Arleen Maiorano

The Importance of an Apology

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The Importance of an Apology

Arleen Maiorano,  LCSW, LP

In my work with couples, and in my own relationship, I find myself amazed both at the ease with which an apology can mediate a difficult relational moment and put it to rest, but also at the great difficulty one member of a dyad may have at summoning up that powerful tool and offering it to the other. This is because—depending upon your point of view—an apology is either a heartfelt recognition of the justified hurt the other is experiencing, or an indictment and criticism, completely unreasonable and undeserved, which must be defended against at any cost. By definition, an apology recognizes that one member of a dyad has done something that has hurt the other member, possibly unintentionally or reactively. Both members are often triggered in this same moment, one feeling unfairly accused or not appreciated for their overall good intention; the other feeling unseen by their partner’s difficulty in recognizing their hurt feeling. In both cases, what is often triggered is a childhood feeling of being unfairly criticized; or, conversely, of being ignored and invalidated.

Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, once asked an important question: would you rather be right, or be in a relationship? In those moments when it is difficult for one partner to apologize for hurting the other, and for the other partner to let go of their absolute entitlement to an apology, the answer is that both partners would rather be right. It is our human instinct to fight for what we feel we deserve, or to defend ourselves against a perceived wrong. But the work of being in a relationship is often to do the opposite, to see the others’ point of view, even if it doesn’t make sense to us, and to validate the other’s perception even if it doesn’t feel justified. It is their perception after all, and to be curious about it opens a bridge toward a healing connection. In crossing this bridge, we enter into what Martin Buber calls the I/thou or the “between,” the sacred space that is created by two individuals as they attempt to look at or experience the world through the others’ eyes.

And yes, this communication, and this ceding of the need to be right, must go both ways. In this difficult moment, each partner must try to see the world from the other’s point of view. The request, often the demand, for an apology can trigger the “guilty” partner’s childhood feeling of being unfairly blamed and criticized, of never having been good enough, and can challenge their firmly embedded identity as a good person, perhaps a perfect person, an identity that may have been formed in opposition to the critical, blaming parent; the impulse is to defend oneself at all costs. Similarly, not receiving an apology that feels well deserved can trigger the “wounded” partner’s childhood feeling that a critical parent never fully acknowledged the injustice and unfairness of their hurtful behavior; the impulse is to insist on getting the validation that is justly deserved, so as to finally feel met, instead of feeling impotent and completely alone.

As you can see, it is difficult to negotiate this important moment. Both parties are hurt, often by the instantaneous, co-created reaction to the other. The moment is charged, a perfect storm. Awareness of this difficulty can help both parties negotiate this moment over time, if each becomes aware of the pattern that consistently emerges, and if each becomes aware of the small child that is simultaneously being triggered in both partners, each feeling wronged, each feeling misunderstood and alone, each needing the other to reach out and meet in the “between.”

11/23/2016

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Arleen Maiorano

Gestalt Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy: an Interface

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As a Gestalt Therapist, also trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, I am struck by the profound influence of the philosopher Martin Buber on both these theoretical approaches.  In 1923, Buber wrote “I-Thou,” a radical essay on the relational nature of existence, postulating that we are always in relation and that the “I” is always affected by, and emerging in relationship to the “Thou.”  Buber made a distinction between two types of interpersonal relationships, the “I-It”, necessary for survival, in which we use each other to meet pragmatic and emotional needs; and the “I-Thou,” necessary for personhood, in which we have an authentic experience of our partners in dialogue, understanding and honoring their “otherness,” and attempting to appreciate their experience as well as our own.  Buber is most interested in the process of meeting, or the “between.”  This is the sacred space that is created between two individuals as they meet at the boundary of contact and attempt to look at and experience the world through the other’s eyes.  The essence of gestalt therapy is to maintain our awareness of this space, as we work with our clients.  Similarly, the essence of Imago therapy is to teach couples how to become aware of and honor this space, in their ongoing interactions with each other.

Gestalt therapists work toward what Buber calls inclusion, the attempt to experience what the client is experiencing, from his/her side of the dialogue; and toward confirmation, the acceptance of our client’s feelings and behaviors, and the recognition that they cannot, in any given present moment, be any different than they are.  In an attempt to help couples achieve inclusion and confirmation toward a partner, often extremely difficult during those moments when needs or perceptions differ, and/or when childhood feelings are triggered, Imago therapy outlines a structured process in which each partner takes turns listening to the other, almost adopting a quasi-therapeutic stance.  Rather than engaging defensively and reactively, each partner is “heard” by the grace and generosity of the other.

This process is called the Imago Couples Dialogue, and it consists of three processes: mirroring, validation and empathy.   Mirroring is the process of reflecting back the “content” of a message from a partner. The most common form of mirroring is paraphrasing, a statement of your understanding of the message a partner has sent.  It indicates a willingness to be curious about and to accurately reflect back your partner’s perception of feelings or events, along with a willingness to temporarily suspend your own need to share your version of what might have occurred. Validation is a communication to the sending partner that you understand how the information being received and mirrored “makes sense,”  indicating that you can see your partner’s point of view and can accept its validity—its “truth” for the partner.  To validate your partner’s message does not mean that you agree with it, or that it reflects your subjective experience. It merely recognizes the fact that in any communication between two persons there is a subjective way of “seeing” which is the “truth” for each person, sometimes influenced by deep-seated “knowing” or “learning” based on prior (especially early childhood) experiences. It also recognizes that no “objective view” is possible.  Empathy recognizes the “self” in the other. It is the process of reflecting, imagining or participating in the feelings the sending partner is experiencing about the event or the situation being reported. This deep level of communication attempts to recognize, reach into and, on some level, experience the emotions of the sending partner. This allows both partners to transcend their separateness, even if only for a moment, and to experience a genuine “meeting.”

Gestalt Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy have one other very important thing in common:  despite the profound philosophical ground that they both inhabit, they are both very practical.  Gestalt Therapy is well known for offering an “experiment” at the end of a session, a bit of “homework” that allows the client to practice a new attitude or new behavior.  Similarly, the last step in the Couples Dialogue is the Gift or Behavior Change Request, in which each partner commits to a positive behavior change: one specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited action that addresses each partner’s unmet need or desire.  Both theoretical approaches recognize that action is just as important as awareness and, in fact, creates the ground for growth, as each person experiences the triumphs or difficulties that emerge in the trying on of new behaviors.

Arleen Maiorano

Triangulation

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I’ve been asked to talk a little bit more about triangulation, so  here goes. Let’s begin where I left off, with Harville Hendrick’s question:  “Would you rather be right or be in a relationship?”  The most serious problem with triangulation is that it is often an attempt to enlist friends, colleagues and/or family members in our quest to be “right” when we feel “wronged.”   There is often strength in numbers, so when we feel powerless we seek allies.  We act outside of the relationship, instead of inside, which is the only place where healing communication can take place.

Most of us know the intense feelings that overcome us when we are in the midst of a fight with a romantic partner, a parent, a boss, or any other figure with whom we have an intense and often dependant relationship.  Aspects of these relationships often trigger, or in the case of a parent re-trigger, a confirmation of our world view that we are being unjustly treated, unfairly accused, ignored, devalued, etc.  We then feel a combination of self-righteousness, powerlessness, and rage, and this is often felt by both parties, each feeling “right” and each feeling “wronged,” an escalation that can happen so quickly that we find ourselves unable to respond with awareness and good judgment.

In Gestalt Therapy, we would call this emotional place of “rightness” a polarity: we tend to re-create and re-experience early family dynamics in our relationships, continually finding ourselves stuck in one side or the other, often having the same fight with the same person with the same words, as if we are in a Shakespearean play and we have memorized our lines.  We tend to go to our friends and colleagues after these moments, to confirm our sense of injustice.  But, paradoxically and sadly, we then also confirm our belief that we are powerless; that the world is unfair; and that the people we love will always let us down.

This is at odds with the Gestalt/Relational perspective which is based on the premise that we most fully embrace our authenticity in relationships, and facilitate mutual healing, when we meet someone at the boundary of contact. We then can attempt to understand our partner’s perspective and invite him/her to understand ours; even more important, we can attempt to understand the mutual and co-created dynamic that emerges from our interaction. The two wounded inner children can meet, and instead of fighting for survival in the only way they have known, they can begin to collaborate and build a safer and more caring partnership which acknowledges and validates the feelings of both partners.  This is the ultimate healing potential of a relationship: we get a second chance to be part of a loving and supportive partnership, instead of repeating what we have always known and being disappointed all over again.  We get to do it a different, better way.  We have to talk to each other to do this, however, and not to someone else, unless that someone else has the wisdom to be empathic to both sides and send us back to our relationship to do the work that needs to be done.  But, to be clear, then we would not be triangulating.