8. Interpretation - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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8. Interpretation

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out Monkey Trap- Breaking Cycles Rel

Out of the Monkey Trap, Breaking Negative Cycles for Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Persistent focusing on how to change the things that happen misleads individuals, couples, and family, and potentially the therapist.  It causes individuals to often fail to recognize that the interpretation, rather than the "things that happen" is often the actual igniter of the argument.  One's interpretation may be totally or largely based on prior negative experiences.  This may include an individual's cultural expectations of what the thing means.  The therapist should aid individuals to examine the differing multicultural variations among their expectations.  One partner's experiential or cultural interpretation may be in high conflict with the other person's experience.  Interpretations may vary significantly and destructively between individuals as to what is important.  "…it would be wise to pay attention to what is a 'big' issue by the standards of one or both partners.  What could be taken by an observer to be a small issue could be big to a partner because it is tied to things that the partner experiences as big, like feeling one never gets one's way or that one's partner discounts what one says.  Some seemingly small decisions are about matters that are toxic to some people (for example, for some people, watching television in the bedroom at bedtime is very upsetting, possibly even upsetting enough to contribute to a decision to divorce–Rosenblatt, 2006, p. 52).  And what is small in one culture may be enormous in another, for example, whether in a heterosexual married couple the woman walks behind the man or not" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 200).

When the therapist asks, "What does that mean to you?" instead of "What happened?" it changes meaning and the quality of the interaction.  This has to do with the "'constructed' nature of family therapy. The content of each session is markedly different, not because the family has changed radically, but simply because the conversation is different.  This difference is a function of the type of questions asked by the therapist and the moulding of these questions, based on the responses of family members" (Rhodes, 2008, page 38).  When individuals speak of what happened, they do so with unexpressed assumptions of what it all means.  The assumptions often carry toxic meanings and implicit accusations of insult and recrimination.  The individual immediately and without question makes an interpretation, "It must mean…"  That interpretation is often something toxic.  The negative interpretation is what perpetuates the negativity cycle.  This is the second intervention point that the therapist attacks to interrupt negative relationship dynamics.  The intensity of individuals' negative communication habits causes them to impulsively react/respond to one another without checking the intended meaning of the communications or actions.  Individuals slip into an accelerating death spiral of anger and hurt based on assumed insults and betrayals.  When the therapist interjects in the argument by asking one person, "What does that mean to you?" he or she asserts to them the surface meaning or interpretation may be insufficient.  It implies that there may be more significant underlying issues that require exploration.  No longer that the things that happened "must mean…" something negative, but instead they might mean something negative.  In other words, there may be other relevant and possibly more accurate interpretations.  There may be less sensational and provocative interpretations- more innocent and benign interpretations.

The therapeutic or relationship conversation shifts from implicit accusations to an exploration of the deeper meanings of verbal and non-verbal communication.  If the recipient continues to interpret the communication or action unchallenged as being negative, then the cycle of dysfunction continues.  When the therapist prompts the speaker for clarification, the meaning or intention may be revealed as relatively benign or more positive than anticipated.  Even if the recipient of the communication finds that the meaning is ambiguous, then the cycle may not proceed as it has previously.  If the recipient subsequently recognizes his or her instinct is to interpret negatively, and is able to resist that instinct, the cycle may not proceed.  If any individual, the couple, or family can recognize that the interpretation has a cultural or family-of-origin foundation that may or may not be relevant in the present situation, then the cycle may also be broken. The interactional process changes potentially for the better when one, both, or more individuals became able to resist acting on impulsive interpretations, and can consider other interpretations that preclude habitual problematic reactions.

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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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