When we are in conflict with our spouse or partner there is almost always something else going on underneath the anger and the details of the argument. We are not fighting about the kids or the laundry or the dirty socks on the floor, although these can easily be the catalyst for our rage. No, we are fighting about something much more basic, much more primal. As Sue Johnson, researcher and developer of Emotion Focused Therapy puts it, “Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you? Do you need me, rely on me? The anger, the criticism, the demands are really cries to their lovers, to stir their hearts, to draw their mates back emotionally and reestablish a sense of safe connection.”
In her work Johnson recommends that we learn to identify patterns of behavior that keep us from feeling safe and secure with our partner. Once we have identified the patterns those patterns themselves can become the enemy, rather than our loved one, and we can fight against them together. What are the typical patterns? Here is a primer:
• The Protest: In this type of disconnection one person becomes critical and aggressive and the other defensive and distant. The couple is usually caught up in the content (the details) of the fight and who is right and wrong. In this scenario the more one party blames, the more the other withdraws. This often leads to louder blaming and more rigid and frigid withdrawal. Protest can also quickly turn into a round of finger pointing and blame that goes in both directions. Johnson calls this, “Find the Bad Guy”. When we are stuck in this kind of interaction we are often only able to see how our partner is affecting us and unable to be aware of our impact on them. All that seems to matter is who is right and who is wrong.
• Freeze and Flee: Often after the protest phase of a relationship has been going on for a long time, both partners give up. There is no more protest or defense, everyone just retreats to their corners and a deep, dark winter descends on the relationship. There may be no fighting, and on the surface all may seem well, but under the ice and snow of withdrawal both people are in great pain, feeling disconnected and very alone.
So how do we begin to unravel the patterns of behavior that lead to disconnection? The first step is to identify the most common ways in which the disconnection begins. Does one person criticize and the other defend? Do both try to determine who remembers a specific situation correctly or try to prove their point is the only correct perspective? Have both withdrawn and given up?
The next step is to identify what Johnson calls, “raw spots”. These are signals sent by our partner or the environment that set off alarm bells in us. Often they are automatic responses that can be just below our conscious awareness (until we begin paying close attention), and are echoes of past hurts and rejections born in childhood or in later relationships. Our brains and body believe we are in danger and the survival part of us leaps into action.
If a raw spot gets activated, we may feel angry and attack, if fearful retreat, if ashamed we may hide, if sad we could give up on our partner. None of these are effective if we want to stay connected and loving in our relationship. All lead to more pain and suffering.
Join me next time when I share some of the ways to intervene in the patterns discussed here. Until then, consider what the patterns are in your relationship. Who protests? Who retreats? What attachment style do you bring to your relationship? Do you know what some of your raw spots are?