The urban dictionary defines malergy as: The effect of two or more people or circumstances that interact to have an over all negative affect where the sum of the parts exceeds the sum of the whole, negatively.
“There is malergy in that relationship where Sue needs be needed and Sam is always playing helpless. They have a malergistic affect on one another and those around them.”
Malergy can build especially quickly between two people in a troubled couple relationship, but also between two or more people in a work setting, between whole communities and cultures where continuing disadvantage meets continued abuse of power, indifference, or plain unawareness. And, if weʼre unaware of it, it can walk right in the door of our therapy offices and smack us in the face quickly, especially when the unknown, unforeseen context for a particular participant is a string of poor or damaging prior experiences in therapy or in life. Negative expectation combining with the perceived power differential is more than enough to set malergy in motion.
Most of us were taught labels for these phenomena– projection, transference, counter-transference, but I want to go beyond labels in this article, and the authoritative oneupsmanship that sometimes goes with them, to get to the heart of working effectively in that malergistic moment. The ability to reflect in the moment is crucial for RRT therapists because malergy represents the opposite of synergy, the positive momentum of connection that we want happening from the first moments in a session.
What I am highlighting as malergy goes under the banner of alliance ruptures in other experiential and relational models. Instead of expectancy, there is a narrowing of mind or entrenched resignation; instead of trust, there is deepening skepticism or even suspicion, instead of joining, there are verbal and non-verbal signs of moving away or repelling. Malergy can can show up in many forms; it can be quite covert with a particpant sort of quietly pulling back with lots of deference, deflection, or rapid shifts of content, or quite overt, with a particpant ramping up disagreement, questions about our training or approach, or outright refusal to follow our prompts.
Itʼs essential to operationalize the knowledge that such a shift in the relational dynamic bears the fingerprints of both therapist and participant. If a rupture is happening, both are making some contribution. It is incumbent on therapists to recognize the rupture, accept their part in it, and to step back and try to look at the relational process as it unfolds. We want to slow the session, and most of all, lead with vulnerability to address it. More will be said on this in just a moment. But the point here is that we are of no use to the participant if we play an unconscious reciprocating role in the malergistic scenario. There are identifyable stances therapists under stress usually take that other writers include under the umbrella of embededness in the relational dynamic. We may start to shut down, become more disengaged, withdrawn, cautious or even callous ourselves. Or we may start to pursue, becoming more frustrated, more intense, given to intrusive questioning, defensive explaining or lecturing, or even lapsing into pathologizing thought patterns and lauguage.
A key skill is to pay attention to the external and internal markers of rupture as we experience them and to follow up and explore them as they occur in the moment. This implies that the therapist is capable of a moment by moment tracking of the alliance and alert to watch for the effect on the participant of the language we frame to address the rupture. It implies we can regulate ourselves and pause long enough to step back and be curious about our own reactions and see the participantʼs behavior as the leading edge of unspoken fears or needs. The way to disembed, so to speak, from the malergistic relational dynamic begins by leading with our curiousity in a vulnerable, collaborative way.
For example, if a participant is backpeddaling by deferring, deflecting, or repeatedly shifting content, a therapist might say, “Gee, Iʼm noticing that I keep trying to connect and keep missing you somehow, almost as if youʼre a moving target. Is that how youʼre experiencing me right now?” If the client says, “Yeah, I get uncomfortable with a lot questions, it does seem like youʼre trying to pry me open,” the therapist can then follow with, “My apologies. Itʼs not my intent to pry, and we can take our time here. But could you help me understand more about what happens inside when I try to find out about you?”
Or, if the participant is critical, dismissive, or vying for control in some way, the therapist could say, “You know, itʼs strange, but I get the feeling that I canʼt make a single mistake here, that any misstep might be enough for you to throw in the towel on our whole project. Do you have this sense? Is there something upsetting right now that Iʼm missing?” RRT therapists will recognize these as extensions or elaborations of the skills of asking legal questions and demonstrating interest, but applied here directly to the alliance itself. Of course, the participant may deny anything is going on and thatʼs always a chance we take. We may just have to make a mental note and bide our time. But again, as an example, they may answer with something like, “Yeah, I went through a lot of therapy with my first marriage, and it amounted to me being labeled the bad guy, the sick one, and we still ended up getting divorced. Therapy doesnʼt help much of anything, except the therapistʼs pocketbook.” This provides the opening for a deeper attunement to the participantʼs bitter disappointment and need for a sturdy offense to fend off further hurt. The follow-up response could be as simple as leaning in and saying in a soft voice, “Really? Can you tell me more about that?” There would then follow a validating and unsnarling of the beliefs and feelings that make an offensive posture seem so necessary, which would in turn likely defang the opening conflict about being a participant in therapy once again.
Reflection in action can open the participant to their anger, their defensiveness, and even futher down the line, to their characteristic primary feelings of fear or hurt that form the background music for their way of showing up in relationships. The key thing is the willingness to be vulnerable, collaborative, and to step back in the moment and explore the nature of the communication and the relational dance that is going on.
Please note the question is not framed as “Whatʼs going on with you.” which the participant feels, and which automatically puts the onus onto them, as it locates problems close to identity. But rather the question is framed collaboratively, as “What just happened between us? Whatʼs going on right now?” The question is asked with tentativeness and humility, which conveys we are on equal footing, that we dont have all the answers, and that the relationship matters enough to tend to it. By taking responsibiliity for our end of things and staying vulnerable, the therapist models that taking responsibility and communicating vulnerably is a good thing, even desired. Participants will mirror this orientation, becoming more aware and accountable for their effect on us. And while it seems sometimes like slowing down to a snailʼs pace and paying attention in an almost microscopic way, it can actually move things along. It can disembed the therapist from a toxic dance, and direct the awareness of both to things that heretofore couldnʼt be named. It can often prevent a conflict from growing into an outright block, or from morphing into a subterranean one, which would eventually derail our process. It speaks safety on a deep level to the inner mind, and may be the first experience the participant has ever had of someone sticking with them and working safely through a relational stuck point.
As RRT therapists weʼve learned a model that joins, assesses, and moves clients toward a life-changing shift very rapidly, often in a single session. And it feels wonderful when it works smoothly with those willing and ready for it. But in real life we also meet clients whose lifelong tussels with distrust, rejection, being misunderstood, or feeling desperate, helpless, or one-down, has become their leading edge. We must remember that some time ago they may have had a very good reason for adopting that edge. Like the great mass of an iceberg that lies below the waterline, they may not see it in themselves, but we will surely run upon it if we try to rush on by. Many of us have fallen into just this pothole in our exhuberance with RRT and zeal to clear them and get to target.
In fact, and as a way of summarizing, some participants may need us to slow down, to take the time necessary to find out what the conflict is about, to take even several sessions prioritizing the formation of the alliance before going any further. They need us to pace things so as to gain room enough to lessen the leading edge and navigate around it, and ultimately, for them to find out our interest and attunement is genuine and that the therapeutic relationship can be safe, durable, and dependable.