I’ve been working with couples for twenty years, and I continue to be amazed at the positive results that can come from them having clear intentions for their work together.
Basic intentions such as to be honest, to be compassionate, to find new ways to resolve conflicts can open up exciting conversations about how the couples want the relationship to grow. Over and over I watch the beauty of couples moving from conflicted, separate states to more connection, joy and intimacy.
They learn to practice authentic vulnerable communication, the ‘sine qua non’ of couples therapy. But how do they do this?
One dictionary describes ‘intention’ as an ‘aim that guides actions.’ The root is the Latin for ‘to stretch towards.’ When couples verbalize their intentions, they ‘stretch towards’ a feeling of greater safety, a prerequisite for deeper levels of connection. They build a container, or an operating system, for the relationship; they relax together in a common movement towards consciousness.
Key Intentions for Couples
I start with the following basic intentions:,
- I’m willing to create a safe relationship, so we can talk freely.
- I’m willing to reveal myself to you.
- I’m willing to be self-responsible in my communications with you.
Often as sessions continue, couples create their own intentions together, based on their issues and opportunities.
Using Intentions in Couples’ Sessions
In working with couples in session for twenty years, I have noticed three consistent reactions, when they talk about intentions:
- Fear of change. (Big surprise! our ego is happy being stuck and defended.)
- Excitement for the possibility of change. Enthusiasm and happiness.
- Movement of energy in the body.
I find this last outcome so interesting. When couples state intentions out loud to each other, they often report warmth in their chest, tingling in their hands and arms, or excitement in the stomach region.
Brain research shows that creating intentions makes new neural pathways, so it may be that this movement of energy is related to new neuron connections, leading to changed thoughts and behavior.
Wilhelm Reich, associate of Freud, taught that character structures and habits were contained in the body-mind as bands of energy, and it seems possible that a commitment to healing intentions can free us from some of this stored or repressed energy as well.
A Client Story
Barbara came into counseling with her husband, and they both described the subtle energetic barriers that can grow up between partners in a long marriage. They wanted to return to a state of harmony, and we began by outlining their goals and creating some intentions.
After a couple of months, Barbara came in glowing with new found insight. She looked younger, thinner. She said, “Once Harold and I started talking more deeply, I realized how repressed my anger has been, and how my resentment was contributing to the cloud between us. I’ve been getting madder, haven’t I honey.”
Harold smiled a little and laughed. “I’ll take a rain check on my answer.”
“But even more interesting to me,” Barbara said. “I began to see how my issues with food and with weight were part of the resentment. I repress anger and gain weight. I’ve lost ten pounds in the last month, I want to go to the gym, and I feel great.”
And truly a certain vitality was coming off of her skin, as she described how her work with intentions had guided her to new patterns of communication and self-concept.
Marty and Ann are a couple who I have been working with for a few years. They came back to counseling after their kids had gotten a little older, and Marty reported, “When we remember our intentions, I know that we create an environment for safety. We forget, so it’s good to come back to you for a reminder.”
Marty continued, “When we can work together to resolve conflict. When we fight, I know Ann will eventually move towards consciousness.”
Ann gives him a look, and he laughed. “Or I will have to take some responsibility for my reactions. It’s the intentions that put us on the same page, working together.”
Resistance to Change
When I do the exercise below with couples in sessions, many people feel resistance. Part of their internal psychology doesn’t want to change in this way. This resistance shows itself in fear, in numbness, and in behaviors which further old habits.
Making this resistance conscious is one of the key functions of creating intentions. Once the fear and the negative behaviors are identified, they can start to change, as each person begins to ‘stretch towards’ growth and consciousness.
I learned the language of the intentions above from my mentors, Drs. Gay and Katie Hendricks many years ago. Their use of the word ‘willing’ takes into account our own imperfection. All of us will take two steps forward on the spiritual or healing path, and one step back. Again, an intention is a hope, not a law or a commandment.
Current Brain Research
Research in neurobiology verifies some of these empirical findings.
- Humans have an extraordinary capacity to read the intentions of others. This process is complex, and engages many different functions of the brain.
- When we read the intentions of others as benign, we feel ’emotional resonance.’ A cascading set of chemicals is released in the brain.
- This emotional resonance leads to feelings of safety and connection.
- When we feel connected, we have access to deeper experiences of empathy, and intimacy. Studies show “people who feel emotionally secure, who feel that there is someone to whom they can turn, are more sensitive to the suffering of others.” (Begley, p. 185)
- Basic attachment theory suggests that a child’s ability to explore the world is built on feelings of safety. The same is probably true for adults wanting to explore the inner world of themselves and their partner.
Couples’ Exercise with Intentions
- Couples find quiet place to be together.
- The couple decides on which intention to work on.
- One person reads the intention out loud a few times and then sits quietly, mindfully noticing any feelings, images, or memories that arise.
- He/she reports what is arising to the partner.
- Partners switch and the second one does the exercise.
- Partners share freely afterwards.
The beauty of working with intentions in this way is that the partner just listens. All the material for conversation arises from inside the heart mind of the one doing the exercise. (Neither one can say, “You made me feel it.” ) So the conversation can be more full of curiosity and empathy, rather than charged with blaming and defense.
The Mindful Brain – Dan Siegal
Buddha’s Brain – Rick Hanson
Conscious Loving – Gay and Katie Hendricks,
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain – Sharon Begley.