Elliot Talenfeld MC, LAC
“Every genuinely loving relationship is one of mutual psychotherapy."
So wrote psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his timeless classic The Road Less Traveled. I knew Dr. Peck, and he included our 10-year correspondence with his final papers housed at the Fuller Theological Seminary. My guiding vision as a couples counselor is to equip my clients to become their own mutual therapists. (And the sooner, the better!)
But before training as a therapist, I spent 25 years as a lawyer, law professor and judge. So I also know, first-hand, how our work-life personas (and egos) can condition us to avoid all appearance of vulnerability. And this, unfortunately, inhibits relational intimacy with our life partners. In short, my role is no longer to help my clients win or be right about their cases, but to outgrow and get beyond them; to become more emotionally self-aware, for the sake of a more intimate and satisfying relationship with their nearest and dearest.
I see relational conflict as the couple’s reciprocal and synergistic thrust for both personal authenticity AND relational intimacy. Our disagreements, so reframed, portend a blessing, not a curse – a source of psychospiritual (intuitive) guidance once we open ourselves to receiving it as such. Our relational triggers, in short, are the very coin of the mutual-therapeutic realm, not to be short-changed into polite but feckless “I-statements.”
I’m also a practitioner of Carl Rogers’ “person-centered” psychotherapy. But I’ve never quite understood his iconic claim of “unconditional positive regard” for his clients. As professional therapists, we dispense our “regard” in discrete, 50-minute therapeutic doses (and at market price, to boot). I don’t begrudge any therapist their livelihood, but “unconditional” our service is not.
Committed life partners, on the other hand, bear the 24/7 brunt of each other’s neurotic habits. And pledge to be there “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, til death do us part [?].” That being the case, I suggest we supplement our nuptials with the following mental-health benefit: “By communicating ever more cleanly, ever less defensively, we will do our best to love our way to the bottom of every conflict, unraveling and dissipating, in the process, wounds and grievances from our distant, individual pasts.”
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We all have scars from our childhood or past relationships that deter us from more fully opening our hearts, even to those we claim to love. Many couples thus enter into a tacit agreement not to rock the emotional-relational boat. The problem is that couples who seethe but refuse (or just haven’t learned) to fight cleanly tend to settle into a calcified, emotional cahoots that may have every appearance of relational stability. I call this the “neurotic relational homeostasis” (aka codependency). It can be years into the relationship before one spouse, perhaps after starting individual therapy, begins questioning this arrangement. And if they come to me at that point, my role is to help them turn their interpersonal adversity to advantage: to begin rocking their relational boat more lovingly and productively . . . as the very expression (rather than at the cost) of their self-awareness and personal integrity.
If the above resonates, let’s see if we’re a good fit to do some work together.
Elliot offers relationship counseling for adults in committed relationships, both in-person (downtown Phoenix) or via HIPAA secure telehealth.