When the One You Love Becomes Strange to You

Couples seek therapy when they are unable to access their own and their partners mind to investigate problems in their relationship. As said previously, they find themselves in a situation where their partner’s behavior is unintelligible and they feel he or she cannot understand them.

When other people behaves in ways that seems disconnected with and incomprehensible in relation to the social context, we generally experience them as being unpredictable and hence potentially threatening. Developmentally, mentalizing is the ability to decode and use social communication about the inner life of other beings – their intentions, needs, feelings, motives, thinking. When we learn to do that, we re-establish the sense of the other person as understandable and thus as predictable – hence distress is diminished. That enables us to act meaningfully in the social world we inhabit.

Mentalizing couples

In couple therapy it is striking how often and fundamentally this incomprehensibility of the partner disintegrates the sense of couple identity, and basicly the possibility of acting, thinking and feeling together. Being with your intimate partner and experiencing how he or she becomes oblivious to your mind – or the other way round with whom you completely loose touch – renders your partner unpredictable as a social actor. That activates terror, anger and a sense of abandonment.

In MBT couple therapy we are most centrally trying to handle and ameliorate the terror of ‘the person I love and depend on is strange to me’-experience, the variations of which Virginia Gouldner beautifully lays out:

When the one you love keeps hurting you, when the one who hurts you doesn’t try to make it better, when the one you need abandons og frightens you, when the one you know becomes impenetrable or unknown to you, when the one who knows you no longer recognizes you – these are the ubiquitous traumas of love lost (page 156)

When this experience of the partner as psychologically impenetrable precludes genuine trust and curiosity in the mental states behind behavior, a hyper-vigilant state dominates minds and words and touch. A state of reservation and scepticism, a mistrust towards using their partner’s words and perspective on the relationship and the social world they inhabit together pervades their communication on all levels. It is a mistrust towards new information about both their minds and especially towards the kind of perspective on their own behaviour that an outside view can bring.


That mistrust is in one word the emotional oversensitivity pointed to by Asen and Midgley:

Epistemic hypervigilance manifests as oversensitivity to difficult social interactions. When family members find it difficult to interpret the reasons for the actions of others, they may not be able to set aside og put out of their mind potentially upsetting memories of experiences within the family, leaving them even more vulnerable to experiencing emotional storms. (page 137)

Just like experiencing your beloved as strange and incomprehensible closes off the mind, so does the experience of not being understood congruently with your own sense of yourself. Hence epistemic mistrust is turned up even further, and that is desperately painful since couple relationships are attachment relations. When each partner seeks the proximity of the other in the face of percieved danger, they meet non-contingent mirroring in the fright or fight of their partner, with the option of either remaining alone, or of identifying with the distorted image of themselves held in the non-mentalizing mind of the other.

This pattern of relating is as Virginia Gouldner shows structurally one of disorganized attachment, since the attachment figure is also the source of terror.

Stopping non-mentalizing

As I will come back to in a later post, MBT Couple Therapy revolves around noticing, stopping, handling and reflecting upon pre- and non-mentalizing operational modes of the mind – teleological, psychic equivalent and pretend mode – that the couple operates from, trying to deal psychologically with this disorganizing situation. It is at the heart of the approach to be »transforming nonmentalizing cycles into mentalizing conversations, particularly at the points of stress and vulnerabilitiy in which their ability to trust is most compromised.« (Bleiberg og Seifer 2019: 155)

The MBT-model for couple therapy that we are proposing is then at it’s simplest based on the three assumptions presented by Fearon and colleagues (2006):

1) That difficulties in couple relationships resulting in non-mentalizing interactional cycles come from limitations in mentalizing capacities when the couple is dealing with problems and challenges in life.

2) That emotional arousal hinders mentalizing.

3) That the couple context being one of attachment and dependence, leads to interactions that are unsupportive and unsatisfying for the couple.

What we hope to do is to make the relational world click back into that place of trust and support, again, and again, and again if non-mentalizing occurs:

If only my partner softened, welcomed me back into the familiarity of our relational space, my world would click into space in a nanosecond. (Virginia Gouldner p. 156)