The Relational Paradigm.

Three articles on the relational paradigm were published in the Imago newsletter this year by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. They are available on the Imago website. I have collated them here as I wish to refer to them in my writing on this blog and in discussion with others.

UPDATE: Wednesday, 9 March, 2016

Added a fourth article from the March Newsletter.

The Relational Paradigm By: Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD

July 2015 Newsletter

The Relational Paradigm
By: Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD

This is the first of several short articles on the relational paradigm that we will write for the newsletter. Our intention is to devote each article to a specific aspect of the relational paradigm in the hope of furthering the conversation about the paradigmatic nature of Imago as an expression of the relational paradigm, shifting the focus of thinking and therapy from the paradigm of the individual.

So that we can all be on the same page, we begin by defining the terms of the discourse, “paradigm” and “relational.” Since our interest includes a paradigmatic shift from the individual to relationship, we also draw attention to the concept of “paradigm shifts” and to the fact that such shifts come slowly, often with great controversy and occasionally with dire consequences for the proponent.

The credit for bringing the term “paradigm” into the cultural conversation goes to Thomas Kuhn. In his famous book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” he defines a paradigm as an entire “world view” and all the implications which come with it. Examples of a paradigm in the hard sciences include the Ptolemaic theory that the earth is the center of the universe, the 19th century theory that miasma (poison air) causes disease, and Newton’s theory that gravity is a function of magnetic forces. The helio-centric proposal by Copernicus, the germ theory of disease, and the relativity theory of gravity are paradigm shifts that comprise contemporary conversation in science.

While Kuhn restricted his use of “paradigm” to the hard sciences, like physics and chemistry, the concept can be useful in discussing fundamental shifts of world view in other, softer disciplines such as theology (the Protestant unmediated access to God versus the mediated access of Roman Catholicism), philosophy (modernism posits an absolute that is knowable versus post-modernism’s view that all views of reality are mediated culturally and historically and are, therefore, relative to context and the absolute is unknowable) and in psychology the shift from behaviorism to the cognitive revolution, and in therapy the shift from the medical, pathological model of diagnosis and treatment to amplifying “thriving” modalities in positive psychology.
From these examples, a “paradigm” is a lens that refracts aspects of nature that are assumed to be enduring and universal. During its reign, it functions as a description of “reality,” of BEING, of that which “IS,” and the foundation of all other things that “are.” Its ontological status gives it power and accrues loyalty. However, the fact that it is a lens and not pure perception of reality is not apparent to the lens wearer, and thus, it experientially refracts nature, as it is. Thus, when a model achieves the status of fact, in some periods of history, and not too long ago, it evokes ostracism and the death penalty, and more recently everything from ridicule and exclusion to professional suicide.

The fact that a paradigm is replaced when it cannot accommodate new observations and data means that a paradigm can more accurately, from our view, be called a working model of reality, not an accurate picture. So while paradigms are important and the source of tectonic shifts, their status is a working model, the lens through which we look at the world. Thus, when awareness of the paradigmatic filter occurs, the paradigm shifts but it is not discarded. It is included and transcended in a new paradigm. New observations, data and ideas, outside the box, initially create chaos and then force a reorganization of perspective that can lead to a transformation of theory, research and practice as well as major restructuring of social and political institutions. The shifts are not easy and they do not occur quickly, but when a new paradigm gets traction, it changes the lens through which we look at everything and everyone.

From our perspective, not only psychology, but western civilization itself is currently in the maelstrom of a massive paradigm shift from a culture based on the ontological status of the “individual” to a culture in which “relationship” is foundational. Our view that Imago is an instance of the relational paradigm places it in the context of this broader, cultural transformational process.
To clarify what the shift to a relational paradigm is from, we need to discuss what we mean by the “individual.” In our next article, we will outline the historical context in which the construct of the individual arose and show how it transformed society and culture. We will outline its impact on the development of psychotherapy and couples theory and therapy, how it influences every therapist-client interaction and its consequences and limitations. In the third article, we will define what we mean by “relationship” and the implications of that for theory and practice.

September 2015 Newsletter

Part 2: What Do We Mean by the “Individual?”
By: Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt

There is an old saying that “the map is not the territory.” A paradigm, like a map, is a model of reality, but not reality itself. Reality eludes us. No matter how comprehensive the model, it cannot contain reality. But we can and do create models that help us operate in time and space, but when experience and data appear that cannot be accounted for by the existing paradigm, a new paradigm evolves that includes and transcends the old one. That, in essence, is what we mean by a paradigm shift.

In this article we posit a shift from the paradigm of the individual to the paradigm of relationship. To be clear what we mean by this paradigm shift, we need to clarify what we mean by the “individual.” To do that, we trace the origins of the construct of the “individual” and outline a bit of its history.

To grasp the enormity of the importance of this conversation, let’s take a brief look at the ten thousand years that preceded the appearance of the individual paradigm. About ten thousand years human beings experienced a tectonic shift from the lateral social structure of the hunter-gatherer societies to the vertical structure of agrarian societies. According to cultural anthropologists, when early humans roamed their territories in small groups to find food and shelter, there was minimal structure, leadership, authority, and possessions. With the discovery and development of agriculture and animal husbandry, these small groups settled down into compounds that evolved into villages, cities, nation states and empires. Although these social units became more complex, they were modeled after the family at the head of which was a male leader whose role, over time, shifted from protector to owner of persons and goods as “property,” giving birth to the patriarchy. All larger social units, from villages to empires, followed this model.

With the shift from a lateral to a vertical organization of society, the status of all persons everywhere, and all their possessions, changed from self ownership to ownership by the monarch who headed a political or religious hierarchy. Everyone was a “subject” of and subject to the control of this higher authority. No one belonged to themselves. Nor did they own anything. Everyone and everything was the property of the patriarch. There were no individuals. Freedom and equality were non-existent. With the monarch as the primary cultural value, loyalty was one’s highest virtue and obedience the only appropriate behavior.

That all came to an end, beginning in the 16th century, or about 250 years ago, with the appearance of the concept of the “individual” as a free, independent, autonomous and self-sufficient being. The radical statement by Martin Luther that the “individual” had the freedom and ability to experience God without the mediation of the Church gave rise to Protestantism and the “religious” individual. The democratic revolutions that followed in France and America birthed the “political” individual who was equal under the law with individual rights to freedom, justice and happiness.

Enlightenment philosophy, and especially the philosophy of Rene Descartes, championing reason as a way of knowing that competes with faith, gave birth to the “rational” individual. The consequences of Newton’s posit that every molecule is an independent object and all its actions random was the foundation for the development of the concept of the “isolated and autonomous” individual that migrated into psychology. Darwin’s theory of evolution posited an “adaptive” individual with competitive survival instincts, and the rise capitalism, that freed the individual from serfdom to become the master of his own economic welfare, created the “economic” individual. With the appearance of Romanticism in the 19th century, which added emotion to the definition of what it means to be human, we see the emergence of the “emotional” individual.

When Freud began his reflections on the meanings of psychosomatic symptoms, he used all these historical developments as the raw material for his construction of the psychological “individual” to whom he assigned an interior world, thus giving birth to subjectivity.

In Freud’s map of the interior world, we find a tripartite interior structure: an ego that regulates the tension between the instinctual drives of the id and the constraints of the super-ego. The traits of this primarily biological organism included freedom, autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency that evolved through intrinsic developmental stages without much impact from the natural or social environments. Any constraints to its development towards maturity come from within. These constraints by the super-ego are activated when the imagination conceives of instinctual gratifications that violate the ascetic demands of the super-ego as it mediates the laws of the social world. When the activation of these constraints is excessive, instinctual energy is repressed and converted into somatic symptoms.

Freud’s search for clues to the source of these symptoms and his experiments with their alleviation makes him the founder and developer of the theory and practice of psychotherapy, making psychodynamics the basis of all psychotherapies for the first four decades of the twentieth century and giving foundational reality to the concept of “individual” as an independent reality. Although many other theories, like ego psychology, behaviorism, cultural anthropology and social psychology, client centered, and Gestalt have added to and subtracted from the psychodynamic model of the self, the subjectivity of the self as the location of reality, and therapy as the reorganization of that interior world, has dominated the psychological and psychotherapeutic world. While some erosion to the paradigm of the individual appeared in the middle and last quarter of the 20th century with the appearance of the concepts of the relational self or the self in relation, the assignment of paradigm power and value to “relationship” is just now emerging in the 21st century. The emergence of “relationship” as primary reality and what that means will be the subject of our next article.

Imago Website direct link

October 2015 Newsletter

Relational Paradigm: A Paradigm in Transition
By: Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph. D.

We have posited in earlier articles that understanding the significance of the relationship paradigm and its implications for and impact on therapy requires a historical perspective that allows us to see the transition from the individual paradigm as a cultural process, and that the cultural process is the context in which the psychological shift takes place. In other words, psychology and psychotherapy are culturally dependent. In this article we elaborate on the emergence of the age of relationship, a shift that includes and transcends the age of the individual, the potential movement towards a relational civilization.

The catalyst of the age of relationship can be located in the 20th century when quantum mechanics envisioned the universe as inter-connected, interactive and responsive to observation, including and transcending the Newtonian view of a universe of isolated objects that have no intrinsic connection. When we translate the quantum view of the intrinsic connection of everything, we can vision the emergence of a new form of community, a conscious tribe that replaces the unconscious tribalism of the past centuries. With awareness that we are all connected and connecting in the web of being, we then see that the welfare of all persons is dependent upon the welfare of the community. Awareness that the welfare of the person is dependent upon the welfare of the community gives birth to a new value system, and potentially, to a new culture in which the health of couples, families and individuals will be supported by transformed social systems that promote cooperation, collaboration and equality, thus creating safety, connection and joy.

By the middle of the 20th century, a relational theme began to emerge in the psychological and the social sciences. Major figures began to question the utility of the individual paradigm to explain human behavior and to relieve human suffering. A relational theme as the core of the healing process was introduced by Carl Rogers’ position that the empathy of the therapist towards the client, rather than the therapist’s insight into the client’s productions, was an essential component in healing. Harry Stack Sullivan declared that “it does not matter what happens inside persons; what matters is what happens between persons.” Developmental research began to refer to the human being as essentially “social,” assigning “relational” qualities to the self, and eventually positing the “self as relational” with a “relational” brain. The isolated and bounded “self” was re-perceived as located in and dependent upon a context to which it intrinsically belonged and for which it was responsible. At the same time, stressed, dysfunctional and fragmented relationships were assigned the source of social problems, and healthy relationships began to be prescribed as essential for personal and social wellness. The foundation was laid to assign foundational reality to “relationship,” to remove that status from the “self” and to label this new energy the “relational paradigm.”

Imago Relationship Therapy can be seen as a contributor to and participant in the current historical process by both containing and distributing the relational energy not only to couples and families but also the culture. We may also be the source of a new hypothesis of marital and family stress that locates it in our cultural value system rather than in the subjectivities of marital partners. Our mission could include calling attention to this trajectory, amplifying its potential, establishing it as the primary cultural value and making available to the culture the best relational information and transformative processes, and in the process, transform marriage and the family, and the culture.

In this way, Imago can also participate in the transformation of social institutions and the intellectual tradition. Just as the construct of the individual transformed all the institutions in western civilization and created radically new ones that constitute contemporary western culture, the relational paradigm has the potential and responsibility to transform all social and cultural institutions through the relational lens, thereby giving birth to a new civilization in which relationships are the primary cultural value.

Wednesday, 9 March, 2016

The fourth article is from the March 2016 newsletter


By Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph. D

In our preceding articles we discussed the meta-theory of the individual and relational paradigms, the historical transition from the former to the latter and provided a comparison of the core features of each. In this article we discuss the relational paradigm in therapy, especially Imago Relationship Therapy.

When we view therapy through the lens of the individual paradigm, we see what is happening “inside,” or what we call subjectivity. We assume that we come with a “world” inside us. Wounding and healing occur inside the self. There are contextual circumstances that impact our inner world, but they do not constitute it.

When we view therapy through the relational lens, we see what is happening “between” persons. We acknowledge the reality of inner experience, but it is constellated by what happens between us, an oscillation of energy and information between inside and the outside. A useful metaphor is to think of our bodies as a computer with built in processes (thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering) that become operational when software (interactions with people and nature) is uploaded. Our bodies consist of neural and chemical processes (hardware) that convert our interactions (with others and nature) into experience, like our eyes convert photons into images. Therefore, when infants come into the world, they have receptors that collect and organize information (interactions with persons, objects and events) that becomes their inner world, what we call subjectivity. Thus all subjectivity is constructed out of interaction. Thus, it can be reconstructed by alternative interactions. This makes therapy a transformational rather than an adaptive process. If subjectivity were innate, then therapy is limited to removing the constraints on its nature. But if subjectivity is a construction, then the possibilities are limited only by the courage to interact in new and creative ways.

In Imago, the domain of the flow of energy and information between persons is called the “space between,” a designation we (Helen) borrowed from Martin Buber. The quality and content of this relational space determines the content and quality of personal experience. Our psychological life is a function of our relationships. If our relationships are safe, we experience a felt sense of connecting, joy is the affect that inhabits our neural pathways and endorphins are injected into our blood stream. If our relationships are difficult and negative, the felt sense of connecting is replaced by isolation and aloneness. Our interactions become transactional rather than connectional, our neural pathways are flooded with anxiety and our blood stream is polluted by cortisol. Life shifts from technicolor to black and white and suffering becomes an inhabitant in our world.

So, how do we transform this dismal situation, which is so widespread that it can be considered universal? How do we create and sustain safety, connecting and joy, not only in intimate relationships, but in all relationships? Over the years, we have discovered three non-negotiable factors that create and sustain safety, the onramp to connecting and joy.

The first was the outcome of a difficult transaction early in our relationship one of us (Helen) proposed that “one of us talk and the other listen!” The salutary effect of that suggestion led to the other (Harville) experimenting with couples where it was so effective it became the singular therapeutic intervention that we called Imago Dialogue. Dialogue is effective because it shifts the axis of conversation from the vertical to the horizontal. Vertical conversations are mono-logical and inherently unequal and unsafe. Horizontal conversations are inherently equal and facilitate safety. Mirroring facilitates accurate and deep listening by regulating the flow of energy and information. Validation facilitates differentiation and the experience of the “other” which is essential for connecting, and empathy integrates cognitive and emotional engagement. In combination they promote the cohesion of brain functions and allow us to relax our defences and become vulnerable, the preconditions of lasting change.

The second factor was discovered at a critical time in our relationship and led to its transformation, namely the practice of Zero Negativity. Helen proposed we put this insight into practice by putting smiley faces on a calendar on the days we were negativity free and a frowning face on the day our relationship experienced a negative transaction in words or tone. And, a repair process when it did! Regular monitoring of our interactions created a deep awareness of our negative patterns that helped us regulate our emotional expressions and replace negation with requests.

But we discovered that structured conversation and shifting from judgment to curiosity needed the addition of some form of daily affirmation to sustain safety. Using a garden analogy, it is not enough to remove the weeds and plough the rows. A thriving garden needs seeds, fertilizer, sunshine and water. Our affirmation choice was a nightly ritual of checking our Zero Negativity status and then exchanging three appreciations about something positive we saw each other do that day. Giving daily appreciations about current interactions keeps them fresh, allows for no or little repetition and requires being attentive throughout the day for positive behaviours.

Therapy, healing, connecting and joy occur in the relational space called the “between,’ and for that to be a source of thriving, it must be safe. Becoming dialogical and replacing judgment with curiosity and appreciation makes it a sanctuary where love blooms.

Related Posts: