Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shaddock Shares Systems Theory Approach to Couples

The Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc (TBIPS) was delighted to have as guest lecturer on October 19, 2011 David Shaddock, author of Contexts and Connections: an interubjective systems approach to couples therapy, apply systems theory to his work with couples. Intersubjective Systems theory recognizes that people are inherently connected. Moment to moment an individual’s psychological life is embedded in relational context. One advantage of a Systems approach is that everything is inherently contextual, everything potentially important. Likewise, the therapist does not have to be the one who knows (everything), as the goal instead is to bring about a shift in the dynamic system. The therapist asks herself in the moment ‘What triggered this shift?’

Shaddock says that a Systems approach, with its tenet that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, is optimistic, for systems can rearrange unpredictably after perturbation. Phase shifts are always possible. Perturb the system and the chance that it will reorganize itself in a new way becomes possible. Systems theory recognizes that the self is organized and reorganized spontaneously, not predictably predetermined. The therapist ‘catches’ these phase shifts. The couples therapist can, by making explicit a shift in the system, empower a couple with the experience that it does not take much to induce change. For example, when an angry couple suddenly softens because of something implicit, Shaddock will, to bring it under conscious control of the couple, point out the shift (e.g. ‘What just happened here? Your face just softened with concern and then your wife became calmer.’)

The therapist may view the couple through the frames of the repetitive selfobject dimension (ala Stolorow ), and the self/interactive regulation of affect dimension (ala infant research). In the former, one member of the couple may, in the therapy situation, have her/his worst fears confirmed. Couples therapist Carla Leone will watch the faces of each member of the couple to discern any hint of this retraumatization. The therapist can then intervene to shift from the repetitive pole to the more hopeful, regulatory one.

Recognizing two important ways to organize the world: defensively, and engaged toward relatedness, the therapist focuses on ‘toward relatedness.’ Couples therapists want both members of the couple to feel understood. (This decreases defensiveness, engenders hope, and increases the chance that each feels safer to state which needs each would like met.) A history, taken in front of the other partner, helps both the therapist to elucidate for herself a partner’s repetitive pole, and invites a new relational dynamic between the couple (by allowing the other partner to witness that it is historical factors, not the witnessing partner, which trigger fearful responses) and this may lead to a reparation of empathy.

In the affect regulatory dimension, each partner sometimes needs attunement from the other (interactive regulation) and sometimes needs time apart or alone for self regulation. Problems arise when there is a mismatch between how much a partner prefers one type of regulation. Because how we regulate and organize ourselves becomes who we are, the mismatch can suddenly shift to a ‘do or die’ level when denial of a preference threatens the self and feels like annihilation. Shaddock will make the shift explicit (e.g. Five seconds ago you were just talking about who does the dishes and now we are talking about divorce. How do we understand such a shift?).

Shaddock’s presentation was so illuminating that we look eagerly forward to his return to TBIPS in January 2012 to lecture again in our Couples Treatment course.

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