Sonya Thomas lcsw

Relational Heroism – Part 1

A skillful and gifted colleague, Phil Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP, recently shared an essay which includes a compilation of strategies and practices that he frequently utilizes in his work with couples, which has spanned decades.  He graciously gave permission to share these strategies with readers of this blog.  We will spend the next few posts covering the acts, strategies, aspirations, and skills that fall into the category referred to as “Relational Heroism”.  Terrence Real, in his powerful book entitled How Can I Get Through To You, has this to say about Relational Heroism: “Any occasion when a more mature part of oneself cuts into an habitual, dysfunctional reaction is an instance of recovery. It is an example of relational heroism, those moments when every muscle and nerve in your body is pulling you toward your old set of responses, and yet a new force lifts you up off the accustomed track toward deliberate, constructive action—toward repair. Just an intimacy’s degenerative course is comprised of thousands of small moments of disconnection, relational recovery is comprised of such moments of grace. They are the atoms of regeneration.”

Along with the work of Terrence Real, concepts gleaned from John Gottman, David Celani and Pema Chodron inform how to strengthen the capacities that allow for acts of relational heroism.  Let’s take a look at the first strategy; one that is ESSENTIAL for the purpose of emotional self-regulation:

     1) Develop and practice an Internal Boundary in order to not take things personally: In How Can I Get Through to YouTerry Real explains an extremely effective strategy for not taking what ones partner says or does personally. This strategy involves developing an “internal boundary,” which Real describes as a kind of “internal technology.” Real states, “Over the years, I have found that this one skill of defining boundaries, all on its own, particularly when practiced by both partners, can radically transform a relationship.”

The internal boundary is an invisible shield that one psychically constructs that protects them from anything that a partner says or does that may invoke anger or defensive reactions. With an internal boundary in place, Real proposes, “the nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed. Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed.”

Real elaborates: “The important thing to remember about practicing an internal boundary is precisely that it is a practice, similar to getting physically fit. Although it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent, most people experience an exhilarating glimpse of its effects within a few weeks.”

“The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal. If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus, ie: ‘I could be happy, if only you were less angry/more available/not so needy/cared about me more/etc.’.  When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.”

I hope you can see, right from the start, that acts that fall into the category of relational heroism can be vital when it comes to having the kind of relationship that is enviable and viable for the long term.

Until next time, peace.