Paul Sunderland Recovery and the Couple Relationship - Part 2

This is part 2 in a video where Paul Sunderland talks about how recovery effects relationships. This talk is a must watch for anyone who has ever been in a relationship with an addict. It provides helpful advice and incite as well as explaining the dynamics of relationships and addiction.

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Paul Sunderland Recovery and the Couple Relationship - Part 1

Paul Sunderland Recovery and the Couple Relationship - Part 3


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You end up with a few people who actually could not find anybody at all that they really felt okay with. He put them into a group. He then asked them to talk to each other about their stories: where they have come from, who they were. Now what was fascinating is that in each of these groups that people had very similar childhood stories.

Now you would know that most people who want to do family therapy … Actually if you want to be a therapist you have probably got a bit of stuff to. You have probably been somewhere in life haven’t you? Otherwise, if you had any sense you would open a flower shop, wouldn’t you really? So everybody is a wounded healer. But these people were wounded in similar ways. So we know that all that happens before anybody even opens their mouths. There is a whole lot of stuff going on, a whole lot of stuff there.

What we also know is that actually… I want to talk to you about in this sense three stages of the couple relationship. I want to talk to you about a state that we would call ideal. I want to talk to you about the state that would recall ordeal. That is what follows the ideal. Does anyone know what the third one might be? Well interestingly it is real deal. Actually this is from Harville Hendrix if you know who is behind Imago therapy. He talked about ideal, ordeal and real deal.

My wife told me about no deal. We're still married, you understand this? This was in the course of an academic [Synthicha]. So, I want to try to hold that in mind. But also want to talk to you about some of things that go on, some of the very chemical things in the brain when we are in… Because the ideal phase is a phase that can last from 18 months until three years.

Actually, it is quite a drug like phase. Helen Fisher, again, in the States put people who had fallen in love in a functional MRI brain scanner to sort of see what was going on. Actually she also put people who she described as ‘just been dumped’. Which seems a bit cruel doesn’t it really? “Get into the scanner we are going to have a look at your brain.”

Interestingly she found that the same bit of the brain lights up for both which is quite interesting for those who had just been rejected. It is a part of the brain. It's called the VTA- the ventral frontal area. It's really deep down in the mid-brain. If you think of the brain like this. The brain-stem, frontal cortex, the limbic system somewhere where my glasses are. It's right down in the middle. It is below the cognition and below emotion. It is the part of the brain that is associated with cravings and drug addiction. It is the same bit that lights up. Particularly for cocaine and stimulant addiction. Okay, so already I think you start to get an idea why it might be a bit complicated when you fall in love especially if you're in recovery. Because you have sort of been there before.

That is really interesting. The chemicals, PEAs that are on the end of the nerve endings, they really help all of these electrical impulses to jump across the synapses. You know that is what is responsible for that sort of high feeling. The feeling during this ideal phase. The feeling of falling in love when we are focused, we've got energy, everything is okay. Forget about the chores, this is what I want. It really focuses us on one person.

It is the same focus that has people, tolerating all sorts of crazy things. They say “Oh I love the way he farts and burps. I love the way she bites here toe-nails.” It is the sort of stuff that is so bizarre. The sort of stuff that in an active addiction has missing the fact that actually he might be a sex addict or she's got financial addictions or any of that sort of stuff. This will happen to people in recovery too.

So we already something very powerful that goes on chemically there. And I am just going to have to have a quick look, sorry about this. There’s an interesting guy in the States called Prof. John Gottman. I do not know if you know about him. He studies from the University of Washington. He studied couples as well. They set up a sort of big brother type of house, attached to the med school at Washington. They have studied couples for over 30 years.

Time: 5:00

He has them in for sort of a couple of days. They are wired up to some machines. They are checking for physiological things that are going on. Those cameras going on. They are testing urine for stress hormones. They are observing all of these couples. He thinks, and there is good clinical data about it, that he can predict whether or not a couple is going to stay together. What he claims is 95% accuracy. It is based entirely on the way couples communicate. He's saying that the couples that don't stay together, what they tend to have is very high levels of four things that he calls the four Horsemen.

One is criticism. You know the statements that are not “I feel…” statements. The statements that "Ah you are always late, you are not interested in me at all". "This is typical!” The criticism.
The other Horsemen is defensiveness. Which is often a response to the criticism. But an inability to say "oh yeah I F*it up this time. I am sorry about that."
The third, and actually the biggest predictor is contempt, which is really the name-calling. The “Actually, I am above you”. It is the contempt. Which interestingly is also a predictor for the person who has actually received the contempt. Actually it is quite a marker for illness for the next four years when people do separate. Because it is an enormous attack on the system when you been treated contemptuously.

The fourth thing that he talks about is what he calls stonewalling. Which is pretty much when the listener turns away and does not want to take any notice. That is interesting one. Because for a lot of people stonewalling actually is also a defense that when people are being talked to actually it can just overwhelm them. They go into a speechless state then turn away. That of course can really be quite aggravating.

So these four things. The four Horsemen as he calls it. It is criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. All of this stuff is really fascinating. This is before we start talking about mom and dad. Interestingly he also talks about the, he has this sort of phrase that I don’t really like, he talks about “masters and disasters, the disasters being the people who do not stay together. And the masters. Then he also talks about the people who do stay together. What he's saying is that what we observe is that they are quite gentle with one another. They can take responsibility. They can say sorry. They can say “I have mucked it up". It is much more sort of a gentle thing. I think that is very fascinating.

Now one of the things about...let's keep thinking about these stages. The ideal, the ordeal, the no deal or the real deal. That during the ideal phase when all these drugs when the VTA is really active, there is also a real sense of merging. It is the time where actually we just want to do everything together. This is time when people in recovery just stop…don't go to so many meetings. They do not pick up the phone. It is the time “we just want to be together”. We find “oh gosh we are wearing the same jumpers.” It's all of that. It is a time of merging which is chemically driven.

Now there's a problem here because for many people in recovery they come actually from situations of sub optimal parenting. Actually for a lot of them that feeling of merging wasn't there. If you think about love addiction, love addiction is the hunger for attachment, isn’t it? That has people acting against their best interests. So actually that feeling of merging not only does it make you feel like "hey were taking drugs again". It is also like “Wow, I'm getting what I have always wanted. This is what I needed”. To be held in mind. To be unconditionally loved. To have whatever I do. The fact that I wear the same T-shirt for a week and it really stinks. She just loves that. I can be loved unconditionally. Which of course is rubbish in the adult relationships. I can be love unconditionally.

So, we've got the merging going on. I guess the other thing that's important and one of my favorite couple therapists is a lady called Esther Perel. She wrote a great book. You may know it, it is called “Mating in Captivity”. That is such a great title. I wish I would've thought of that.

She makes a really important point. Because what she discusses is that traditionally in couple therapy there has been this idea that if we just get the intimacy right than actually the sex will be really good. The good sex follows people being very close and emotionally intimate. But actually what she started to discover and, I completely believe she is right, that it is often not the case. Because actually in the couple relationship we have a conflict between the desire for security and the desire for adventure.

Time: 10:00

And actually what she is saying is that. I mean I know from my experiences as a couple therapist if you asked people. If I asked people “when do you find him attractive?” it is usually when they are having a big [standoff] across [back to each other]. Is quite good to take it back to something rather positive. Also in couple therapy it is a very good place to begin with “how did you meet”, just to remind these people that they fell in love before they started beating the stuff out of each other.

When do you find him attractive? When do you find her attractive? You know what they will say. They will always say…they will not say “when we are across the dinner table in the candlelight.” They will say “I went into his office actually and I saw him interacting with all of his colleagues. And I thought that yeah, I really fancied him”. He will say “I went to see her doing something, I went to her work, I saw her giving a talk do not often see that.”

Yes that's when I really fancied him. The attractiveness and the erotic exists in the space between two. So already we had this sort of conflict between the merging. Which might give us security and all of that and intimacy but actually very often can kill some of this sexuality and attractiveness.

That requires separateness. In order to be able to do that you have to actually be separate. This is where separate becomes a key word. Because what I want to say to you is that for the couple relationship and particularly for the couple relationship in recovery in order to be one you need to be two. This is a really difficult concept. I will go on to say a bit about why that is the case.

In the couple relationship also of course requires quite a bit of work around boundaries which is also a real difficulty, isn’t it, for people in recovery. You know that when two people form a couple they deal with boundaries. What is 'okay' and what is not 'okay'. Not the case at the beginning when they are wearing the same jumpers but after a while once you start getting into the ordeal. It is like “do we stay in or do we go out?”, “How tidy do we keep this place?”, “Is it okay if I put my cup in the sink rather than straight to the dishwasher?” Which is one of the things you hear you hear mostly by the way of the time in couple therapy as a complaint.

How do we spend our money? Do I always have to go to your family's house for Christmas or Easter? Do I have to go with you? Is it okay if I still see my ex-girlfriend? Is it okay for you to still see an ex-girlfriend? How do we know this? It is all about boundaries. Of zones. What is private and what is not private? Zones of togetherness, zones of privacy. So there is an awful lot of stuff for people who have difficulty being separate. But this is the problem. Because for many people and again people brought op in these sub optimal so-called dysfunctional families. Actually difference is quite life-threatening. Difference is abandoning. For some people particularly harmed, so for a lot of the love addicts, often never really get out of ideal. Their systems, their brains are forever being washed with these PEA chemicals in an ideal state, but with a different person each time.

Actually the feelings of negotiating differences are so complicated. If she wants to stay in one evening and wash her hair, “she does not want to be with me anymore. I'm being rejected.” If he wants to go out with his mates, "what's wrong with me, I think this is the end, I am pretty sure this is the end of the relationship". For a lot of those people these powerful early experiences become real. That is because everything that we do and feel is a neural experience. It is all a neural pathway. It is all about chemicals up here. People just stay in the cycle of ideal, just sort of washed in the next…

In therapy, in treating the love addict. Those things are quite fascinating. Because you have actually only got a small window of time between one relationship ending and the beginning of the other. That is when they will come in because the danger is there actually might be another person and "I think I am okay now don’t think I really need…” Actually, a lot of love addicts come to therapy. What do they come? To try to work out what they need to do.

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