CORE SCENE REVISION
CORE SCENE REVISION is another exercise that I rely on to help couples eliminate negativity. It is designed for couples who go beyond criticism and avoidance and engage in yelling matches and long-drawn out fights. I call these recurring battles “Core Scenes” because they replay the central childhood traumas of both individuals. Basically, the childhood adaptations of one partner are pitted against the childhood adaptations of the other, making the encounter doubly wounding. Typically, core scenes end in an impasse, with both individuals in deep emotional pain. These futile, hurtful exchanges must end before love can begin.
One couple, Jack and Deborah, had recurring fights that would last until the early hours of the morning. They named them “three-o’clockers” because, typically, that’s when they would end. These were not explosive fights, but wearing, exhausting, repetitive confrontations that ended without resolution. Following a three-o’clocker, the two of them would be tired and depressed for days.
During one therapy session, I asked them to recount several of their recent fights to see if they could identify what the fights had in common. Jack was quick to see their repetitive nature. Once they had reduced their fights to their lowest common denominators, they both laughed. But then Jack said with a note of sadness, “This isn’t something that I feel very proud of. Why do we fall into the same trap over and over again? I’m sick of it.”
According to their description, their core scene goes something like this:
Act I: It is five o’clock in the evening. Jack comes home from work and is confronted by Deborah, who wants him to do a chore. It could be anything—help plan a vacation, do some yardwork, sort through the mail. Jack says he would be happy to do it—later. After he has had a chance to take his evening run.
Act II: Jack goes jogging. He comes home. As he enters the door, Deborah approaches him again and asks if he will now do X. Jack says, “Sure. After I take a shower.”
Act III: Jack takes a shower. Deborah tracks him down and insists that now is the time to do X. Jack says, “Just let me have a drink.”
Act IV (the climax of the drama): Jack has several drinks. He begins to relax and enjoy himself. Deborah enters the room, irate. “Why don’t you either do it now or tell me you aren’t going to do it?” Deborah yells. “You are driving me crazy!” “But I do want to do it,” counters Jack. “Just give me time. I’m tired. I want to relax. Back off.”
Jack begins to work on a crossword puzzle or watch TV and ignores his wife. She gets hysterical. “I hate you!” she cries out. “You never do what you say. You never listen to me! I feel like I’m living with a robot! I have no feelings for you!” Jack tries to block out her anger by concentrating more intently on what he is doing. Then, finding no peace, he gets up and leaves the house.
Act V: Jack comes home hours later. He’s had several more drinks. Deborah launches into her attack once more. The fight continues, with Deborah delivering devastating criticisms and Jack trying either to placate her or ignore her. Eventually they both get tired of the melodrama and turn away from each other in despair.
Let’s analyze this drama for a moment. If one were to search for Jack and Deborah in the psychology textbooks, Jack would be described as “passive-aggressive.” He is angry at Deborah for organizing his life and intruding on his space, but is afraid to express it directly. Instead he stalls, jogs, showers, drinks, works on the crossword puzzle—in other words, takes full advantage of the numerous exits he has built into the relationship.
Deborah would be labeled as “aggressive-aggressive.” “She’s a bulldog,” says Jack, not without admiration. She is up front with her demands and her anger. The irreducible element in their core scene is that the more Deborah attacks, the more Jack retreats, and the more Jack retreats the more Deborah feels abandoned. Deborah’s anger at Jack’s passivity is, in reality, disguised panic. She is terrified of being left alone, and Jack’s inertness makes her feel as if she were dealing with a nonentity, a ghost with no substance.
I explained to Deborah and Jack that, in order to end the impasse, it might help to rewrite their play—not metaphorically, but literally. I suggested that they go home, take out paper and pencils, and rewrite the drama so that it had a happier ending. It might help to read their new script several times so that the new options would be just as available to them as their habituated ones. I assured them that any change at all would be beneficial. Indeed, just being able to recognize a given fight as a core scene would be a positive step. Then, even if they managed to change just one of the acts, they would be creating the possibility of a new resolution.
Here are a couple of ways Jack and Deborah’s core scene might be revised. Deborah could become less aggressive, essentially honoring Jack’s request to “back off.” After asking him once to do a particular chore and getting no response, she could stop making the request. Jack’s need to withdraw might become less intense. He might gain the psychic space he needed to be able to do the chore before taking a shower or doing the crosswords.
Or the script might be rewritten so that Jack states his position more openly. “No. I don’t want to do that job. It’s not all that important to me. I’d rather do “Y.” Deborah would be startled by his assertiveness, but if he persisted in affirming his own priorities, she would eventually become relieved. What she really wanted was a partner who was an independent, confident human being, not an automaton.
This practice of defining a core scene and then writing alternative versions can be an effective tool. When couples are able to objectify their arguments, identify the key elements in the drama, and then create different options, they are using the rational new brain to defeat the old brain’s fight or flight response. They are creating new neural pathways that channel their feelings into a more calm and positive direction.