One of my most satisfying professional accomplishments is the 21-year collaboration with the Milton Erickson Foundation co-sponsoring the Couples Conference. Each year we bring together an inspiring faculty with a large group of couples therapists from around the world. Our mission is to push the field and provide training and updates on what’s new.
The theme for this year’s conference was Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience in Couples Therapy. Each day we focused on one area via a collection of keynotes, workshops and panels.
Friday was our day on Neuroscience.
Helen Fisher got us started by describing the three brain systems involved in Romantic Love. She explained the different combinations of hormones/neurotransmitters directing them:
- Romantic Attraction: High Dopamine and Norepinephrin/ Low Serotonin. This combination creates obsessive and sometimes intrusive thinking and intensifies the high desire to be with the other.
- Attachment: High Oxytocin and Vasopressin, which creates calm, security and a positive feeling of connection.
- Sex Drive: Testosterone, of course!
These three systems often interact but not always. Helen Fisher concludes from her research that the human animal is wired for serial pair bonding and clandestine adultery.
Helen likened romantic love to a natural addiction with some of these characteristics: focused attention, craving, motivation to win the partner, euphoria, and insomnia. And intense despair when things are not going well.
Because this stage of love can be so powerful, and as Plato wisely observed, “The god of love lives in a state of need,” Helen cautions partners not to make significant life decisions when caught in this spell.
Dan began by surveying the audience to drive home the point that most of us never learned a definition of the mind during our education, even though we are trained mental health practitioners.
He defined the mind as an emergent, self-organizing process that both emerges from and regulates the flow of energy and information within and between our bodies and our relationships.
A healthy mind integrates and links differentiated parts in a way that is flexible, adaptable, coherent, energized and stable. Therefore, when he sits down with a couple, he looks to see whether their interactions are chaotic, rigid or flexible.
My favorite part of Dan’s talk was his emphasis on how relational integration (between partners) stimulates brain integration! In other words, when one partner focuses on learning about and hearing the subjective experience of the other, they are facilitating greater integration of their own brain.
And, an important conclusion from Dan’s presentation is that when partners allow themselves to be influenced by the other and when they apply themselves to hearing the other’s experience, they are simultaneously doing something powerful for their own development.
Stan’s keynote focused on how he expects couples to protect each other and not threaten their relationship with unrealistic demands or innuendos about ending the relationship.
He then demonstrated three types of therapeutic intervention:
- Cross tracking: when talking to one partner, always watching all the varied nonverbal reactions in the other (body posture, skin tone, gesture, facial expression, etc.).
- Cross questioning: asking one partner what the other thinks or about how the other will react.
- Cross-commenting: saying something to one partner that is meant for the other partner.
By using these interventions, Stan is training each partner to pay attention and care how they are affecting the other. In Stan’s psychobiological approach partners are trained to be in each other’s care.
That – and so much more – was on the first day. My next blog will highlight the second day of the conference, on Differentiation.
I love finding ways to introduce these concepts into sessions. Please share any ideas you have for how you might use them with your couples in your practice. And if you attended the conference, please share how you have benefited from something you learned. I read every comment.