Conscious versus Unconscious Behavior
Something that has been on my mind a lot lately is the perceived motivation behind behaviors people exhibit toward one another. I have seen this come up with couples where they end up coming to therapy because they are experiencing a lot of antagonism from one another. Most of the time, I don't find that they *want* to antagonize each another, though that is what ends up happening. I don't believe that most people--unless they are sociopaths--want to antagonize other people, so what is happening in these situations?
One way that I have explained this to clients that may reflect their situations and that has been effective is by drawing a distinction between conscious and unconscious behaviors. The language that I use is more Jungian-oriented though I believe that most theoretical orientations have language for things that you intend to do versus things that you do without intention. (A more behaviorally-oriented way to say it that a feeling rather than a thought can lead to an action and being able to reflect on that may help change the behavior.) The challenge comes when the recipient of the latter type of behavior ends up (again, intentionally or not) ascribing intention where it may not exist. This can end up creating a negative feedback loop leaving the couple to wonder "How did we get to this awful place?"
So, conscious versus unconscious behavior. Most if not all unconscious behaviors are things that we have learned over the course of our lives that in some way are trying to protect or defend us. They become so woven into the fabric of our existence that we don't even realize that we are doing them. They can be simple things--a defensive verbal jab when you believe you are being attacked--or complex--sabotaging behavior that comes up when your partner is doing something that you agreed to though don't actually like.
I use this language carefully because some people have said, "Well, if it is unconscious, then I can't control it, so there!" I don't agree with this assessment though I understand what would lead people to believe it. When I say that the behavior is unconscious, what I mean is what I said above, that the behavior is done without conscious intention. By explaining it this way, I can reinforce that people are still responsible for the behavior even if it something that is unconscious and the work can be making the unconscious more conscious.
One way that I have worked with this is by raising the question, "Do you believe that your partner is deliberately trying to antagonize you?" The answer is often “no” and even if the answer is “yes” that is grist for the mill. We can then put that interaction “on the table” which is an imaginary space between or among (I have done this with triads) the participants in the relationship to symbolically indicate that the behavior is not wholly part of any individual in the relationship though all of the participants may have an influence on it. Creating this neutral space then often allows us to look at the interaction more objectively and determine what the various behaviors are trying to do for the relationship.
(When the answer to the above question is “Yes” that in an of itself can be an unconscious response in that the person genuinely believes their partner is trying to antagonize. In those cases, it is often necessary to take a step back to unpack and examine that interaction before addressing the behavior.)
The hope is for each person to take responsibility for their part in the interaction. Some people have been genuinely surprised that they were engaging in a particular behavior when the received a particular stimulus. Raising awareness of these kinds of unconscious behaviors can be valuable in building more clear conversation. Once these types of behaviors have been identified, the work can then be to determine what the behavior is trying to do for the person engaging in it.
This is a narrow slice of looking at conscious versus unconscious behavior and there is much more that can be said. My intention is for people to examine their behaviors when communication seems to go wrong or when others point them out and determine whether or not there is intention behind the behaviors.
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