Over 100 years ago, Freud stood before the Vienna Congress of Physicians and espoused the significance of the unconscious part of the mind. His message that “We are a cognitive iceberg and most of our thoughts occur below the waterline,” was met with derision and outrage. The good news is that since that time “unconscious” and “subconscious” have become part of our everyday parlance. The bad news is that in even in the realm of psychotherapy and couple counseling, the concept remains somewhat controversial.
Cognitive-Behavior therapists are certainly aware of unconscious processes and their impact upon the conscious mind. But, the pioneers of CBT (Beck, Ellis, et al) and their followers do not give credence to its role in marriage and other partnered states. Additionally, and perhaps somewhat alarming is the fact that in the context of treating couples, even insight-oriented authors rarely cite its presence. Sager, a prominent marriage guru at the time, did reference “the unconscious contract” as a factor in marital discord, but, that was over 40 years ago (1977). I have since discovered only one other reference to a “relational unconscious,” in a 2014 book by Ringstrom.
Moreover, as an author of self-help books, I am repeatedly reminded by acquisition editors that the unconscious and terms associated with it are—out and that exercises, tables, homework assignments are—in. Additionally, although the shelves of bookstores are replete with books on the subject of relationships, the term “unconscious” is nowhere to be found in the subject index…of any of them?
I suspect that this denial of the presence of hidden forces by couples, professionals, and others, is in more cases than we might wish—unconscious. Nonetheless, in my view, the failure to recognize its impact contributes mightily to counseling failures and the emotional devastation that accompanies the loss of a once cherished relationship.
The reconciliation of schisms between intimate partners requires a range of interventions that include the dissolution, if not the removal of “blind spots”. The content of these includes childhood experiences including traumatic events and the (suppressed) impact of recent adult intimate relationships. Whoa! How are couples supposed to notice the presence of these forces if they are out of awareness and lurking “…below the waterline”, as Freud suggested? There are at least three conditions that provide a clue as to their presence:
(1) Heated arguments generate the same script over and over again without either partner acknowledging the other’s position. Thoughts of seeking solutions are abandoned as blaming, counter-blaming and complaining prevail. No progress! No insight! No learning!
(2) Overreactions triggered by a minor event. For example, when “I said the salt, not the pepper,” leads to a rant or other kinds of drama. The latter include acting-out such as temper tantrums, walking-out, verbal and physical abuse, cyberbullying and infidelity, or, shutting down in the form of isolating or invoking “the silent treatment”.
(3) Couples co-existence in “pretend mode” wherein they function as roommates without any in-depth understanding as to how they reached that status. In these cases, the unknown causative agent is camouflaged by rationalizations or misguided reasoning.
Once the presence of unconscious forces is recognized their contribution to conflict resolution impasses can be diminished or even neutralized and in some cases, with a minimum of professional intervention. The couples’ awareness of the (3) conditions above, ideally, paves the way for the development of their ability to separate current experiences from past toxic influences.