5. Quantitative to Qualitative Change - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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5. Quantitative to Qualitative Change

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

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

Small accrued increases in quantity lead to significant quality differences or movement into another stage.  For a toddler, a bit more co-ordination, a bit more strength, a bit more balance, and other gains. (all quantitative changes) coalesce eventually into a qualitative change… walking!  Quantitative change can be measured in five ways: frequency, intensity, duration, resonance, and damage/benefit.  These are measures of quantitative change that can lead to qualitative change.  Generally speaking, clients present for therapy looking for qualitative change whether or not they speak in terms of quantitative or qualitative change.  For example, parents tend not to send their teenager to therapy so he or she can become a slightly better student (D+ average to C- average), smokes pot once a day versus throughout the day, slightly reduce the frequency of tantrums and screaming fights with family, will delay gratification and strive for goals from one day at a time to a week at a time, and so forth.   While such quantitative changes are relevant, the goals are actually of qualitative change: a poor student to a good student, a hopeless un-invested student to a purposeful student, a self-medicating pothead to a self-regulating emotionally and spiritually competent individual, an embittered contentious jerk to a empowered positive family member, a hedonistic hopeless individual to one with a sense of responsibility and direction, and so forth.  Individual clients also seek change that improves their quality of life, not just their quantity of life: more money, status, freedom, or less depression, anxiety, pain, etc.  When the therapist articulates a quantitative change process however, he or she acknowledges and reminds the clients that the individual, couple, or family's current problematic stage did not suddenly ambush them.  The fact or probability of negative quantitative changes occurring without sufficient active identification and/or attention, that is without intervention or problem solving is a clinical issue.  How and why had the individual, partners, or family members been complicit in allowing the accumulation of negative experiences?  The presenting issues are identified as a culmination of negative quantitative changes that reached a tipping point into conscious dysfunction.

Despite clients' expressed desire for and perhaps, the therapist's philosophical and clinical aspirations for facilitating qualitative change, the only thing that can be focused on and worked on is quantitative change.  This bears repeating… the only work can be on quantitative change.  Offering qualitative change without working on quantitative change is tantamount to offering "magic" as opposed to therapy.  A love potion… a behavior change potion… a magic crystal or icon… "fast…" "effortless…" "revolutionary…"  "innovative…" a "new therapy!" essentially offers qualitative change disconnected from quantitative change.  A baby's babbling changes quantitatively with more babbling, gradually increased meaning and intent, and with more and more specificity of sounds connecting to meaning and intent.  Over time and practice, the quantitative changes come to a critical mass that precipitates a qualitative change- "mama" or "dada!"  While it is a magical moment when one's baby says "mama" or "dada," it is normal quantitative development coming to fruition in qualitative development.  The therapist should be aware of how this rule of developmental theories applies to any therapeutic work.  The individual gradually gains greater awareness and insight to his or her life story.  Self-esteem increases bit by bit with successive challenges and positive outcomes.  Emotional outbursts become less frequent, less intense, and do not last as long through slowly gained ability to be more mindful.  The teenage cuts his or her pot use from three times a day every day, to twice a day, then just once at night.  Dealing with his or her anxiety, depression, or stress with greater efficiency and ever improving skilled turns pot use into a weekend recreational habit.  While still using recreationally, the teenager is not longer using for self-medication.  An individual, couple, or family comes to therapy seeking qualitative change, that is, to have a good relationship instead of a poor relationship.  Over time as with the therapist, they work on the poor relationship by focusing on quantitative changes.  Specifically, the work in therapy and at home must be in the quantitative categories of:

Frequency looks at how often events or things occur.  Positive frequency is to be increased (for example, increasing interactions from little or no time communicating daily events or feelings to connecting a couple of nights a week, to daily, to a couple of times daily- such as morning and night).  Negative frequency is to be decreased (for example, from fighting every day to every other day to twice a week to once a week, to every other week, to monthly, to every third month…)

Intensity looks at the degree of feelings.  Positive intensity is to be increased (for example, from interactions with little or no acknowledgement- a slight nod change to a smile, eye contact, and verbalization, such as "thank you!" or behavior, such as a hug).  Negative intensity to be decreased (for example, interactions that cause one to be so mad to need to scream and throw things, that become incrementally different, such as "only" screaming w/ veins popping, to yelling, to angry tones, to firm serious tones…)

Duration looks at how long something persists. Positive duration is to be increased (for example, interactions that facilitate benign or positive feelings for oneself, for each other ,or couple or family's time together that last from little or none to a half day, to a full day, days, a week- oh my!). Negative duration is to be decreased (for example, from a two-week fight, to ten days, to one week, to 3 days, to one day, to 4 hours, to 2 hours, to a half hour, to a 15 minutes fight).

Resonance looks at how much or how strongly experiences and interactions affect the rest of one's life.  Positive resonance is to be increased (for example, interactions that create good feelings, a sense of satisfaction, attachment, and security from interactions increasingly positively resonates and affects ones entire life and functioning: affecting family functioning, diet, and sleep, mood, subsequent interactions and parenting, AND the core health of relationships.  Negative resonance is to be decreased (for example, interactions or processes that successfully compartmentalizing negative interactions so as not to affect other life functioning, AND avoiding or curtailing doubts about the core health or viability of oneself or important relationships).

Benefit/Damage looks at how ones core sense of a positive self and/or the foundation of the relationship is affected.  Positive effects, that is benefit to be increased (for example, interactions that give greater hope, security, and confidence in oneself, each other, and the relationship).  Negative effects, that is damage to be decreased (for example, interactions that cause despair about ones future or the future of the couple, family, all individuals, and self gradually shift to "only" causing momentary distress, or "only" despair about the future of the couple and family while staying secure about individuals and the self; to doubting the future but having overall confidence about the couple and family, etc.

According to this basic rule of developmental theories and by accepting the relationship as a developmental process, therapy therefore seeks to enable the individual, couple, or family to accumulate sufficient quantitative behavior changes such that a critical emotional mass develops that allows for qualitative change.  The individual develops self-esteem, becomes hopeful, is no longer waylaid by anxiety, and so forth.  The teenager is motivated to strive for an adult future.  They become a couple with a good relationship.  Quantitative change leads to qualitative change.  By the same token, while various theoretical approaches to therapy and change target changes in attitude, values, thinking, awareness, motivations, and so forth, such changes eventually address or lead to quantifiable behavior change.  Actual or professed internal changes (values, cognitions, etc.) are insufficient unless they manifest in quantifiably increased positive behavior and quantifiably decreased negative behavior necessary for qualitative change in life functioning- especially in intimate relationships.  The therapist or the individual, couple, or family may consider quantitative change interventions to be simplistic or not "real" therapy.  While it may not be as sexy as offering quick change, it is the realistic work of therapy.  When an individual, couple, or family has a breakthrough and makes fundamental qualitative change, more often than not it is the consequence of quantitative changes accumulating to reach a therapeutic tipping point.  Clients or the therapist may think an intervention or perspective had suddenly triggered substantive change, and fail to note that the same intervention or offering had not worked many other times previously.  Upon further examination, they would find substantial quantitative changes accrued over time that precipitated the "sudden" magical change… this time…finally!  The therapist may need to articulate or functionally "sell" the validity of the quantitative to qualitative process to clients or risk grandiose expectations that can sabotage therapy.  Grandiose expectations for quality of relationship without attention to quantity of formative experiences may be the cause of the individual, couple, of family's dysfunction in the first place.

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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