I can remember very clearly the start of COVID. It was March 2020 and my partner and I were on vacation in Arizona for a race through Antelope Canyon and alongside Lake Powell. When we were preparing to leave to come back home, we stayed in Las Vegas the night before our flight back to Philadelphia. All of the casinos were empty, there were hardly any cars in the streets, and most of the restaurants were closed. We actually had to scramble to find a hotel room at the last minute because our original reservations were canceled due to the hotel closing.
When I came home from that trip, I didn’t go back to the office for about a year. At first, I was skeptical of providing couples counseling online. It was out of my comfort zone, and with anything that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, we naturally discredit any potential success. It is now 2024, my practice is solely virtual, other than some trainings and workshops I do in person, and I truly believe that it is highly effective.
In order to explain my reasoning, let’s take a step back into neurobiology. Our brains are highly efficient and associative. It does a wonderful job encoding our environment and relationships into our unconscious reality. Moments of stress or upset get stored in our mind and body, entering into our unconsciousness. We know this through individuals who have suffered trauma. In the event of a traumatic experience, the brain, in its infinite wisdom, memorizes its surroundings and freezes that moment in time in our bodies. Our bodies hold the memories of our past. This is a coping mechanism to ensure our survival if or when a similar event occurs in the future, or to help us avoid situations that may lead us to a similar experience.
Let’s now take that encoding into our personal relationships and daily living space. If our living space is comfortable, peaceful, and relaxing, we will be able to feel more relaxed when we physically enter that space. If we are engaged in a loving nurturing relationship with someone, when we are physically near them, talking to them on the phone, or even texting with them, our bodies experience the physical state associated with that of love, compassion, and connection. Dopamine and serotonin are released just by thinking of our partner or comfortable living space.
Conversely, adrenaline and cortisol are released in stressful moments. If you are anything like me, I can remember places in my house where I have had an argument with a loved one. Memories can flash in my mind like images on a projector recalling the details of what was happening, who was standing where, and the level of intensity of the emotion. My brain has recorded these moments to help me learn and protect me. Just by thought alone, my brain releases the aforementioned stress hormones.
Let’s take the latter example and personalize it to you. If you and your partner repeatedly have conflict in your living room, your brain will begin to associate that living space as unsafe and stressful. You may even begin to see patterns that foster conflict, disagreement, or even contentious discussion more frequently in that particular living space. The brain has become predictable, protective, and efficient in its efforts to get your body ready for conflict in that part of the house with your partner.
To engage in traditional therapy, you would now leave that environment and go to one that is unfamiliar to both you and your partner, the therapist’s office. You would learn new ways of communicating, relating, listening, and being present with one another. Hopefully, you both learn ways to hold space for one another in kindness and compassion. You begin to find yourselves connecting again. That is a version of success and that is beautiful. However, the session inevitably ends, you leave the office setting, and you find yourself back at home.
The brain is now in an environment where it has conditioned itself to be protective. It begins to signal to the body to feel tense and be aware of threat. You have essentially gone from one environment that was fostering growth, the office, to one that has historically fostered survival, the living room. Patterns of old communication and behavior ensue, the lessons and homework from the session are not considered, failure seems more imminent, and things begin to devolve. I have seen this pattern happen quite frequently with many couples. The skills are practiced well in session, but the consistency at home doesn’t come to fruition.
Since my work has been 100% online, I have begun to consider the following questions; “What would happen if we recondition the brain from survival to growth in the environment where conflict has historically occurred? Exposure therapy, if you will, with couples communication. What if a couple experienced a moment of connection, safety, vulnerability, emotional intimacy in the same environment where conflict typically occurs?”
These questions continue to be asked, and I continue to attempt to answer them. Personally, I know what it feels like to have a corrective emotional experience with my partner while sitting on the sofa of my living room while virtually attending a weekend couples workshop. We created a safe space in our daily living environment. I honestly believe it was helpful, and that moment has been recorded in my physical memory.
After the inception of working from home in 2020, do I believe that virtual couples counseling is more effective than in the office? I can personally and professionally say that if it isn’t more effective, it can at least be equally effective, especially with the use of Imago Relationship Therapy. If you have read my prior blogs, you will know that I love neurobiology and its interplay with quantum physics, so let me explain my reasoning while viewing it through an Imago Relationship Therapy lens.
Lasting change in therapy is the result of you having effectively changed your neurobiology through altering your behavior, thought process, and internal and external environment to create and support your desired change in life. Your behaviors have changed because your belief about yourself, your relationships, and your world has changed. You have reframed and evolved the meanings of the events in your life.
Bringing it back to sustained change through couples counseling, it is important to change the brain’s experience in a stressful environment to one where connection resides. Couples counseling in the house, albeit virtual, reconditions the brain to experience your partner and your environment in a different way. Imago focuses on the couple dialoging with one another rather than the therapist. The focus is on teaching and coaching couples to support one another and not for the therapist to focus the support on a particular individual. The client is the relationship itself and the direction of the therapy is to help educate the couple to create the conditions themselves that will help the relationship grow and develop. In short, through consistent practice of changing your communication to that of compassion while living in an environment that your brain has historically conditioned itself to be as stressful, you are beginning to effectively change the neurological geography of your brain.
Virtual therapy, whether it be couples or individual counseling, reconditions the brain to experience your environment in a different way. You are able to practice a new way of being at home, which is more familiar to your brain than a therapist’s office. This new way of being transforms your environment and relationships within that environment. The changes in your home are now a mirror reflection to the changes within you, becoming a new reaffirming process. With the addition of Imago Relationship Therapy, both you and your partner are co-creating a space of love, compassion, connection, and safety, all within the environment where you spend much of your waking life together.