a mutual invitation. We move from reactive, defensive tendencies to positive communication with the purpose of acceptance and mutual problem-solving.

It is important to lay the groundwork to help partners understand some potential pitfalls of couples therapy as they move toward relationship realignment. By preempting the usual conflicts before they occur, such as triangulation where the therapist is perceived as siding with one partner against the other, progress can be more effective and quicker As the partners attempt to become more conscious of their true intentions and translate the meaning of their communications away from the unconscious ‘invisible instructions’ rooted in the past to the conscious present, the relationship can grow. The good relationship is not so much about the absence of issues and conflict as it is about having strategies and procedures that kick in when conflicts arise, becoming an automatic part of their repertoire. In psychodynamic mediation, couples integrate these strategies and terminology into their everyday interactions, fostering mutual respect and balanced resolution of issues and problems as they arise.

Steven Lee, PhD is a New York state licensed psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Nyack. He works with couples, children, adolescents and adults. As a former school psychologist, Dr. Lee focuses on parenting skills, relationship issues, school-age disabilities, mood disorders and trauma (trained in EMDR). For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact 914-582-6725.

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