4. Story & Coherence - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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4. Story & Coherence

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ghost Guest Family Past
Each person has an individual story that includes the stories of his or her family members- particularly his or her parents.  Being like dad or mom, growing up in this community or place versus another, getting involved with that activity, sport, or hobby, attending or leaving a church, and so forth are historical precedents that impact individuals and families across years, decades, and generations.  The challenge of the intimate relationship may be conceived as the individuals' ability to engage in a transformative narrative.  As each person brings into the relationship his or her mutual realities, together they are tasked to develop through interchange a new mutually designed and constructed reality.  In their relationship, each partner and the couple have a place and identity in the new world order.  There is a gradual interactional process whereby each partner gives his or her experience of ongoing and past events.  If there is any disparity between the partners' perceptions, the couple is expected to communicate and work through them to find a consensus reality.  The success of this joint construction of reality determines the quality of individual satisfaction and the functionality of the couple's relationship.  "…individuals…vary in their ability to get their minds around and articulate to their partner key aspects of the socioemotional representations of their prior realities or relationship experience, especially those from their families of origin.  In other words, individuals who can more coherently articulate their past and present reality should be better at promoting the development of a shared, conjoint reality with their partner.  Similarly, individuals who view relationships as more safe and masterable should be more prone to engage in such conversations with their partners than those individuals who view relationships as more risky or unpredictable.  Second, couples should vary in the degree to which their modes of interactional process allow and foster such co-constructive conversations to proceed.  In other words, couples whose interactional process is more collaborative should be more able to co-construct a marriage" (Wamboldt, 1999, page 37-38).

Therapy can become a process to help each person find and coherently express his or her story and for the relationship to coherently express their story.  The influence of an individual's personal family-of-origin story is extremely powerful.  It may be so negatively impactful that it can overwhelm the other partner's story and behaviors such that the couple cannot function well together.  Wampler et al. (2003) described the correlation between an individual's Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI) coherence and his or her behavior.  The AAI (Adult Attachment Interview) is an interview about attachment-related family-or-origin experiences.  It focuses on childhood experiences with primary attachment figures.  The ratings are based on how coherently the person can now describe and discuss his or her early relationships with parents.  The quality of the childhood experiences is not rated.  "An individual high in attachment security is able to discuss experiences with parents with balance and a sense of perspective, without either cutting off or being overwhelmed when asked to talk about attachment experiences" (page 498).  The key issue is how he or she thinks and talks about childhood experiences rather than the experiences per se.  If able to speak coherently with balance and clarity, the individual is more able to relate positively with the partner in a long-term committed relationship.  "For both males and females, higher coherence on the AAI was related to the use of less negative affect (defensiveness, attack), more respect, more open communication, and more negotiation" (page 510).  An individual may range from very coherently to very incoherently describing his or her attachment style and experiences.  As a result, an individual enters into relationships with behaviors that can dominate the relationship dynamics.  "The individual's own behavior with the partner was most strongly related to his or her own AAI coherence, not the partner's AAI coherence or the partner's behavior.  The exceptions were for the expression of positive affect and the use of negotiation.  Interestingly, the use of negotiation was also predicted by the partner's use of negotiation, with more negotiation associated with higher coherence, lower partner coherence, and higher use of negotiation by partner.  The importance of the characteristic of the individual, in this case, AAI coherence, in contrast with partner behavior or characteristics, lends support to the perspective of intergenerational family therapy that emphasizes the importance of individual growth and the centrality of individual characteristics such as differentiation (Bowen, 1978( or destructive entitlement (Boszormenyi-Ngy & Kramer, 1986)" (Wampler et al., 2003, page 511).

What a person brings into a relationship can be so powerful that it may greatly challenge or support the health, skills, and compassion the other person brings in.  If in the case where an individual carries significantly problematic attachment issues, negative expectations and entrenched behaviors, and rigid inflexible values, the other person may not be able to be "healthy" enough, "loving" enough, or otherwise enough for the individual to transcend his or her family-of-origin issues.  However, an individual with a secure attachment rating is likely to be rated secure in the present relationship as opposed to someone with an insecure attachment rating.  The influence of the securely attached individual should positively affect the relationship as would the insecurely attached individual negatively affect the relationship.  This seems to imply that someone with a "good" story can help someone with a poor story.  Therefore, therapy that promotes one individual's development and health should also promote the other person's development and health, and hence the relationship between them.  "Presumably this occurred because the presence of one person who could securely and coherently discuss his or her past allowed that individual to help his or her partner with a less secure childhood attachment status to achieve a secure current relationship rating during their conjoint co-constructive conversations" (Wamboldt, 1999, page 39).  On the other hand, someone with an insecure childhood rating was twice as likely to be rated as having an insecure current relationship.  The intimate relationship is the co-mingling of two individuals' life stories into a third story where the coherence of the two life stories affects the coherence of the joint story.  Does one or the other person help or harm the coherency of the stories?  The therapist's task may be to help each person develop coherence in order to achieve relationship coherence.  The therapist would expect there to be consistency between the individual's ability to coherently discuss current and past family relationships with individual's behavior with the partner, children, family, and personal wellbeing.  

Wampler et al. (2003, page 499-500) gave an example of a man's relatively incoherent telling of childhood experiences.  "At that time? Five to twelve? Oh that's hard to say.   I don't know if can really picture one particular event right now.  ('What's your earliest memory of her being nurturing?')  Well I guess, the earliest, well that's not really a memory, it's more from pictures, it's when we're first, well, not my youngest sister but the middle sister was when she was born, I remember real vaguely things there but it was let's see I guess she was about a year old and I was about three or four years old.  Maybe it was just from pictures, I don't remember if I do remember.  But that was, I don't know how to describe the situation.  Hmm, I don't know if I know if I can pick from just a particular event.  It's just the overall, the overall relationship.  I don't know that I can, especially in that time period."  Wampler said, "Even when prompted, this individual, classified as dismissing, cannot provide a clear example from childhood illustrating his mother as nurturing.  He seems cutoff from his childhood experience" (page 500).  The partner of such an individual may have tried for years to get his or her life story only to be stymied.  At times, feeling like an inquisitor and treated as a hostile prosecuting attorney, the partner finds him or herself working too hard for too little.  At some point, the partner may give up.  Unfortunately, the partner may give up, feeling hurt because he or she believes the individual is purposely withholding information.  The individual may not be withholding information but be confused.  The mix of memories, fear, distress, and other emotions may have never processed adequately in childhood or subsequently.  Confusion and lack of articulation continue in the current intimate relationship.

The man continued about his father, "I don't think I can tell you five times that he told me he said he loved me.  I don't think I can or my brothers.  I mean he told (sister) once in a while, but I mean, I don't remember- and we were talking about this like three weeks ago.  Me and (wife) were discussing this.  I have always wanna show her affection and I always wanna give her a kiss or I always wanna hold her hand- something like that you know?  And, I know why I do that because of when I was younger I can always remember- not one time can I ever remember, maybe once or twice, but I mean, overall I cannot remember my father giving my mother a kiss as he went out the door.  She always asked for one first. Or anytime they did anything- mother's day, anniversary or something like that, she planned.  If they went anywhere or did anything she planned.  You know he'd buy her flowers or something you know.  But I mean never.  You know I can remember coming home and him be off have two days off and not wanna do anything that I wanted to do.  He wanted to do work at the house.  He wanted to do yard work and housework.  And not doing – wanna do anything that I want- or nothing with me that would have enjoyed.  Never" (page 499-500).  This man seemed to be still immersed and overwhelmed by his father's actions from his childhood.  He lacked emotional distance and a balanced perspective of what occurred.  While living and trying to make his current relationship work, he carried the shadow of his emotionally unavailable father and of his father and mother's inequitable relationship.  His partner may have found him psychically involved elsewhere when asking for intimacy.  The therapist can prompt him being present in therapy and present with his partner, but may have limited success without addressing the compelling emotional legacy of his childhood experiences.  When an individual or the partners in a couple are relatively high functioning (not too deeply wounded, or have had significant healing), then the revelation of early childhood scripts and roles and old cultural patterns being playing out currently, is often enough for quick and efficient growth and change in the relationship.  

Ahanu stayed up late into the evening playing Internet games (not Internet porn surfing!).  He unknowingly evoked in his partner, Heinrik the profound sense of abandonment, loneliness, and subsequent desperation experienced in childhood from the alcoholic military father who stayed at the bar all night.  Heinrik constantly interrupted his play and became angry when Ahanu did not come to bed.  He had previously adapted his gaming play schedule to do so later in the evening when both were done with their household chores and rituals.  All that was left was going to bed.  However, Heinrik remained upset and became more spiteful.  This did not interrupt their physical (including sexual) intimacy.  If Ahanu did come to bed, Heinrik just fell asleep.  Ahanu experienced Heinrik as being unreasonable.  He had adapted his Internet play, but it was not enough.  He felt resentful.  Heinrik kept attacking him for something that he enjoys.  He had already compromised, but somehow it was not good enough.  

Hoang (2005) uses what she calls an autobiography approach to initiate assessment and therapy.  She has each partner give his or her autobiography in detail with emphasis on the early experiences in the family-of-origin.  She feels this respects the intensity of experiences while balancing between past and current conflicts.  The speaking partner has an interested and invested "reader" in his or her partner.  The exploration of family-of-origin memories causes one to experience anew old and sometimes difficult feelings about important family members.  This differs from a traditional Bowenian approach that often encourages actual meetings with relatives.  The therapist helps the partners balance between thinking/rationality and emotionality/instinct.  With intense emotional responses, the partners are directed to observe an interactional pattern of thinking.  When they dwell on a conflictual pattern, the therapist facilitates the experiencing of emerging emotions.  The reality of the person is placed in the context of the family reality.  When the person makes an assertion about the family pattern, rules, or dynamics, the therapist may challenge the assertion by offering or questioning from some alternate perspective.  "Even when clients claim to be the favoured child, self-differentiation work requires clients to challenge their attachment to their own view as the only reality" (page 67).  As the person's sense of family-of-origin relationships are examined, they can be re-interpreted from an adult more sensitive and less judgmental perspective.  At the same time, the projection into the current family dynamic can begin to be considered.  Ahanu and Heinrik each had personal stories that lurked like poltergeists in their dynamics unbeknownst to either of them.  As such, neither of them had challenged his or her own or the others reality.

After initial assessment, the goal of therapy became helping Ahanu and Heinrik distinguish between current experiences and relationships and traumatic family-of-origin experiences and relationships.  The original abandonment was processed.  This individual work in couple therapy can be very powerful for both partners.  When the therapist works with one partner of the couple, they both may find there is a family-of-origin reflection of the current situation.  The partner may be able to recognize how he or she is taken back into a childhood experience, stress, or trauma triggered by the other's behavior.  With the therapist's assistance, Heinrik realized that he looked to Ahanu to repair or fill the emotional void left from the trauma of his father's physical and emotional abandonment.  Ahanu had no idea that this was going on with Heinrik.  He had no clue that he had been failing a test that he had not even known he was taking!  With this insight and additional processing, Heinrik was able to distinguish between Ahanu's Internet play and his need to heal his original trauma.  Ahanu's Internet play was not about Ahanu abandoning him.  In addition, Ahanu's frustration and resentment was fed significantly from his childhood experiences of being asked to but never being able to please his parents.  Ahanu's family script was based on having been struggling migrants to the city from a poor rural community.  Heinrik's demands compelled him to deny his needs, but yet still did not bring him approval.  Even with compliance, Ahanu failed to please him.  This was a repeat of his childhood failures to please his unpleasable parents.  His frustration with Heinrik evoked his original desperation.  With this insight and awareness, Ahanu was able to assert himself in a reasonable manner.  Ahanu offered to Heinrik a lot of caring and love and he still played the Internet games!  Heinrik was reassured that Ahanu was there for him.  Once he realized that his instinctive despair was not about Ahanu or their relationship, it became more manageable for him to accept Ahanu's behaviors.  It became OK with both of them.  

If the family-of-origin wounds however are deep and healing has not occurred, then additional cross-cultural, psychodynamic, experiential, and/or cathartic work would be required.  Family-of-origin work, or early trauma healing, or cross-cultural work can all be parts of the therapy's process.  From the family-of-origin, an individual may internalize a model of general affective expression and of problem solving.  AAI coherence was not as related to how an individual talks to the another such as a partner, such as positive affect, negative affect, and respect, as it is related to how he or she problem solves.  Avoidance, open communication, and negotiation are also modeled and experienced in the family-of-origin.  Willingness to engage rather than avoid involves the ability to show one's vulnerabilities and interact cooperatively with the other person.  "These are characteristics, perhaps, most closely related to how well the individual has processed and dealt with family-of-origin experiences" (Wampler et al., 2003, page 510).  Problem solving differed for Heinrik and Ahanu from their respective families.  Heinrik's mother dealt with her husband's alcoholism with growing frustration, seething anger, and then snide potshots.  Snide but impotent potshots was Heinrik's model that he intuitively adapted to harsh nagging body shots to Ahanu.  Helping Heinrik discover a coherent narrative of his development became a key to change.  Ahanu never could really problem-solve with his demanding parents.  Problem-avoid, problem-placate or appease, but never could he really solve the problem.  Identification of the problem parents and the impossible requirement to please gave coherence to his narrative.  Their problem-solving attempts proved fruitlessly until therapy helped make sense of their family-of-origin experiences: templates, expectations, roles, scripts, etc., and subsequently of their current dilemmas.  Their relationship improved when they became able to successfully to develop a new coherent relationship story out of finding coherence in their respective individual stories.

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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