The last two weeks I have been writing about a new way of understanding love relationships, based on the idea that we are meant to be bonded to our mate, and that the way we were nurtured, or not, in childhood, shows up in how we relate to our lover.
The really good news is that no matter how we were treated as children it is possible to heal. A safe, stable relationship in adulthood can be the salve that treats our early wounds. But how do we go about this?
The first step is to identify times when we go from feeling connected to our partner to afraid and vulnerable. These times are sometimes hard to see because often rather than experiencing the fear that our mate is not really there for us, we get angry instead. This is our brain’s ingenious way of trying to protect us. Fear is triggered and BAM! we are thrown right into the survival part of the brain and anger takes over. The wiser part of us doesn’t even get a chance to weigh in.
If the pre-frontal cortex had been consulted, we may have been able to see that rather than being angry at our partner’s inattentiveness or what seemed like criticism, we were actually afraid or sad. If this was recognized, then we could have responded in a different, more effective way. Perhaps we would ask for clarification about what was happening with our lover, what they meant or how they are feeling, or maybe we would request a hug or some other kind of reassurance.
For many of us, however, it is difficult to stop ourselves from saying and doing things when we are angry that actually end up making the situation worse and our partner more distant. As a result we end up getting exactly the opposite of what we really want and need, which is to be close and to feel safe and loved.
If this is happening in your relationship, start the process of healing by making a commitment to refrain from saying or doing anything until you no longer feel angry. Instead of reacting, take a break, go for a walk, splash really cold water on your face or hold an ice cube in your hand or on the back of your neck. Take ten deep, slow breaths. Do math in your head, or count all the rectangles in the room. Do anything that moves you out of survival brain and into a calm place where you can access logic and wisdom. Be sure to tell your partner ahead of time (at a time when you are not in conflict) that you will be doing this and tell them that you promise to return and be with them when you have regulated your emotions.
The next step is to identify what was under your anger. Something happened that irritated one of your “raw spots” as Sue Johnson calls them in her book Hold Me Tight. (Raw spots are places where, due to our own history, we are vulnerable and easily injured by someone we love.) What was it? Was it something your partner said, or did, a look or gesture, a failure to respond? Try to be as precise as possible about what rubbed your raw spot.
It is common to get into a never ending feedback loop with our significant other in which they rub our raw spot and we respond by either attacking or withdrawing, which then triggers their raw spot angst and they attack or withdraw, which triggers us again, and round and round it goes. Both people are responding to their own fear and pain in a never ending circle of disconnection.
Once you have identified what is going on for you, the next step is to tell your partner in a gentle and loving way what it was that affected you and to ask for what you need to feel close again. It is important in this part of the process that we take responsibility for our own reaction, our own raw spot, and at the same time ask our partner to be extra careful not to irritate it. If there has been a lot of disconnection, anger, withdrawal and hopelessness in the relationship it can take a long time to begin to heal and reconnect. But, it is possible. Keep trying, and let your partner know how important it is to you. Make the never ending circle of disconnection the enemy instead of each other.
It is often helpful to work with a skilled therapist during the initial stages of healing a relationship. Books and videos can also support the process. Below are links to one of Sue Johnson’s talks about attachment and love relationships, as well as a link to a how-to video that describes a style of embrace that seems to synchronize partner’s nervous systems and helps keep us more securely bonded to the one we love.