Half of what I do in the office is to help people become more aware, more conscious. One of the areas to examine are behaviours that, in essence, are counterproductive. Couples generally recognize that they have repeated certain behaviours that are not getting them where they want to go. Freud called it the repetition compulsion.
The tendency of human beings to repeat ineffective behaviours over and over again. My job is to help them stand back and recognize these behaviours have not worked and more importantly, teach them different ways to get them where, in fact, they do want to go. To help them realize they can make different choices.
Using Myself as an Example
I use myself as an example. In those first 15 years of our marriage, if my wife came on too strong, I would shut down. It was certainly counterproductive, but I did it for a long time. When we were introduced to the Imago system, it allowed me to step back and look more closely at that behaviour and choose to respond differently.
Why do we do continue to repeat actions that are ineffective? I am sure there are a lot of reasons; here is one possibility. Before I trained as an Imago Relationship therapist I studied Adlerian psychology. Alfred Adler was a contemporary of Freud but broke with him early on because they disagreed on different points. Adler’s understanding of human behaviour was that by the time a child is 4 or 5, he or she has figured out how to fit into their family of origin – how to get attention, love, their own way etc. – they had developed what he called a “lifestyle”.
Those of you with small children will, I think, agree; kids are pretty clever at figuring out how to manipulate affairs. Adler likened this lifestyle to a map – say a map of Windsor – a very accurate map of one’s family of origin. What brings people into my office at 30 or 40 or 50 is that they are metaphorically in Toronto, but are still using the Windsor map they designed in childhood (their lifestyle) which is no longer working. It worked as a kid but it is not working now.
Adler’s conclusion was, not that there was something wrong with a person, but simply, that what they had learned as a youngster was no longer working. Now, he would say, you have a choice; you can keep doing what you learned at 4 or 5 or you can make different choices.
Recognizing Counterproductive Behaviours
And that is where helping people become more aware, more conscious comes in. If a couple can step back and see that certain behaviours are really counterproductive, but that there are different possibilities of how to respond, then they can choose to respond differently. It is up to them. To quote Hendrix/Hunt: “Insight into childhood wounds is an element of therapy, but it isn’t enough, nor is it the critical element.
Above all, people need to learn how to let go of counterproductive behaviours and replace them with more effective ones.” (p.134-135 in Getting the Love You Want) A couple cannot change their lives today but they can change the direction of their lives at this moment in time. The key is to recognize that certain behaviours really are counter-productive but that they can choose to do things differently.