Couple Experiential State Complex: Re-enactment of the Wounding

Author comment: This page was originally posted in October of 2012. I have moved it to the front page to highlight the core formulation. The teaching I keep moving towards is in the basic idea our emotional triggers – serving to activate the blur – can be understood as psyche signaling we are ready to engage in a take 2 healing round. The disconnects essential to survival at the time of the original trauma, are not meant to carry us the whole way. Can you follow the below?

Having come together in the name of love and commitment, how are we to understand the meaning of the insensitive, unkind, and/or self/other destructive actions that always occur between two passionate human beings? The Couple Experiential State Complex formulation provides a way to begin to imagine what happens when relationships bring two Experiential State Complexes together.

While our discussion will focus on important intimate relationships, emotional encounters in everyday life all point to the transference. Many a couple, dining out, have suffered through the awkwardness of how to recover the festive mood in the aftermath of one partner experiencing just cause for upset with the wait staff.

In line with John Perry’s formulation (see Emotions and Object Relations), the very presence of emotion suggests an activation of the unconscious in the moment. With this, a blurring of the boundary between the here and now and the Experiential State suggests some degree of projection and increasing potential for introjection. Powerful dynamics demand the unconscious script be acted out. Alas, when one person is activated in this way, the usual response is the other will react with a complementary emotion. Learning to differentiate feeling from emotion or affect is a first order priority.

On the differentiation of feeling from emotion, Perry, with help from Jung, observes:

“. . . feeling is of a different order from that of emotion; feeling is a function of consciousness, and – to the degree to which it is differentiated – has the quality of choice and intentionality in judgments of value.” J W Perry p.2

“. . . emotions are the activity of the unconscious, the non-ego” (Jung, 1907)

“. . . emotions are autonomous and happen to the ego without its bidding, and the ego is the recipient of the impact of the emotions” (Jung, 1939, 1943).

“. . . we think of the unconscious as being the autonomous psyche, and it can as well be called the emotional psyche.”

In terms of understanding what generates the emotion, Perry observes:

“. . . I find the occurrence of any emotion to consist of the interplay between two complexes. . . The subject experiences the affect that belongs to the complex with which the ego aligns itself, and assigns the other pole to the object. During the emotion the energetic value of the ego is lessened, and that of the complex heightened, and in this situation one should speak of an interrelation of an affect-ego and an affect-object.”

Rowe Mortimer (1996 seminar) has observed from a self-psychology perspective the self and others are not just representations and memories. The internalized mother and father “others” are comprised of something of the actual energies of the mother and the father, as experienced and taken in over time. They organize on themes and become active, dynamic, willing agents, operating like sub-personalities. When activated by stress or triggers, a power struggle may ensue, with the mother, father, and potentially other significant internalized others challenging the ego for control of the driver’s seat.

If the ego succeeds in staying conscious enough to contain the activation, the blur is revealed, and something important can happen to advance our understanding of the deeper wound. If the ego is unable to withstand the emotional activation, then the activating “other” will either hijack/possess the ego, or be projected on to the environment; onto both willing and not so willing participants. If the “other” overpowers ego consciousness, the child state corresponding to the experiential state gets projected. Either can be the experiencing one and either can be projected. If in the moment I sound peculiarly like my angry father, it is likely I have simultaneously projected my child state onto you. If so, your reactions to my tone may be doubly painful, reflecting the possibility you have unwittingly introjected or embodied my split off wounded child state.

The Representation of Persona Submitting to Emotion plate pictures the shift from consciousness to activation of the complex and potential for splitting and projection of one or both poles onto the environment. In this moment, one’s ego functioning may be completely absent, reflecting a kind of highly contagious possession state.

With practice one can sense this pending deterioration of consciousness where in one or both are under the influence, affect-ego and affect-object, and seeing self/other through the blur of the complex. The greater the emotional charge and the more effective the repression of the trauma complex, the more difficult it is to stay conscious in the face of very powerful triggers.

Activating complexes often present in the form of an issue that seems to require we take a stand or take sides for or against something. The difficulty in staying conscious in the middle of such pressure usually reflects a deterioration in one’s capacity to relate to the complexity of the situation, in the direction of more concrete, black and white thinking. This suggests the activation of splitting defenses. Rather than getting pushed into a corner, or alternately demanding the other accept our rightness versus their wrongness, we want to aspire to “Not either/or, but both and more.”

It is reasonable to offer a willingness to help make the both and more case, as this requires consideration of the opposing reality on the way to opening up to the “more.” It takes practice to hold to one’s center and stay calm and conscious in the presence of intense emotion. Am I really guilty as charged? Are you truly just trying to help me in attacking me so? Did I really hurt your feelings terribly without even realizing it? (Edinger on Calcinatio and Invulnerability to Fire).

When can we trust our perception of what is real in the moment? Perry suggests (in the early object relations language):

“Objects, as they actually are, emerge only with the growth of consciousness and the differentiation of the ego, freeing it from the tangle of alignments with the various complexes that move across the affective stage.” (J W Perry p.43) I find this to be a very powerful word picture.

I have conceptualized and represented this “tangle of alignments with the various complexes that move across the affective stage” as an actual line inhabited by a number of distinctly different Experiential State symbols, as representations of the “various complexes.”

The designation of the line as the “affective stage” serves as a reminder that we are challenged to work at the level of emotion, without becoming completely possessed by or identified with the emotion itself.

I have suggested multiple versus single Experiential State symbols in recognition of the helpfulness early on in identifying the roots of the primary relationships with mother, father, siblings, and others. Taken all together, averaged and generalized over time, these point to the composite picture portrayed in the concept of the single state image.

The center figure above designated as the Couple Complex represents the combining of individual Experiential State figures into one composite complex.

When activated, both partners will feel pulled to react to either’s self/other positions. Quite often, in any encounter, some switching from adult to child to adult and back again will occur. The activation unconsciously strives to generate a script which, if submitted to, leads to both participants experiencing directly the painful, usually repressed feelings of childhood, associated with the inability to be truly seen, valued, protected, and loved.

The way this can just show up and make trouble is remarkable. A line from William Stafford’s poem Ritual to Read to Each Other paints this picture: “For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break, sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.” When activated, complexes threaten to overwhelm the most carefully constructed dikes.

The colors employed above suggest the possibility we share specific overlapping elements at the core wound level. My family colors recognize your family colors. At this point, the actual colors are not meaningful to me beyond helping to make the point that an emotional tone or color shading will be present in our unconscious recognition/selection of the other.

Perry suggests we must develop the ego’s capacity to discriminate and differentiate between inner and outer, past and present.

Until we are able to do so, feeling toned complexes are like “tractor beams” in the Star Wars saga, pulling us into emotional encounters somehow sensed to be fated. If we are to have any chance of healing, we want to understand why we must go there.

This is the “participation mystique” aspect. However we try to consciously manage our individual and relationship needs, at another level, a deeply unconscious level, we are engaged in pursuing the healing of splits in the service of recovering our wholeness. (Sandner and Beebe Psychopathology and Analysis)

When we find ourselves beyond the honeymoon and inexplicably drawn into suffering in ways we didn’t know we could, before bailing, we should consider what Perry describes as the functional intent pressing for consciousness through repeated reenactments of the wounding:

“… Complexes, in their favorable aspect = components of development. The repetition compulsion, as has been pointed out so often, provides the ego the occasion again and again to encounter these rejected components of development in order finally to assimilate them in some happy moments.”

This formulation supports the notion that we will persevere in our problem behaviors until we find someone who’s nature and strengths, in concert with ours, will allow the two of us, together, to bring to the wound that which up until now has been missing.

This perspective suggests we direct our efforts to recognizing emotion in the moment and developing the capacity to hold on impulses to actions supporting the repetition compulsion, or what I call the unconscious reenactment of the wounding with the beloved. We then have the choice to practice sitting together in the service of remembering our stories, and offering them for witnessing, with an eye for opening our hearts and reconnecting to the painful facts of our split off childhood experiences. At this time, in this way, we have access to compassionate consciousness and deep empathy, and so find we can heal the splits and suffer the recovery of a little more wholeness.

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