Breaking Negative Relationship Patterns: Schema Therapy Self‐help and Support Book

Why did you start reading this book? Are you just curious about how relationships work? Are you thinking in terms of preparing yourself while you’re starting a new relationship? This is probably a good idea since there are already existing marital preparation courses based on concepts like schema therapy. But maybe you’re unhappy about your relationship and are looking for some ideas to improve it. These are all good reasons to be open to fresh ideas and to develop new skills in relationships.

Research indicates that 80% of those in troubled relationships tend to separate within four or five years, without external intervention. John Gottman, the world’s leading relationships researcher, found this with more than 600 couples in his “Love Lab” in Seattle. Indeed, crisis brings risk, but also a chance for improvement and growth. And there are many crises over the course of any lasting relationship.

So you’re not alone but in very good company! We appreciate that you’re willing to do something to improve your relationship. This means paying into your relationship account. And maybe once you get started your partner will become curious and possibly involved. Improvement usually starts with the willingness of one of you. Be assured, anything you do will have some impact on your relationship. So just go ahead and start making improvements from your side.

This book will give you a lot of practical advice. It doesn’t explain the whole world of relationships, but it will give you an idea why you find yourself again and again in the same life‐traps, and it shows you a way out. Isn’t that a good point to start?

Schema Therapy Toward a Science of Relationships

There are many “flat earth” theories of relationships. They’re limited and prescientific, and what doesn’t fit falls off the edge! Think about how the various approaches are classified. Ask what is the focus—and what is ignored. This selective mapping is characteristic of almost all therapies: One may closely follow thoughts and forget about feelings, while for another the goal is opening up the emotional depths, and a few put behavior under the spotlight. But, speaking generally, the most important reality‐that‐doesn’t‐fit is the influence of personality disorder on intimate relationships.

Personality Disorder

Ask any experienced therapist what is the greatest challenge in helping a couple and you’ll soon hear about problems in personality. Usually, this dimension is central to volatile relationships and disordered thinking. This includes the emotional instability of the borderline, the withdrawal of the schizoid, the self‐focus of the narcissist, and the “moral insanity” of the psychopath. In this book, we keep returning to the “hard cases” because such challenges will always make or break committed relationships. Character problems usually last a lifetime. This is another way of describing personality disorder, with the result that relationship difficulties are inevitable.

The novels of Jane Austen are helpful in thinking about the importance of character. Look at any of her popular books, such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, or Mansfield Park. Romance, yes, but it’s soon tested by character. Reflect: Think for a moment about a previous romantic relationship that failed. Make a list of the problem areas. Tick any item that describes a lack of character. Are you reminded of Mr. Willoughby or Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility?

Also: Watch a film based on a novel by Jane Austen and discuss the role of character with a friend. How does lack of character result in unhappiness in their relationships? Follow this carefully: It’s true in Austen’s novels but also in life. Theoretical note: You may find it puzzling that we begin this book with such an emphasis on the dynamics of personality. The reality is that personality problems are usually ignored in self‐help literature. But unless you become aware of your personality traits, understand them as reactions to childhood experiences, and start working on them, they will influence and undermine all your attempts to improve your relationship.

It’s like building sand castles: They might look nice for a moment, but the tide will wash them away and you’ll find yourself repetitively in the same life‐trap. So first start working with what is most enduring about your own personality. Research indicates that features of personality disorder are very common in the general population. Only 23% of people are relatively free of them. Indeed, over 70% have some degree of personality disturbance.

This is why it’s essential to take dysfunctional aspects of personality into any comprehensive theory of change. And it also explains why a “strong” therapy, such as schema therapy, is so necessary—and why this book is potentially so different. First, we outline schema therapy and its clinical perspective with schemas, and then we look at the legacy we all carry from childhood. We then look at the complexity of couple dynamics seen in modes and suggest powerful ways to change entrenched patterns of dysfunction. Finally, we look more deeply at emotional learning.

Schema Therapy: Mapping the Bad Lands

Schema therapy offers a comprehensive map. The central idea is to identify how we’re vulnerable to patterns (schemas) created in childhood and adolescence. Schema therapy doesn’t just describe but provides a powerful therapy leading to lasting change—even with the most unstable and difficult of problems. Schema therapy deals with problems largely ignored by

Breaking Negative Relationship Patterns

mainstream cognitive therapy: the processing of troublesome memories, difficulties coming from childhood, uncontrolled emotional reactions, and recurrent problems in intimate relationships. Indeed, it combines the depth and developmental theory of longer‐term treatments with the active, change‐oriented approach of short‐term therapies. When you learn to recognize your reactions and understand their origins, things will begin to make sense. This is a good starting point for self‐ compassion and self‐acceptance.

And you can share this understanding with your partner, too! Better yet, you’ll find in schema therapy practical tools that can intercept habitually negative interactions and open the door to new ways of relating. Few therapies can offer schema therapy’s proven potential for change. Theoretical note: Where does schema therapy fit? In what part of the therapy “library” is this book? Schema therapy grew out of cognitive therapy. The cognitive approaches, with a focus on thoughts, have the advantage of conceptual clarity and ease of understanding.

Aaron Beck initiated the “cognitive revolution” and developed the extensively researched cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of depression. This approach was then applied to the whole range of psychological disorders. While cognitive behavior therapy proved effective with a range of human problems, it wasn’t as helpful with the personality disordered. This recognition of its limits led to the development of “stronger” therapies, including schema therapy. Schema therapy is highly integrative.

Indeed, Young outlined parallels and differences with major therapies, including Beck’s “reformulated” model, psychoanalytic theory, Bowlby’s attachment theory (especially internal working models), and emotion‐focused therapy. There has also been an influence from gestalt, transactional analysis, and psychodrama. Schema therapy, in contrast to most cognitive therapies, has a greater emotional focus and willingness to explore the childhood and adolescent origins of psychological problems.

There’s a shift from current problems to whole‐ of‐life patterns. Additionally, there are a breadth, applicability, and ease of understanding that encourage a broader application. While dialectical behavior therapy was developed to treat borderline personality disorder, schema therapy works with almost all kinds of personality disorders.

Schemas in Focus

While Beck referred to schemas, he used the term to describe clusters of negative beliefs. Jesse Wright noted that people typically have a mix of different kinds of schemas, including those that are positive and adaptive.

Schema Therapy: Toward a Science of Relationships

Even people with severe symptoms or profound despair have adaptive schemas that can help them cope. Jeffrey Young thought that dysfunctional schemas develop as a result of toxic childhood experiences. They reflect the emotional wounds lasting from unfulfilled but important needs of the child and are a way of coping with negative experiences, such as family quarrels, rejection, hostility, or aggression from parents, teachers, or peers, as well as inadequate parental care and support.

Can you identify a negative childhood experience? 
How did you cope at that time? 
Do you think that this has influenced how you react to similar stresses today?
Schemas reveal underlying assumptions. This is more than negative thoughts (“Things will never work out well”). It’s more than rules (“Don’t get angry with your father”). At the schema level, core beliefs are unconditional (“I am worthless”). 

Schemas are like short video clips storing complex memories, including intense emotions and bodily reactions. They affect the whole person. Once they’re activated, you travel back through a time tunnel and find yourself in the old life‐traps of your childhood. You look at your current world through childlike glasses. Schemas are the basis of how we see ourselves and others. They’re also foundational to how we act. Schemas are a meeting point of thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and behavioral tendencies, all of which may have different neural pathways in the brain but which meet in a schema when activated.

Young identified a comprehensive set of early maladaptive schemas, defined as “self‐defeating emotional and cognitive patterns that begin early in our development and repeat throughout life.” They provide a blueprint for styles of thinking, emotional responses, and characteristic behavioral tendencies in the child’s and later the adult’s world. A more severe schema can be distinguished by how readily it’s activated, its high emotional intensity, and lasting distress. While there may have been survival benefits in childhood and perhaps it was the best or only possible solution at the time, by adulthood schemas tend to be inaccurate, maladaptive, and limiting. 

They become strongly held, often outside conscious awareness. Repeated negative experiences lead to schema coping being more “worn and rigid.” Amanda was often left by her single mother on her own in their apartment. She was always frightened as a child. She has tended to be clingy in relationships, and no reassurance from romantic partners is ever enough. So, sooner or later, they all left her and she finds herself alone again.

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