We long for connection
We are born to be with people who lovingly bond with us. We know that the health of newborn and young children depends on how attentive care providers respond to fearful screams as well as joyful coos. We have learned that people in emotionally safe and responsive relationships fair better physically and emotionally. Recently, we learned in the experiment, Soothing the Threatened Brain, that closeness of a partner, one who is securely connected in relationship, decreases the negative experience of pain. All of this supports what we already know instinctively. We find shelter and comfort in loving, dependable, supportive relationships.
While we know how important relationship is, there are still many couples that find themselves so unhappy that it would be easier to leave than to stay in misery. How do we get from head-over-heal in love, to an unbearable cycle of ugly fights and long silences? In my personal life and my counseling practice, I have found that it is not the conflict that rips apart relationships. Conflict can be endured, even beneficial in resilient partnerships that nurture safety during vulnerable conversations. It is when the fear of loss of connection distresses the relationship that conflict can turn into rigid cycles of demanding to gain connection and withdrawing to gain safety.
Yet we get stuck in the conflict dance
In the demand-withdraw cycle, which Dr. Sue Johnson calls the Protest Polka, one partner demands, trying to pursue closeness while the other partner withdraws, trying to avoid a fight. Partner one seeks responsive connections longing to experience validation. Partner two seeks safe connections longing to experience success. Both are in hopes of finding a connected, intimate bond with his/her partner, and both probably blaming each other for their disconnection.
Imagine the unsettling music of this punishing polka shouting back and forth: “Dear, just listen to me!” “Darling, just stop fighting.” “Dear, I wouldn’t fight if you would talk to me!” “Darling, we never talk, we just fight!” “You are never there for me!” “You are too demanding!” In this dance, racing furiously across the floor, partner one is really asking, “Do you love me?” and partner two is really asking, “Am I good enough for you?”
So how do we get unstuck?
The demand-withdraw cycle may lead to such disillusionment that neither partner knows how to stop the rigid cycle of conflict, or may no longer desire to reconnect. You can disengage from cycles of conflict, create safe conversations and nurture ways of being with your partner that builds the bond of connection you long for. Some suggested steps to stop the demand-withdraw cycle are:
1) Breath. Slow down and notice when you are triggered. Consider the cause of the trigger without blaming or judgment. Simply notice what happened from your perspective. What did you do/say? What did your partner do/say? This step allows you to notice your part of the cycle versus jumping into it.
2) Notice your emotional and physical sensations. Quietly name the emotion you are experiencing and where you feel that emotion in your body. What might you need at this time perhaps from yourself or from your partner? This step allows you to slow your reactions and create choice.
3) If you can, after giving yourself empathy, consider what your partner might be experiencing from his/her perspective. What do you think he/she saw? Did he/she see your displays of angry demands? Or displays of distant unresponsiveness? What might be his/her current emotional experience? This step allows you to gain your partner’s perspective of his/her part of the cycle and form compassionate empathy for him/her.
4) Consider what it would be like to connect with your partner in compassionate empathy, guessing what your partner is feeling, connecting to that feeling within yourself and wishing your partner well-being. This step allows you to further soften the cycle and perhaps empathically bond with your partner.
5) Consider how it might be to share your current feelings and needs with your partner. How might you share your feelings and needs in a way that would open conversation versus fuel the cycle? How might your partner respond to you in this moment? This step allows you to gauge the current security within your relationship to deeply communicate with your partner. This step allows you to observe your cycle and gain understanding of how the cycle becomes so rigid and repetitive.
Nurturing a more approachable cycle, one that allows the safety to have deeper conversations and security to have a more intimate connection will produce that physical and emotional health research is reporting. Hold Me Tight and Love Sense, both books by Dr. Sue Johnson, are recommended readings on nurturing long lasting love relationships. If you wish to seek support from a therapist while you create more secure bonds in your relationship, please contact me. Also check out my weekend couples workshops.