Constructive Empathic Communication: Summary of the Seventh Meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors in Boro Park

Conflict as an opportunity for growth: the couple relationship in midlife.

The focus of the recent meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors was on enhancing constructive, empathic communication.

Midlife is associated with many life transitions. Elderly parents ailing and passing away, one’s children have moved out and established their own lives and families, sometimes far away from their parents, work-related changes introduce shifts in priorities, in status and in identity, and having to face the “empty nest” can also create new challenges in the couple relationship. However, midlife is also a time in which one can be freed of many earlier pressures that were associated with the demands of a building a career and raising a family, and re-direct one’s energy into the couple relationship. The couple relationship is a critical resource in the life of individuals, and can greatly influence our level of psychological and physical well-being. This meeting focused on viewing conflict as an opportunity to change our habitual, automated, maladaptive ways of responding to each other. Loaded, important topics can lead to conflict, but also to increased closeness and understanding. The discussion offered guidelines for substituting fights with techniques for enhancing constructive, empathic communication as a way to improve the quality of the couple relationship in midlife. The need to improve our capacity to communicate well, to be a safe and supportive partner, and to build bridges to the inner world of the other, can be of particular value to the children of survivors, given that research findings indicate that emotional communication was problematic in the relationships with Holocaust survivor parents in many families.

Some of the vulnerabilities identified by studies of the children of survivors over the years (reviewed in greater detail in previous meetings and their summaries) revealed elevated tendencies for depression and anxiety, elevated stress symptoms, elevated guilt feelings, a greater vulnerability to stressful situations, lower feelings of autonomy and self-differentiation, and interpersonal hyper-sensitivity. Difficulties regulating and expressing one’s own feelings are expressed by some children of survivors as lack of assertiveness and ability to set appropriate self-protective boundaries, and by others, as explosive rage outbursts that are easily triggered and disproportionately intense. All of these vulnerabilities could interfere with the quality of the interpersonal, marital and parental relationships of the children of survivors. Alongside their good overall functioning and good educational and socio-economic achievements, the vulnerabilities of the children of survivors have been shown to be expressed especially when faced with some of life’s transitions, which activate concerns around separations and loss. However, there were many strengths that were identified as also characteristic of the children of survivors, and so transition points that disrupt some previous status-quo, are also an opportunity to re-work old hurts and rigid adaptations, and reach better resolutions and better self-integration.

The seventh meeting focused on a particular technique for discussing important, even loaded issues, especially with intimate partners, but not only. The technique, borrowed from Imago therapy and Encounter Centered couple therapy, uses a structured dialogue and builds skills for active, constructive, empathic listening and speaking about loaded issues (to view a sample of this technique and read more about it, go to http://www.hedyyumi.com/store/hedy-yumi-crossing-the-bridge-documentary/)

The communication skills offered by the dialogue techniques presented in the meeting are of potential value to anyone, but might be of particular value to the children of survivors. Research shows that the experience of growing up with Holocaust survivor parents had particular effects on the style of communication in the family and on the ability to express one’s emotional needs. Adult children of survivors have been shown to be protective of their parents, acutely aware of their parents’ past suffering, and of the need to avoid triggering their anxiety, anger or sadness. Childhood memories recounted by the second generation have been shown to reveal a sense of not having been able to express their own emotional needs in the relationships with parents, not being understood, having wished for more autonomy, having felt pressures that limited one’s independence, having been burdened by parental sadness, and a sense of being coerced to fulfil parental emotional needs and expectations at the expense of one’s wishes. In some cases, children of survivors also report frightening instances of having observed the dysregulated responses of parents to traumatic triggers, or abusive dysregulated parental interactions with the child. Others describe the negative impact of parental numbness and detachment at important moments in the life of the child. All of these relational experiences, which have been observed over the last decades in many other trauma-exposed populations and are related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These characteristics of the relationships with parents who continue to suffer from the effects of extreme trauma, are some of the issues, the “icebergs in the deep”, that children of survivors might “import” from their experiences in their families of origin into their marital relationships and the relationships with their own children.

The discussion this week aimed at highlighting the importance of beginning to identify how such old relational sensitivities are expressed in our relationships in the present. The “icebergs in the deep”, are deeply held attitudes, values, vulnerabilities and the relational adaptations that were developed to deal with them. Some of these are conscious and some non-conscious, and need to become conscious for us to be able to re-examine them in the light of the present day. We need to recognize such old patterns so they will stop being our automatic responses, and make room for more mature, more relationally adaptive ones. We need to be able to re-evaluate our responses to current interpersonal slights and conflicts in view of the vulnerabilities which we bring with us into these relationships. However, if our vulnerabilities are not fully conscious, how do we get to know about them?

This is when conflict serves as a potential opportunity for growth. When conflict arises with a spouse or partner in the present, in can be taken as an opportunity that shines the light onto old, not-fully-conscious beliefs and ingrained attitudes. For example, “you never listen to me” , “no one ever cares how I feel”, “ My feelings must always take the back seat”, or other expectations about how the other will treat our pain or our request, which is always at the bottom of the conflict. When we respond in the old, automatic ways, withdrawing or attacking the other, we “shoot ourselves in the foot” as we fail to evoke in the other the positive reactions we so long for.

When we do find ourselves responding in destructive, old, automatic ways, we can take the opportunity to recognize how certain feelings give rise to particular reactions on our part. We can take the opportunity to own the feeling, as well as our maladaptive response to it. Focusing our attention on these issues can help us strive to develop better responses.

The discussion in the seventh meeting this past week aimed at approaching couple relationship at midlife as a “second chance”: an opportunity to focus on achieving satisfying communication, emotional intimacy, and for having our emotional needs better met. When conflict arises between partners in a relationship, each partner will inevitably be hurt by the defensive character adaptations of the other. But conflicts, especially those repetitive ones that keep showing up in our relationship, are also opportunities to achieve personal growth and heal old relational wounds. Stubbornly recurring conflict, and the ineffective relational adaptation that both partners are employing in dealing with it, is an invitation for each partner to be confronted with their most challenging “growth stretch”. As each partner stretches beyond current defensive character adaptations to give the other what they need, the one giving grows in previously under-developed emotional capacities, and the receiving one heals from childhood injuries of not having had that need met. Both partners have been trying in their way to tell the other what they need and what hurts them, but neither has been able to empathically hear the other. Listening empathically was not possible because longing was expressed as criticism that triggers defensiveness.

This past week’s meeting continued the theme raised in the previous one, offering couples an option of co-operating by creating a “conscious relationship” where they intentionally meet each other’s unmet childhood needs. However, our current partner is not expected to ‘fix’ past hurts, their job is to be a good partner in the present. The dialogue technique and the communication skills it teaches are used as tools for restoring contact and connection, to allow oneself and one’s partner to re-establish awareness to our own emotional needs, even some we have tried hard to deny; to get intimately familiar with the needs of the other, and to learn where ruptures in our relational histories occurred. Most importantly, the focus is on taking responsibility for realistic ways in which need- fulfillment and need-frustration can be handled in mature relationships.

A conscious relationship requires that we become conscious of our own, and the other’s history and relational adaptations that emerged from it.

Conscious knowledge of self requires that we become aware of:

  • Our own unfulfilled needs from childhood and our non-conscious relationship agenda.
  • Our own disowned and denied areas of functioning
  • Our own survival adaptations and how these trigger pain in our partners
  • We need to now learn and use skills to relate in ways that are consistent with our intentions, rather than with our automatic reactive survival defenses.

Conscious relating requires that:

  • We intentionally develop and re-integrate lost capacities to think, feel, do, sense and be.
  • We learn to be safe and healing partners, i.e., to not use shaming or blaming when expressing that which hurts us. We listen and respond respectfully when intimate knowledge of our partner’s inner world and childhood hurts is shared, we never use these stories as weapons in a conflict, or bring them up otherwise against the partner.
  • We learn to empathically understand and accept others as they are, while inviting them to grow into their fullest potential
  • We grow into our fullest potential to meet our and out partner’s unfulfilled needs in the present.
  • Having developed good old defenses to protect ourselves from disappointment and hurt, we might not be as open as we think to the very kind of relationships we long for. We need to work through our own resistance to receive the love we want.

The steps of the dialogue, as developed by Imago and Encounter centered Couples Therapy were reviewed. The first of the principles is, when you have something important to speak about, ask the other if this would be a good time to talk. If it is not, it is the other’s responsibility to find and offer a better time.

When you decide it is a good time for a meaningful conversation, it is critical to give each other our full presence, being aware of the full impact of our words, body language, eyes, tone of voice and other non-verbal communications. Our brains respond to all of these, not just to the content of information. Before beginning to speak, sit facing each other, pay attention to your breath, take a few deep breaths and try to relax your muscles and your breathing, let the chatter in your head quiet down by mentally “turning down the volume knob”, and focus your eyes on each other for a good moment or two. This experience alone is of great value. To read more about the relationships between eye gazing and attachment, I strongly recommend you read the very popular New York Times essay, based on the research of psychologist Arthur Aron (1997):

Some of the central communication skills that the dialogue aims at are: slowing down of reactivity, suspending our own thoughts, responses and counter-arguments to what the other is saying and instead, focusing on being curious to understand the other’s view point. We already know our own, and we can embrace it again a little later, but learning to put our own ‘stuff’ aside for a short while to truly listen is a very important skill, and it is not easy. My way of putting it is: put all your own thoughts, feelings, etc. in an imaginary “pickle jar”, where you can clearly see them, and place it on the table nearby. They will not go anywhere, and you can grab the pickle jar and get its contents again when it is your turn to speak. In the dialogue, however, only one partner at a time speaks about something that they feel they want to address. They speak in short, concise sentences, only about one particular topic at a time. The other partner listens, and tries to mirror back the sentences they hear, using as much as possible the same words and the same ‘music’ of the speech, so as not to insert their own variations.

These steps aim to teach important relational principles.

Listening with an open heart, with a curiosity and a “new mind” means reminding ourselves that we do not know the inner world of the other, even after decades of living together. The inner landscape is vast, the neighborhoods in it are many. Some unsafe neighborhoods have been well hidden, and others always changing. We need to re-awaken to seeing the other fully, or else we risk becoming pale and flat strangers to each other, rather than deeply engaged partners.

Speaking constructively and empathically means recognizing that if we really want what we say to be heard, it is our responsibility to say it in a way that will go easily into the other’s ears and mind. Harsh word, harsh tones and hostile body language will make the other shut down. We might get to “dump” some of our anger at them, but they will not hear with an open heart what we really wish they would hear.

The final and very important communication skill is the capacity to show the other that you understand and validate their experience from their perspective. Validation and empathy are possible even if you do not agree with their view, or you experience it very differently. For this skill to grow, one needs to exercise empathy for the past and for the present; show understanding for the way that the other’s past experiences might have shaped their perspective. Most importantly, acknowledge your own contribution to any interaction that hurt the other, even if you had not intended to hurt them. Empathy to the other’s experience, and owning up our own contribution, is the only way by which something that hurt them, which cannot be undone, can become history. In the absence of the capacity to do so, injuries remain active and current.

The way to express this empathic understanding would begin with a sentence such as: “ …and so, after I heard what you told me, I can imagine, that when I do [such as such] it makes you feel [describe the feeling] and it might remind you of [ make the connection to what you head about the past injury or sensitivity that your partner has disclosed]

Summary of guidelines from the meeting:

  • Identify our “icebergs”, think about them as a form of emotional learning in a certain contexwhere it made sense.
  • Re-evaluate whether it still makes sense in the current   context; allow corrective feedback
  • Identify strengths, yours and the partner’s, use them well and frequently
  • Re-evaluate whether it still makes sense in the current   context; allow corrective feedback
  • Identify strengths, yours and the partner’s, use them well and frequently.
  • Appreciate the differences between you and your partner; amplify the gift that the other is and they bring to your life just because they are different!
  • Work as a team, communicate constructively.
  • The couple is a powerful system for mobilizing and sustaining healing.

Irit Felsen

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