Q&A: JoAnne Dahl, PhD, Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part Q&A with one of the authors of ACT and RFT in Relationships, JoAnne Dahl, PhD. If you missed part one, catch up here.

In the book, you talk about self-as-content being a particularly hazardous perspective for people in romantic relationships. Can you elaborate on that?

Self-as-content involves relatively elaborate and well-rehearsed verbal self-descriptions and descriptions of one’s behavior. These descriptions need not cohere well with current experience and indeed may be rigid and inflexible to such an extent that they interfere with contact with the current environment.

The ACT answer to self-as-content problems involves the cultivation of present awareness (mindfulness) and self-as-context. As the constant locus for behavior, self-as-context is all-inclusive and transcendent. As such, it can allow perspective on otherwise potentially problematic mental content and thus defuse it. As we explained in the last chapter, ACT fosters this sense of self by teaching people to become more aware of their own psychological processes and to observe these processes with minimal evaluation. This involves teaching mindful awareness of ongoing external events, including self-as-process (i.e., ongoing events happen to one). In relationships, one other class of events of which it is important to be mindfully aware is other-as-process, in which ongoing events happen to another person.

Mindful awareness of both self-as-process and other-as-process can enrich people’s experiences, particularly intimate interactions with their partner.

Taking that one step further, how specifically does self-as-content “cause” maladaptive behaviors?

Self-as-content can sometimes be perceived as a cause of—and, thus, either implicitly or explicitly, become an excuse for—current maladaptive patterns of behavior. This is the “content as cause” language trap. For example, someone might say “I can’t be open with you because I never learned to trust people,” or “I don’t feel comfortable with your family because they’re different from what I’m used to.” Notice that the speaker is explaining why he or she is not acting in a caring, loving, open way by using psychological content from the past as the “cause.”

With this line of reasoning, the only way to change the present (and thus begin to act in a trusting, open manner) would be to change the past. In the first example, for the speaker to be open and trusting, he or she would need to have learned how to do that in the past. In the second example, for the speaker to act in an open and accepting manner with the new family, he or she would have had to experience a similar family in the past. Since that is not possible, the “excuse” not to behave in this valued direction hampers the development of intimacy. Fusion with these thoughts can create a feedback loop in which this individual may feel as if he or she has lost the ability to change his or her behavior and take steps in a valued direction. Partners can know and agree on valued directions in their relationships, as well as what behaviors would coincide with those values, but fusion with psychological content may sabotage those attempts. Such fusion creates the illusion that the future is determined by the past. However, while past behavior can certainly allow prediction of future behavior, it does not determine it.

You also talk about rules, some of the ways they can be helpful and some of the ways they can be not-so-helpful. What are some examples of the latter?

In the ACT tradition, the focus is typically on informal rules that people derive about their personal situation that affect them negatively. For example, after a number of rejections from women he meets online, Jeff derives the rule “No one will ever want to be with me,” which subsequently guides his behavior away from dating in general, despite the fact that dating is consistent with his valued direction. In other words, Jeff takes the rule he has derived literally and gives up. What makes such rules as Jeff ’s particularly unhelpful is that they remove people from direct contact with contingencies. So Jeff comes under the influence of his own self-generated rule and stops dating. But, when he stops dating, he is cut off from the contingency whereby dating can allow him to meet someone compatible. In other words, he no longer has the chance of meeting someone with whom he might enjoy himself and establish a successful relationship. The rule has cut him off from this possibility. If Jeff were able to see this rule as a mere thought among other thoughts, he would probably persist in dating and would at least have a chance of contacting the reinforcement of acceptance and intimacy when someone suitable came along. By fusing with his self-generated rule, he stops trying, and this possibility is ruled out.

Following unhelpful rules can also cut people off from contingencies within an already established relationship. Sensitivity is essential in establishing and maintaining intimate relationships. However, rule-following can reduce sensitivity to cues in the present moment, and when this happens in a relationship, partners are likely to get off the intimate track.

Pliance is rule-governed behavior under the influence of a history of socially mediated reinforcement for following rules. This means that an individual follows a rule simply because he or she has been reinforced in the past for rule-following. The function or intention of the response is to please others or avoid punishment from them. Pliance is the category of rule-governed behavior that is most associated with psychopathology, because the rule-following is done in the service of an unstable source of reinforcement (i.e., the approval of other people) irrespective of the environmental contingencies, and thus this category of rule-following in particular focuses on the rule rather than on the contingencies. As we have said before, establishing and maintaining intimacy requires sensitivity to the “here and now”—the natural environmental contingencies. Pliance, however, encourages greater sensitivity to the rules, at the expense of contact with what’s actually happening in the present moment.

You mention that conflict is an important source of growth in an intimate relationship. How so?

Conflict, far from being antithetical, is an important source of growth in an intimate relationship. Confrontation tests a couple’s ability to solve problems while staying on a valued track. In order to strengthen rather than weaken their relationship, however, partners need to be mindful of the rigid, self-defeating behavior patterns that often arise during conflicts. In other words, the way in which people deal with conflicts—and in particular the level of rigidity or flexibility that they bring to them—shapes their relationships and to a great degree determines the level of vitality therein. For some examples of psychological responding in the context of relationship conflict, let’s consider one possible source of conflict: how frequently each partner wants sex.

In ACT, psychological rigidity is the core pathological process.

What are a few examples of psychological rigidity that commonly present in romantic relationships?

When people who are in a relationship spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control the uncontrollable, they get stuck in rigid, non-vital patterns, which eventually break down the relationship. In the book, we examined a number of different patterns of development of psychological rigidity in relationships.

Often prompted by conflict in the relationship, partners can develop unhealthy habitual ways of responding to aversive events. One way in which psychological inflexibility emerges is when a partner leaves the vitality of the present moment and focuses instead on the past or future. Ruminating about past injustices or worrying about the future is likely to maintain negative feelings and is unhealthy for the relationship.

Disconnecting from personally valued directions for intimate behavior and the relationship and substituting socially constructed rules is another area of possible hazard to vitality. Rigid rule-following, in general, pulls people away from the natural vital contingencies of the present moment and is likely to lead to stagnation.

Another problematic area is getting stuck in limiting and even harmful stories about oneself, one’s partner, or both.

Experiential avoidance constitutes a further area of psychological rigidity. This type of behavior is seen in partners who avoid events, situations, and interactions—as well as feelings, physical sensations, memories, or thoughts—that, though potentially unpleasant, need to be approached for the growth of the relationship. Not pursuing intimacy due to a fear of being hurt, as well as doing things to please others (i.e., pliance), reflects experiential avoidance.

To learn more about applying ACT and RFT in relationships, check out ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory.