What do Timothy Leary and Couples Therapy Have in Common?
Remember the old saying “Turn on, tune in and drop out” by the Harvard Psychology Professor and counterculture figure Timothy Leary? It may have been a prescription for hippies in the 60’s, but there’s a deeper message behind it and one that’s actually applicable to mending relationships.
Hear me out on this. With the recent resurgence in psychedelic therapy, perhaps it’s prudent to revisit the underlying meaning for the movement derived from one of the original psychonauts. Here is Mr. Leary’s explanation of the famous phrase:
“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant to interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.”
Now hold that thought, and we’ll come back to it later.
As a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with couples, too often I see partners come in with resentment that they’ve held on to for a very long time. Resentment can occur when our partner starts to lose interest in “us.” When that happens, the resulting feelings may be rejection or anger at the one we love. As time passes and not much changes, the feelings of fear and loneliness may start to creep in.
Another reason you may feel resentment towards your partner is because they have done something intentionally or unintentionally in the past and no matter how many times you explain why you are upset, they just don’t seem to get it. Until you feel like they really understand how you feel, you just can’t let it go. After all, there is a certain injustice to a crime in which the culprit lacks any kind of remorse. And yet at its worst, resentment can be compounded when we replay the record of that past event in our mind and we destructively dance to the same feeling it evokes in us to stir it all up again. Perhaps initiating a repair is one of the most difficult things we do because, in a way, we have to lower ourselves.
So then humility is the answer? Well, sacrifice in marriage and selfless actions have been able to predict marital satisfaction over a long period of time. Even if being the first one to give in and break the silence isn’t easy, studies show that when you lead with humility, your partner feels less vulnerable and more themselves. Resentment, like many other challenges in relationships, can be overcome with authenticity. That means knowing where you come from, what you want and why you want it. By learning more about yourself and how you function, you may begin the journey back to your partner.
My guess is you’ve heard the saying “Marriage takes work”. I’d like to add to that and say that love is a skill that we all need to learn. Those skills we use to learn about ourselves, inevitably bring us closer to our partner. And this is where 60’s counterculture comes in. Let’s use the elements of the before mentioned famous phrase and apply it to resentment to examine the skills.
So much of relationship discord comes down to stress management. How we regulate our arousal when our partner pulls away or comes too close is where the rubber meets the road. That means knowing your window of tolerance or the area where you are able to regulate your emotions in order to have a productive conversation. When we become more aware of our nervous system by recognizing what triggers us, we can catch ourselves before the brain goes into a fight, flight or freeze response. Many of those triggers originated in the home we grew up in. Quite often we replay the dynamics from our childhood in our current romantic relationships. But fortunately, good couples therapy incorporates neurobiology to help partners not only self-regulate but also recognize the first signs of stress in their partner in order to co-regulate together.
In a relationship, each person needs to become a specialist in knowing their partner. Imagine emotional attunement in one direction and identifying and disclosing thoughts and emotions in the other. More specifically, continual verbalization of our emotional experience coupled with our unique perspectives and beliefs allows us to view into the window of who we are, otherwise known as our inner world. The more we express our hopes, desires, expectations and concerns, the more we can appreciate the differences in each other, rather than be threatened by them. When we practice this we often find that the thoughts in our head turn out to be quite different than what’s really going on once we check them out with our partner. Opening up and being vulnerable to your partner about your fears is where authenticity can be embraced and intimacy increased. We bond with each other over the common experience of the human condition. While at the same time each person has their own subjective reality which is always changing. So the more we talk about our beliefs the more our partner can have the ability to understand our perspective. And in turn, the more empathy they’ll be able to give.
Whether it’s holding on to past transgressions or future expectations, not letting go goes directly against the law of nature. In addition, it takes us away from being in the present moment; combine those two things and you’ve got one toxic cocktail! At times it can be helpful to remember that most attachment is about control, and control after all, is just an illusion. Ultimately, love is about acceptance, including accepting that our partner will never really understand us 100% because they are not us. More importantly, love is about acceptance of our partner for who they are, just a wonderfully flawed human like the rest of us. There is a saying that “learning to live is learning to let go”. I think this goes to show not only just how difficult a task it is but also how rewarding the pursuit can be.
One of my favorite adages is that change is the only constant in life. In the context of relationships it often feels like changes can shake our sense of stability. In couples therapy many times I focus on differentiation by helping partners to embrace the differences between each other and manage any emotional responses that may come up. So when they are in the middle of an emotionally charged conflict they can still maintain their sense of self, objectivity, and reason. And better yet, they can be emotionally present and available to the one they love most. It’s choosing us vs me. Letting go of resentment is a decision that supports your team and that’s one of the core foundations of long-term marital satisfaction and trust.
Click here for a free 20 minute consultation.