15. Reflective Function - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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15. Reflective Function

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

When an individual with secure attachment encounter stress or conflict, he or she is better able to distinguish personal thoughts, feelings, and perspectives from those of others.  Such a person is more likely to be aware that others such as the partner may not feel the same way.  He or she is also aware that exhibited behavior may not be in sync with the other person's emotions or thoughts.  The same behaviors may have different meaning to him/herself versus to others, and that over time there may be a flexibility and change of emotions and thoughts, as well as behaviors.  "English psychoanalyst and attachment researchers, Peter Fonagy uses the term reflective function in referring to the human capacity to envision mental states in oneself and another, and to understand one's own and another's behaviors in terms of underlying mental states and intentions (see Fonagy et al, 2002).  Reflective function is both an emotional and cognitive construct that is intrinsic to affect regulation and productive social relationships.  It is emotional in that it refers to the ability to recognize one's own emotional reactions, as well as those in others.  It is cognitive in that it involves understanding the intentions and underlying causes of reaction in the self and in others.  Reflective function allows one to understand that one's own or another's behaviors are linked in meaningful, predictable ways to underlying and often unobservable, changing and dynamic feelings and intentions.  The more a person is able to envision mental states in themselves and others (and know the difference), the more likely they person is to experience relationships as productive, intimate and satisfying.  They are able to subjectively feel connected while feeling separate" (Sonkin, 2010, page 10).

When an individual goes flooded with intense emotions, his or her capacity access his or her underlying issues or experiences, much less look for and consider the other person's deeper issues can be completely lost.  The following awareness-insight-awareness-insight/empathy and behavior choice process is not available.  

"I'm angry because I feel betrayed…

He or she is shouting because he or she feels attacked by me.

I want to _________ but I should _________ instead."  

An individual may become functionally lost, when although he or she has some awareness of his or her emotional arousal and have insight to its origins, he or she is still unable to utilize them to alter problematic behaviors and responses.  "Insecure individuals lack these meta-cognitive skills.  An important part of the psychotherapy process is helping insecure clients develop these meta-cognitive abilities.  By doing so you are strengthening social cognition skills, empathy and mentalizing abilities" (page 11).  For example, an individual may feel threatened by a request for soothing.  From an insecure and defensive stance, the request may be received as an accusation- "You're asking me this because you think I'm inadequate or a screw-up for not already having done it."  The defensive individual's response may be accusatory based on his or her expectation that the partner is doing, feeling, or thinking the same.  Or, he or she may be intolerant of being considered inadequate as a partner (friend, colleague, or in an important family role, such as a poor dad or bad mom).  When the other person asserts or implies the bi-directional mutual relationship contract of reciprocal soothing, this person addressed may feel assaulted as inadequate... as threatened... again.  The individual experiences the new attachment figure responding negatively… again.  The therapist may hypothesize that the first formative inadequacies happened in childhood in the problematic attachment dynamics with his or her caretakers.  The therapist may find various theoretical speculations as shedding light on complications of what should be a relatively simple relationship dynamic- a bid for soothing from the intimate other such as a partner.

Clinically and in life dynamics, if it should work, it will work... unless there is something compelling that interferes with it working!  Seeking soothing, nurturing, or assistance from ones committed intimate partner or other close committed relationship should work.  Why it does not work may be discovered through attachment theory.  "The attachment perspective gives the couples therapist a meaningful and effective map to the drama of distress between partners.  It guides the therapist in the pivotal moments in couples interactions and why they matter so much; it offers the therapist a guide to each partner's deepest needs and strongest emotions" (Johnson, psychotherapy.net).  Adult attachment theory gives guidance to healthy and unhealthy intimate relationships.  Invested persons may be applying sound techniques, behaviors, and strategies with communications, directives, modeling, boundaries, and other relationship interactions.  The therapist should suspect all that should have worked but hasn't, have failed because of something compelling.  If not personality disorders or tendencies, then some other compelling issue such as substance use or abuse, trauma, secrets, addiction, and so forth.  That exploration may need to become the focus of the therapy.  If the attachment issues have metamorphose into personality issues or disorders or traumatic injury, then the process of therapy becomes significantly more complex or intense.  Sue Johnson, the originator of Emotionally Focused Therapy says, "The multitude of studies on adult attachment that have emerged over the last decade tell us that the essence of love is not a negotiated exchange of resources (so why teach negotiation skills?), a friendship, Nature's trick to get you to mate and pass on your genes, or a time-limited episode of delusional addiction.  Love is a very special kind of emotional bond, the need for which is wired into our brain by millions of years of evolution.  It is a survival imperative.  The human brain codes isolation and abandonment as danger and the touch and emotional responsiveness of loved ones as safety, a safety that promotes optimal flexibility and continual learning.  This need for emotional connection is not a sentimental notion.  The basic image of who we are and what our most basic needs are, namely, that we are social animals who seek such connection is reflected in health studies.  For example, it is now clear that emotional isolation is more dangerous for your health than smoking and that it doubles the likelihood of heart attack and stroke" (Johnson, 2010).

Attachment theory asserts that individuals need a relationship that offers sanctuary when life is overwhelming- a secure foundation to venture forth into life's trials.  Such a relationship allows for an appropriate and effective dependence.  Johnson points out that many therapy clients can trace their problems to being too close or being insufficiently differentiated from intimate others.  A secure close connection gives one strength and greater personality integration as opposed to creating weakness.  Securely connected individuals have a more articulated and positive sense of self.  A year and a half after the World Trade Center 9/11 tragedy research (Fraley, 2006) found that securely connected survivors, who could turn to others for emotional support, were able to deal with and grow from it.  On the other hand, insecurely attached survivors continued to experience significant mental health problems.  "Secure connection is shaped by mutual emotional accessibility and responsiveness.  This is the heart of the drama that plays out in the couple therapist's office.  The fights that matter in a relationship are only superficially about the kids or money.  Partners and therapists can spend many hours talking about these content issues instead of focusing on how the couple talk and more specifically, on the key attachment questions that drive a couple's negative dance.  The key questions are: 'Are you there for me?' 'Do I matter to you?' 'Will you turn towards me and respond to me?'  Partners often do not know how to ask these questions and therapists often miss them or even see them as a sign of immature dependency" (Johnson, 2010).

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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