Only when an individual accumulates broad spectrums of consistent experience that are thematically similar, will he or she then develop principles, theories, or schema that encompass both past learning and allows him/her to interpret future challenges successfully. The cognitive or intellectual security to process and interpret successfully lends itself to emotional security as well. In the case of being a partner in a couple, the cognitively developmentally mature individual will be able to successfully interpret current interactions, which reciprocally enhances the emotional stability of the relationship. The therapist may need to translate for clients their cognitively negotiated and jointly held relationship and life principles into concrete behaviors. For example, a classic therapeutic instruction is "You need to take care of yourself." This may already be an alien concept to some people culturally and thus, cognitively challenging. This could be difficult cross-cultural training, including from dysfunctional or contrasting family-of-origin culture ill-fitting the current relationship.
A challenge to a humanistic approach to therapy, which honors the individual, couple, and family, is that it assumes the clients' cognitive maturity. However, formal operations functioning may not be very difficult if not impossible for some individuals, especially when they are under stress. The directive to take care of oneself will not be followed through on unless the individual has a multitude of experiences where he or she was guided to take care him/herself with positive consequences. And other situations where he or she did not take care of him/herself and there were negative consequences. The experiences where the individual made personal choice would have involved many different contexts of self-care: physically (diet, exercise, rest…), financially (savings, investment…), socially (boundary setting, maintaining relationships…), emotionally (seeking and giving nurturing, owning affect), academically (doing homework, paying attention), vocationally (dress code, time management…), and so forth. With these experiences, the general instruction of "taking care of yourself" can more readily be interpreted and acted upon in new circumstance with specific choices and behaviors. One person wants to do something that the partner dislikes. This needs to be recognized as a "taking care of yourself" situation. If the partner defers without protest to avoid an unnecessary conflict, is that taking care of him or herself? Moreover, if deferring means the partner will hold resentment, is that taking care of oneself? Would expressing oneself and still deferring to the other be taking care of oneself? Other schema for relationships and personal health may need to be balanced: don't sweat the small stuff; you have to pick your battles; honesty and open communication is important in relationships; you shouldn't keep score in a relationship; you need to balance different principles; and so forth.
Advanced cognitive processing is most critical when involved in a volatile, erratic, yet passionate relationship. From magic to concrete to abstract/adult functioning may also describe the therapeutic process. The therapeutic invitation to process with adult cognition will yield seemingly very fruitful sessions full of insight and clarity, yet little life change when relational and other stresses frequently regresses the individuals in the couple. The individual may remain stuck dealing with his or her important relationships outside of therapy. The couple or family may process well in therapy but remain stuck in dysfunctional patterns of behavior at home. The therapist is not incompetent and the clients are not deceptive or untreatable. The therapist should consider that individuals get cognitively regressed or get stuck to earlier stages, despite formal operations articulation of issues and resolutions. Individuals who have not had formative consistent messages of concrete operations/rules to develop solid foundations, mature chronologically while staying functionally in the magical stage of pre-operational thinking. The therapist should also consider if the American societal tendency to aspire to this type of thinking is culturally relevant to specific individuals. Creativity, inductive and deductive thinking are considered to be positive traits of the society that continues to grow and evolve. There is a tolerance, and acceptance, and even an encouragement of risk taking and radical behavior. Many other societies however, including various sections of American society are more focused and committed to maintaining and perpetuating the status quo of society and culture. In that sense, formal operations thinking will not be as well supported, familiar, or practiced.
An individual or the couple often might assert various formal operations conceptualizations of life with in the relationship while just as frequently violating their own rules. Many clients outstanding at verbalizing and agreeing to various behavior rules return regularly to complain about violations- their own and the partners' at the next week's session. The therapist may start to wonder if they are deceiving him/her or if they are somehow fundamentally disconnected between thought and behavior. The conceptualizations seem to be slogans to rant rather than commitments to act appropriately. Not seeing the underlying themes or principles in the moment, many individuals tend to make similar errors in life choices over and over without learning from them. The lack of sound cognitive developmental foundations makes them attribute the causal process to good luck or bad luck. In therapy, individuals often can espouse all the correct progressive slogans of self-affirmation and health. They are often more heart-felt and articulate than the therapist, but maintain highly dysfunctional and toxic dynamics in real life. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to this. But so are many developmentally arrested adults. This is not a reference to neurological development, retardation, autism, etc., but otherwise normal intellectually functioning adults. When the individual or couple proclaims allegiance to an abstract principle to hold, the therapist needs to make them articulate the specific behaviors that will reflect the principle. "From this value in your relationship, family, or culture, what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to act? What does it mean in terms of behavior and choices?" In other words, the therapist should return them developmentally to the stage of concrete operations where they are still lacking foundational maturity. Therapy often thus becomes a process to quantify behaviorally precisely what behaviors need to be practiced. "Be nice" has as many interpretations and subsequent directives for adult individuals as it may have had for younger children. "Be nice" must be broken down into "look him/her in the eyes when you speak to him/her," "acknowledge him/her when he/she comes home," "remember what wine he/she likes and what wine he/she doesn't like," "don't give him/her a generic present… give him/her something you know he/she likes," "bother to find out what he/she likes!" "touch, hug every morning, every night, every time you leave the house," and a whole long list of specific actions to do consistently. It may sound like simplistic work, but it may be what the individuals need given development inadequacies.