The Relationship Crucible

There was a wonderful article recently in the New York Times, by a wonderful and favorite writer of mine, Diane Ackerman, that talks about how science has proved what psychotherapy has known for some time now: change takes place through relationship. Citing the new field of interpersonal neurobiology, Ms. Ackerman, in her piece called “The Brain on Love,” writes about how science has concluded that the brain is constantly changing and regenerating and how it is relationship that particularly changes the brain. “All relationships change the brain — but most important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self.”

Much time is spent in psychotherapy – at least the way that I practice it – talking about some of those past intimate bonds and how they have shaped one’s brain, psyche, and soul. This examination can sometimes be painful, sometimes ecstatic, depending on those past experiences. When talking, it’s our objective to better understand how these experiences have shaped the client and to continue to process emotionally the painful and sometimes traumatic experiences. While we can’t change the past, we can through our relationship lighten the load and influence that the past bears on the present.

And in the process, there is another intimate bond that is formed: that of the client and therapist. Through this bond, new changes in the brain take shape. It is to a large degree that relationship which promotes change in psychotherapy. It’s true that insight is a part of that change process; changing behaviors and patterns can be a part of it. But it is principally through the human bond that is fostered in the psychotherapeutic relationship that changes take root in the mind.

The very first relationship in a person’s life, of course, is the baby with his or her mother. According to Ackerman, “Thanks to advances in neuroimaging, we now have evidence that a baby’s first attachments imprint its brain. The patterns of a lifetime’s behaviors, thoughts, self-regard and choice of sweethearts all begin in this crucible.” However, there is also evidence that subsequent relationships continue to alter and shape the brain. “As the most social apes, we inhabit a mirror-world in which every important relationship, whether with spouse, friend or child, shapes the brain, which in turn shapes our relationships.” Sometimes the goal of psychotherapy is to examine that “mirror world” – to see how one may be responding in the here and now as if to some past experience or relationship. By seeing this connection, one then has more ability to alter that link and act differently today.

The relationship with the psychotherapist becomes one of those “important relationships.” The article sites Daniel Shore, a prominent neuropsychiatrist at UCLA, who “refers to the indelible sense of ‘feeling felt’ that we learn as infants and seek in romantic love, a reciprocity that remodels the brain’s architecture and functions.” That feeling – “feeling felt” – is the feeling in psychotherapy. It is a feeling comprised of being understood, empathized with, and deeply listened to. And it changes brains and apparently promotes good health. “’Scientific studies of longevity, medical and mental health, happiness and even wisdom,’ Dr. Siegel says, ‘point to supportive relationships as the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span.’”

Much of this wonderful article talks about the impact of a loving and supportive relationship on one’s overall growth and functioning. Beginning with psychotherapy’s founder, Freud, love has had a lot to do with the therapeutic relationship. It is the degree to which this intimate bond is forged and felt that true change takes place. “A happy marriage relieves stress and makes one feel as safe as an adored baby.” And I think psychotherapy, when successful and supportive, and I would say loving, does the same thing.

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