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A Tool for Better Relationships: Mentalizing. By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

A Tool for Better Relationships: Mentalizing. By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
  • May 17 2017

When relationship problems start, they can get complicated quickly. One tool that can help you repair your relationship and keep it on a healthy course is mentalizing.

It sounds like a very technical sounding word, but mentalizing is simply having an understanding, and being able to relate to, the mental states that drive people’s actions – including both you and others. For instance, you are mentalizing when you intuitively understand that your friend is impatient with you because of the stress of her crumbling marriage; and so you are kind to her despite her behavior.

But there are times for everyone when their ability to mentalize is weakened, or they even lose it totally. For instance, when your emotions are intense – from either love or anger – your ability to think gets clouded. At other times, you may seem to be thinking clearly, but feel emotionally numb. These struggles can also happen when you are tired, sick, in conflict, or overwhelmed with life pressures.

To help maintain – or recover – your ability to mentalize, consider these four tips derived from the work of researchers and clinicians, Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman:

Let your relationship happen, but know when to reconsider your reactions. You don’t want to overthink your relationship, but there are times when it’s helpful to think carefully about what is happening. A common sign of when to pause and consider is when your emotional reaction overtakes you or your reaction seems out of proportion to a situation. In these circumstances, reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. If you need help gaining perspective, talk with someone you trust and respect.

Feel the love (and all your other emotions), but reflect on your relationship, too. Falling in love is clearly an affair of the heart, which can be wonderful – but it can also cloud your ability to think. The same can be said of other close relationships, though often to a lesser extent. When you are immersed in your emotions, it can be helpful to find a way to bring down the intensity – maybe through a few deep breaths or a brisk walk – and then gain some intellectual perspective on your situation. On the other hand, if you find that you are responding to an emotional situation with cold logic, it can help to try to reconnect with your own or your partner’s emotions. (Keep in mind, though, that it can sometimes be helpful to be emotionally distant—perhaps processing your emotions later, especially when you need to act in a crisis situation.) Many people find that focusing on their bodily sensations helps them to reconnect with their emotions.

Know yourself and your partner. If you lose sight of your partner’s experience, take the time to try to see and feel the world as they do. If you become disconnected from yourself, take the time to fully attend to and have empathy for your own experiences.

Pay attention to action and intention. Remember to take both people’s actions and their motivations into account when responding. By understanding someone’s motivations, you are allowing yourself to connect with their human experience and perhaps work better at resolving issues between you. But even the best of intentions or the most understandable difficulties cannot undo or excuse problematic actions. For instance, you might understand your boyfriend or girlfriend struggling with frustrations from work, but you may still choose to leave the relationship because you don’t accept their pattern of exploding in anger.

By following these tips, you can keep your mentalizing strong, or recover it after things have gone wrong. And with persistence in doing this, you can enjoy a happy relationship.