From the Science of Psychotherapy, January 2021
By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
Most people will probably agree that 2020 has been an exceedingly difficult year: the world moving away from liberal democracy; a global pandemic that may continue well into 2022; global economic markets in crisis; nation-state superpowers waxing and waning; increasing threat of global warming; fear of cyberwars coming to fruition; the rise of what is now being called Big Social Data and social-media manipulation of the “truth”; the perfecting of deepfake technology; and the extinction of humankind through self-learning A.I. Yeah, what a year.
One could also argue that this is an extraordinary time to be alive. The challenges we face are like none other. Human beings have always predicted the end of the world as we know it. Yet each time over the millennia we seem to make it — either through human ingenuity, human resilience, or just dumb luck. I personally hope it’s the former.
Our field is also going through massive changes as of late — a lot of it due to the restrictions caused by COVID-19. The popularization of telehealth, in its growing forms, has changed the way many of us are treating our patients. So too are the demands on our new reliance on Zoom conferences, trainings, and even retreats.
The pandemic has changed us. The way we work and how we interact with each other will likely have long lasting effects but not all for the wrong reason.
Pandemic as Therapeutic Opportunity
I have found the existential threat of COVID to be a watershed moment for couple therapists to help drive home the point I’ve been trying to make: there’s always been danger in the world, there’s always been an impending pandemic, disaster, or some other unpredictable, unkind, unfortunate act of nature. Therefore, primary attachment partners should consider what is and isn’t important and make sure the war is never in their foxhole.
Partners should adjust their orientation to two-person culture of we and away from a one-person culture of me, mine, I — that we are dependent animals who form dyads of interde
pendency and therefore must remain fair, just, sensitive, collaborative, and cooperative in order to survive and thrive. One-person systems (in secure) can never last or be happy because they are too unfair, too unjust, and too insensitive
too much of the time. These insecure-function ing relationships accrue too much unfairness, resentment, and threat. Therefore, they cannot last due to a predictable erosion of safety, security, and satisfaction. Only secure-functioning systems can last, and that’s much easier said than done. Why?
Because the nature-state of the human primate is, at its default, aggressive, self-centered, selfish, impulsive, fickle, moody, exploitive, opportunistic, overly influenceable by group-think, easily disappointed, and xenophobic (racist). We are by nature energy-conserving, automatic, memory-driven, unenlightened, and happy with the status quo. Only an enriched environment and our drive toward complexity, along with our personal suffering, lead us to become something greater than our default. Even then, we’re pretty sketchy when it comes to embracing character and guiding principles to rein in our primitive nature.
Secure functioning means that two adult individuals come together as full-functioning autonomous agents, sharing power and authority to create an interdependent relationship, fully conditional, based on shared purpose, shared vision, and shared principles that govern one another. In other words, a co-constructed, shared mythology as to what the relationship means, what it stands for, and who and what it serves.
Couple therapy cannot be successful without both partners knowing their shared purpose, shared vision, and shared principles of governance. Those principles contain the couple’s definition of the right things to do when the right things are most difficult. Without shared principles and agreements, partners cannot govern, can not enforce, and cannot manage their differences without creating unbridled threat to each other’s ongoing felt sense of safety and security.
I can’t speak for those in other countries, but here in the U.S., adjusting to COVID must be contextualized along with our current socio-political climate. There is a tremendous sense of outrage among the masses in the U.S. How is this outrage affecting our clients and ourselves as clinicians?
Outrage as Addictive
The science of outrage has become a recent obsession of mine. Turns out that out rage serves a societal and personal function. In society, outrage can mobilize people to make change through activism (Davidson, Padula, Daly, & Jackson, 2020). Substantial outrage exists in our country at present on several fronts in the political culture wars.
My personal outrage is aimed at our present administration, our Republican Senate, right wing media, anti-maskers, COVID deniers, and conspiracy nutjobs. I realize the judginess in that statement, but there it is, at least for me. Social media and current politics leverage out rage to stir interest and provoke engagement. That’s very good for ad-buyers, marketeers, and politicians looking to whip up trouble (Pur year, 2020; Stein, Schroeder, Hobson, Gino, & Norton, 2020). It’s very bad for personal health and wellbeing, not to mention our lust for punishment.
The wish to punish others is part of our most primitive human default mode. Punishment, an outcome of outrage, rewards us with dopamine of the groovy D1 kind (Wiegman, 2020). The only limit to our lustful urge to punish others is the fear of being found out and excoriated by our peers. Without that risk, the impulse to punish those who we believe to be outrageous in their beliefs, actions, or reactions remains unrestrained and deliciously addictive. Just check your Twitter feed for evidence.
My outrage and wish to punish could easily be sprayed out to my wayward, unrepentant, and badly behaved clients. My countertransference in taking umbrage to my client acting out, resistance to “getting it,” and attempts to get away with unfairness and insensitivity is, well, outrageous in itself. It can lead me to forget that I am a therapist. This is what people do. It is human nature to be selfish, unfair, deceptive, entitled, and stubborn. That’s the whole idea I preach – people are annoying, disappointing, and general pains in the ass. That’s all of us. We have to be better than that to survive and thrive together. Better is harder, and nobody wants harder.
During this difficult time, which is likely to continue for an indefinite period, it behooves us who work in the mental health field to become educated not just in psychiatry, medicine, and psychology but in the human condition – our biological anthropological heritage – which is not exactly based in relational ethics or moral interpersonal responsibility. This must be taught either in childhood, in the school system or, failing that, in the therapeutic milieu.
Science in general and psychology specifically tend to stay out of the morality business. But now is a good time, it seems, for us to view social justice and relational ethics as beginning at home – between partners in a couple. In my view, the couple is a mini-civilization or society. Principles of fairness, justice, and sensitivity in tandem with collaboration and cooperation begin and end with individuals, partners in a couple, and the parental leaders of the family.
Principles of governance are not simply rules or laws. They are personally held beliefs as to what is right. They are personal guides for doing the right thing when the right thing is the hardest thing to do (Sapolsky, 2017). If we as clinicians can hold a therapeutic narrative of secure function, a system that demands relational ethics, and expect it from our clients, perhaps we can begin to help our clients grow up, be better, and believe in something more than just the Self.
Davidson, P. M., Padula, W. V., Daly, J., & Jackson, D. (2020). Moral outrage in COVID19-Understandable but not a strategy. Journal of clinical nursing, 29(19-20), 3600–
3602. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.15318 Puryear, C. (2020). The Threat of Virality: Digital Outrage Combats the Spread of Opposing Ideas. University of South Florida,
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin.
Stein, D. H., Schroeder, J., Hobson, N., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2020). When Alterations are Violations: Moral Outrage and Punishment in Response to (Even Minor) Alterations to Rituals. doi: 10.31234/osf.io/yd7tg.
Wiegman, I. (2020). The Reactive Roots of Retribution: Normative Implications of the Neuroscience of Punishment. In Holtzman S. & Hildt, E. Eds, Does Neuroscience Have Normative Implications? (pp. 111-136). Springer.