Couples therapy: Pausing and awakening from trance

“Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward any goal. … You might try it now: Stop reading and sit there, doing “no thing,” and simply notice what you are experiencing.”” ― Tara Brach

When I meet couples for our first therapy session, most share they are experiencing disconnection. Disconnection from each other, disconnection from the relationship, and disconnection from themselves. They know that they are stuck in a negative cycle of interaction. Many are already aware that their arguments take on a familiar pattern – the content may change, but the pattern remains the same. And yet, despite an awareness that there is disconnection and an acknowledgement of the pattern, many couples feel stuck. Neither partner’s needs are getting met, and they feel negatively about the relationship and themselves.

Tara Brach, a therapist and meditation teacher, often talks about what she calls the “trance of unworthiness.” When we experience pain or suffering, we often get caught in a loop. We may tell ourselves that we are broken, that there is something wrong with us, that we are somehow unworthy and unable to find a way forward. When we get stuck in this trance, we feel it. We may feel depressed or angry. We likely feel ourselves attached to our negative thoughts, unable to be present in our experience. Trance affects our behavior, too. Sometimes, we lash out at others. Other times, we direct that anger inwards. However we experience trance, we end up relating to ourselves and to others from this space.

The trance appears with couples, too. When someone is lashing out at their partner in anger, they are caught in trance – they are not getting their needs met, and they are protesting, fighting for their partner to hear them and to understand their pain. When someone withdraws from their partner, they are caught in trance – they feel they cannot do anything right, that they only get attacked and criticized, that the best thing they can do is remove themselves and disconnect. When trance hits, it can be very difficult to find a way out. (It is a trance, after all.) Couples want to find a solution, to find that quick fix to make everything better. When we begin working together, I often tell them that the most important thing they can do is to pause.

“Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so.” – Tara Brach

At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait, what? All this is happening, my partner is completely missing the point, and now I’m supposed to just pause?” Let me explain. We can’t emerge from trance by pushing through. The only way out of trance is by bringing awareness to our present state: How we are feeling, what we are sensing in our bodies, what we are believing about ourselves and our partner. And the only way to start this process is to pause.

Arguments by their very nature move fast – adrenaline surges, our nervous systems begin to activate, and before we know it, we’re reacting as opposed to speaking from our true self. Pushing through and moving faster won’t resolve anything. Likely, it’ll just push you, your partner and your relationship further into trance.

Let’s try a little exercise. Think back to an argument you had with your partner. For the purposes of this exercise, don’t choose the worst argument you’ve ever had. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most activating, choose something that’s a 3 or 4. Intense enough that you’ll be able to feel the sensations, but not so intense to take you outside your window of tolerance. As you’re thinking of the argument, start to remember where you were, what the argument was about, what you both were doing. Start to go inside and sense what you’re feeling in your body. What are the sensations? Maybe your heart is beating faster. Maybe you’re noticing a fiery sensation in your chest. Maybe your face starts to flush. Whatever you’re noticing, just stay with that sensation. It might help to name the sensation. Tightness. Heat. Churning. Name the sensation, and get to know the details about your experience. How it feels to be noticing this in your body, and how the sensation lives in your body. Notice if it shifts or changes at all. Take several deep belly breaths, and come back. Re-orient to the room and move your body to release any built up energy. Before continuing on, journal a bit about your experience.

The goal of the exercise you just completed was to give you a sense of how you experience trance in your body when you’re disconnected from your partner. It gives you a snapshot of how your body responds when you’re caught in that negative cycle of interaction. Whatever came up during the exercise serves as important information that you can now use to notice – and break out of – trance.

One of the ways we can start to change this pattern is by naming it when we feel it, and pausing. When I work with couples, they often find it helpful to name when their trance emerges. In naming it, they get a little space from it, and have a chance to choose a different way of interacting. One of the best ways to notice when you’re in trance is by paying attention to the somatic cues we just explored in the previous exercise.

What if, the next time you notice that fire in your chest, that rapid heartbeat, you named it, and paused? (It works best if your partner is also aware of what you’re doing, and is on board with trying this new tool.) What if instead of pushing through, continuing to react, you took some time to attend to that part of you that’s feeling angry, sad, or unworthy? What does it need from you right now? (Often, these parts need to hear that they’re seen, heard, and understood.) What would it feel like to breathe and attend to your body, helping your nervous system calm down a little bit? (Hint: Usually, there’s some relief.)

Of course, as with any tool, this isn’t going to solve all your arguments. But it’s a great first step in breaking your negative pattern of interaction as a couple, and bringing more awareness to your internal experience. And as with any new skill, it’s a practice. You may find this really difficult sometimes, and that’s ok. Other times, you may not notice the trance right away. That’s ok, too. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at noticing when the trance is present.

I am currently accepting new couples for tele-therapy sessions throughout the state of California. See my services page for more information.

For more information on Tara Brach, visit https://www.tarabrach.com.

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