Young's work has a curious parallel with recent developments in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, which suggest that our personal relationships affect the way the mind builds neural pathways. Your emotional memories—of a parent you adored or feared, of a partner you loved or lost—create pathways in the limbic part of the brain. Every time you revisit those memories, positive or negative, you reinforce the path, deepening a trench of emotional connection. Throughout life, your unconscious mind embraces any new person who reminds you of those older paths. They exert an almost irresistible pull, compelling you to make decisions that feel like choices but are actually automatic responses guided by the map of your past: It's like a ghost road that lures in passers-by. "We think what we call schemas are really what some people call neural pathways," Young says. People who want healthy relationships but have a history of unhealthy ones must work hard to resist the pull of habit and strike out along new pathways, literally and figuratively.
Young's first step is to help his patients recognize that they have schemas: "They've affected their view of everything," says Young. "But they don't see that there's anything wrong with the way they look at the world." He began by asking Chloe about her parents. She described them as high-level professionals who had been extremely critical of her. If she came home with an A- instead of an A+, for instance, her mother would withdraw her affection for a week, withholding kisses and kindness.
"I tried to get Chloe to remember what it felt like when her mother would withdraw from her and to remember how bad she felt about herself," Young says. As an adult, Chloe remained stuck in her schema, clinging stubbornly to her childhood fear that if she or anyone she was associated with was less than perfect, she would be a disappointment. Young knew that she had internalized her parents' harsh judgments and was not aware they weren't her own. His questions helped her make the connection that the way her mother hurt her was the way she hurt the men in her life—at which point, Chloe got it, saying, "I don't want to make Dan feel the way I felt."
Young also helped Dan realize that he was repeating his unhappy childhood cycle with Chloe: trying to prove that he was good enough. Young spent the next several sessions helping Chloe and Dan understand that when they upset each other, it was not out of deliberate cruelty but often because one partner had set off the other's core schemas.
"Chloe had to become more aware of when her Unrelenting Standards were being triggered, making her critical and mean," Young says. "Dan had to become aware of when he was starting to feel inadequate and trying to prove himself to her." When a fight began to escalate, Young instructed, they should say out loud, "Schema clash!"—as unnatural as it might feel—and then call a time-out. They should retreat into separate rooms and read through a flash card to remind them of the havoc their schemas were trying to unleash (Young helps couples create a variety of notes, tailored to common issues of discord—arguments over money or parenting, for example). A card for Chloe might read in part:
Even though I feel as if my criticisms are valid, it's almost certain that I'm being much too hard on Dan and too judgmental, the same way my mother was with me. Therefore I need to let up on him, stop criticizing him, and apologize for what I did.
We Hear You!