Saturday, May 30, 2020

In a previous article, we outlined both conceptually and pragmatically a type of couples therapy, not commonly used in mainstream mental health circles, to maximize the quality of one’s most primary and important relationship (namely marriage). By introducing the reader to conjoint marital therapy, which we have adapted in a unique way to use two therapists of different genders meeting with a dyad (more than one person in a clinical setting), the purpose of the earlier offering was to demonstrate how this modality of treatment creates congruence, balance and more sustained positive outcomes for those seeking to optimize relational discord. In this follow-up piece, the goal is to extend the range of conjoint therapy to assist not just married couples, but those in other serious relationships: those who are dating or engaged, parents/children, siblings and families. The scope of conjoint therapy is now enlarged, making it possible for two clinicians to lend their respective clinical training and experience to a broader range of people.

We are living in a time when the primacy of relationships has become devalued and unappreciated, for many reasons to be discussed below, and when people remain at a loss as to how to deepen and maintain healthy interpersonal connections. In addition, dating back to Aristotle and echoed by one of the leading social psychologists of the age, Professor Elliot Aronson, we are by nature “social beings.” Given our inherent natures, the decline in actual in-person contact is both sad and a troubling sign. There is evidence that the increase in divorce, broken engagements and even marriages unraveling after short periods of time has rabbis, therapists, shadchanim, educators and others concerned about the welfare of human communication and connection perplexed and disturbed by these trends. In addition, sibling rivalries and family dissonance have become normative and commonplace. Before suggesting some possible practical remedies to stem the tide of this disconnect in human relations, we would like to highlight some of the reasons we as a society (both within the Orthodox community and beyond) are witnessing a breakdown in human interactions.

Some of the contributing factors for this “interpersonal breakdown” are the following: (1) our infatuation with social media, (2) the iPhone culture, (3) lack of balance between work and commitment to significant others, (4) focus on temporary rather than permanent things that make us truly human, (5) according to the late Charles Krauthammer, a brilliant commentator, our loss of focus and bearings on what really matters in life—involvement with significant others such as family, the larger community etc., (5) not valuing that life is meaningful when it is shared and taking for granted that we cannot live meaningfully in a hyper-individualistic solipsistic bubble, (6) an obsession with self has become the motif of our time, (7) the over-idealization of being task-centered, instead of being person-oriented, (8) fear of being vulnerable and becoming desensitized to caring about the suffering of others via being overly exposed to and bombarded by violent, deviant and aggressive imagery on a constant basis and (9) losing sight that chesed is one of the pillars of the world and should be extended in all our endeavors.

Now that we have painted such a dismal picture of our current cultural landscape, what can be done to offset the trajectory we are all facing and responsible for correcting?

Counter the belief, which is both ironic and paradoxical, that social media is connecting to one another in a more personal, profound and humane manner. It even keeps us distracted and does not allow for self-observation that leads to self-growth.

Challenge perceptual distortions in interpersonal relationships—via insight and awareness of the value we bring to others and they in turn bring to us. This leads to increased understanding and tolerance for self and others.

In addition, be mindful of our “blind spots,” be present in the here and now, treat others with dignity and not base our self-concept on the approval gleaned from outside sources. By doing so, we diminish our self-worth and define ourselves through the lens of others and rather than our own.

Not to be too simplistic, but realize that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” This promotes initial attachment, continued survival for socialization; decreases anxiety and depression; challenges distortions at the cognitive, emotional and experiential level; and ultimately promotes the pursuit of well-being. Overall, it aids in being more flexible and less rigid.

Recognize that nobody, not the downtrodden nor the powerful, transcends the need for human contact and companionship.

Recognize that good mental health is conditioned on healthy, satisfying and adaptive relationships. This is the nucleus of sustaining our social connectedness.

In summary, returning to the modality of conjoint therapy, participating in the interactive nature of this treatment can bring to light the misappraisals listed above and provide safety, security and support in a non-judgmental climate. In addition, the power of conjoint therapy is that it allows two clinicians to enlarge the perspectives of the systems involved in treatment, providing a more balanced and multifaceted outlook. This approach also lends itself to making fuller use of the therapists’ complementary viewpoints and leads to adaptive social learning while promoting greater openness to others’ points of view. It enhances compassion via an evolving process where those engaged better understand themselves and their significant others. This increased sensitivity for self and others is sorely missing in these self-absorbed times.

Contact Michael E. Portman, LCSW, ACT at [email protected] and Anna Ostro-Portman, LCSW at [email protected]