The Embodied Basis of Human Relationships

If we consider how people actually relate with each other, we can see that there are many different levels of energetic exchanges apart from speech, and that a lot of communication is essentially non-verbal (Hinde, 1972). Non-verbal communication can be an extremely significant aspect of interpersonal relationships; much of it is body and thus relates to our own levels of embodiment.

Forms of non-verbal relating include: body language (kinesics); distance and positioning (proxemics); physical appearance (height, weight, clothing, posture, style); gestures; elements of voice (paralanguage – voice quality, rate, pitch, volume, and speaking style, as well as prosodic features such as rhythm, intonation, and stress); touch (haptics); chronemics (the use of time); oculesics (eye contact and the actions of looking while talking and listening); as well as information conveyed through smell (pheromones), and through preconscious modelling (mirror neurones): all of these are embodied. Many are also culturally inflected (Meyers, 2003), especially between genders and social classes within the culture (Bourdieu, 1977, 1984) and also vary with different levels of emotion. Normally, non-verbal language complements verbal communication: although it becomes increasingly significant when it does not.

There is also a strong association between physical experiences and psychological states. Physical experiences can ‘activate’ psychological experiences, which means that when you are happy, you tend to smile and – if you smile – then you will also tend to feel happier (Mattingly, 2012). The relatively new but fast developing field of embodied cognitive science rejects the traditional view that the body is of little significance to mental processes, and argues that our thinking and our knowledge of the world are integrally bound up with our embodied nature. Lakoff & Johnson (1999) write:

Mind is embodied, [but] thought requires a body – not in the trivial sense that you need a physical brain to think with, but in the profound sense that the very structure of our thoughts comes from the nature of the body. Nearly all of our unconscious metaphors are based on common bodily experiences.

The proposition here is that if it is through our body that we know the world, then it is through our body that we know each other. It is the complex balance and interplay between the personalities and emotions of the two (or more) people involved that define the nature of human relationships.

As explained in the previous study guide, each of us has developed a character structure – a body-mind style and set of preferred attitudes and emotions which sum up our past relationships and which also shapes how we will perceive and thus interact with our present and future ones. These character patterns, interacting in complex ways with the character patterns of others, will determine the eventual course and outcome of the relationship, even though the emotional moods of the people involved can vary from moment to moment.

It follows from this that our capacity to relate openly and clearly with others depends on our capacity to relate to ourselves, i.e. to be able to be aware of and get beyond the character patterns that can limit our relational freedom.

We can develop a deeper level of body awareness, simply by feeling and listening to the honesty of our body. This is a key element that allows us to continually develop the level of self-care in our life. (Bordieu, 1977)

This contact with the embodied self is absolutely fundamental to any form of embodied relationship with another person, or any other people, or the world around us. This internal (and relational) process mirrors (and/or is mirrored by) the surrounding social structures: and, to the extent that that society accepts or negates the body, the members of that society will relate to their bodies and to their level of their embodiment.

Many authors throughout time have commented on this – and especially how the social and cultural structures mitigate against any form of embodiment; famously D.H. Lawrence epitomised this in many of his novels and short stories. Many philosophers and spiritual guides also recommend a contemplation of the body, and especially the body in the here-and-now. A currently popular therapeutic technique is Mindfulness practice, and whether or not this is being promoted from within Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT) by somebody like Jon Kabat-Zinn (2004, 2006), or from a Zen Buddhist perspective by someone like Thich Nhat Hahn (2008), both encourage people to develop an increase in their awareness of their body, and thus a deeper level of embodiment.

Relational Body Psychotherapy

Nearly all practicing Body Psychotherapists actively work with the principle that the body ‘remembers’ what has happened to it (often much better than the mind does), in particular how the body-mind has been negatively impacted and whether this psychic wound or trauma has healed or not.

This imprinting on the body and the body ‘memory’ becomes more apparent when working with people with trauma (viz: Babette Rothschild’s popular (2000) book “The Body Remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment“). Another well-known trauma therapist, Bessel van der Kolk holds a similar perspective in his latest (2015) book, “The Body Keeps the Score“. Van der Kolk also asserts that you have to be a Body Psychotherapist to work properly with people with trauma.

James Kepner, a Gestalt Body Psychotherapist, indicates – in the title of his (1993) book, “Body Process: A Gestalt approach to working with the body” – that one has to work with the body. He suggest that if you try to get your client to ‘do’ something that meets with an embodied resistance. You will have to work with that opposition before you can proceed further with any therapy. Working through such a resistance involves both people and both bodies.

Within Body Psychotherapy, the concept of embodied relationshipsas well as the relationships that are embodied is becoming an increasingly influential modality (Young, 20122014White, 2014Totton, 2015. Body Psychotherapists also often refer to significant recent developments in neuroscience that relate to modern attachment theory (e.g. Beckes et al., 2015) and there also several parallel developments from psychopathology (Fuchs & Schlimme, 2009).

One of the more recent therapeutic developments, Embodied Relational Therapy (ERT) develops a theme that is taken up by a well-known UK Body Psychotherapist, Nick Totton (2005), and his work with Allison Priestman (and others):

What we have just called ‘character structure’ can be usefully reframed as ‘style of relating’. There is a consonance between a person’s style of relating to their conditions of existence – to [their level of] embodiment – and [thus to] their style of relating to other human beings. … Each individual has come up with a brilliant solution to the conditions in which they have found themselves – the optimum style of relating, the optimum balance between body and spirit. Equally, each person is seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to change their behavioural style in accordance with current conditions – which may be very different from the conditions in which we grew up. Whatever appears in a person’s life as a problem, a symptom, a conflict, can also be understood as an incomplete attempt to change and grow.

We can summarise that a person’s ‘character structure’ (viz: Reich, 1933, 1980), or the ‘style of embodiment’ has grown out of their historical developmental environment and their primary relationships. These inevitably structure their current relationships, and thus their ways of relating. Reich’s original theory expanded the concept of psychoanalytic resistance into the more inclusive concept of character. The sum total of the person’s typical (individual) character attitudes were understood to have developed as a block (or resistance) against emotional excitation and this ‘block’ became the object of psychotherapeutic treatment. These ‘encrusted’ attitudes functioned as a form of embodied “armouring” that Reich had found to manifest and be held in chronic muscular rigidities. Others later discovered these existing in more visceral areas as well (viz: Boyesen & Boyesen, 1980; Keleman, 1986; Davis, 2012).

Thus, Reich’s original treatise on Character Analysis had opened the door to a way of approaching psychological problems, which was simultaneously biophysical and also relational. Other psychoanalysts, like Alice Miller (who was not a Body Psychotherapist), also found significances in working with the body, as the title of her (2005) book “The Body Never Lies” indicates. Mind and body could start to come back together again.

As we examine these ‘fundamental’ structures of relationship within ourselves – we discover that they are inevitably ’embodied’ in our relationships with our clients – and in their relationships with us. The ‘shadows’ of these old formational relationships will inevitably re-appear, again and again, in all of our (present) relationships – to be worked with and (hopefully and eventually) resolved into more creative and constructive versions.

We often look for this resolution in others, who are important to us, but it is suggested that any resolution needs to happen within ourselves because it is ‘we’ who are carrying a function of our history. If we take these unresolved issues into new relationships, they will almost inevitably contaminate them, just as we will – almost inevitably – repeat the original relational dynamics, looking for some form of resolution.

This is not, as Patrick Casement (19901992) suggests, a cognitive, intellectual or even psychoanalytical dynamic. It is essentially a hard-wired visceral, somatic and body-oriented dynamic, operating well below the level of consciousness and therefore really only accessible to a body-oriented psychotherapeutic approach. Such an embodied approach helps the client to become much more aware of their own embodied defences and resistances, and then – and only then – can these be effectively challenged, worked with, changed and overcome.

Mindfulness practice, yoga (Rama et al., 1976), FeldenkraisAlexander Techniquepsychotherapeutic massageTouch for HealthPilates, (or any other of the multitude of body-awareness techniques) may play a significant part of attaining something of this initial awareness of our armouring and of the character-patterns that fundamentally limit us. However, to facilitate the undoing of these patterns or structures, we may need access to something more pragmatic, as though working with a good set of tools (awareness, techniques, interventions) coming from the different types of body-oriented, or embodied, or psycho-somatic psychotherapeutic practices.

All these theoretical, historical, scientific and practical aspects lie behind the actual practice of body-oriented psychotherapy (and the various body psychotherapies, or somatic psychology practices), working within this somewhat extraordinary realm of embodied human relationships. These aspects are also very present in and throughout the actual sessions as they are part of the two (or more) bodies in the room and thus form an essential part of the therapeutic relationship. All these aspects are inevitably and continuously present. However, we require specific training to be aware of and to work with them.