Kate and Tom have been together for 5 years. They are both professionals and have successful careers. They used to get along so well but more recently end up arguing more and more. Kate says that it is because Tom doesn’t listen to her and he is insensitive whilst Tom thinks it’s because Kate is too picky and she should just lighten up a bit. They continuously argue over seemingly trivial matters.
Mike and Tina often end up in a pattern where Tina wants Mike’s attention and him to listen to her resulting in her complaining about Mike’s domestic abilities and effort. Mike feels like he can do nothing right in the eyes of Tina as she is always on his case. The more Tina complains the more Mike withdraws into his shell and often disappears either to his hobbies or in the cyber world. This vicious cycle just repeats itself. There are times on an odd occasion when they are able to get along for a short time but no longer after they are in this pattern of unhappiness again.
Dave and Lisa have reached a point where there are no longer arguments. There is just deadly silence. Dave grew up with very practical parents and learnt from an early age that men are not supposed to be “soppy” and you have to be strong and not be too emotionally expressive. He became very independent and when he met Lisa, whom to him sometimes seemed too emotional, he felt out of depth with her. She seemed so demanding and needy.
For years Lisa tried to some emotional engagement out of Dave by nagging and pleading until she gave up thinking “What is the point. He will never change.” Dave was pleased that Lisa stopped criticising him but at the same time, the deadness of their relationship was making both of them miserable. Would they be able to save their relationship?
Do you recognise any of the relationship patterns? Does your relationship feel emotionally unsafe and is it heading towards a direction where there is no return?
A couple of week’s ago I started a series on relationships and the first post looked at the neurobiology of our emotional bonds. Previously I have also written about how early relationships impact our adult relationships.
The aim of this post that is divided into two parts, is to help you to understand and recognise the unhelpful patterns in your relationship that are contributing to distress and emotional unsafety in the relationship. In the second post, I aim to offer some suggestions on how to start changing these patterns.
This post is based on the work of Dr Sue Johnson, one of the developers of Emotional Focused Therapy for couples. In her book “Hold me tight” she talks about the seven conversations that can transform your relationships and make it an emotionally safe haven. Please note that this post does not address or refer to emotionally or physically abusive relationships.
Fundamentally like babies with their primary care giver, we as adults long for emotional safety in our relationships. Evolution designed our bodybrain to keep us safe both emotionally and physically. If a sign for danger, in this case, emotional detachment from our partner, is detected we are likely to react either by e.g. expressing an attachment cry (criticising partner) or withdrawing from our partner depending on our earlier experiences with attachment figures.
Emotionally focused couples therapy focuses on (re)-building a safe emotional bond with your partner. The relationship can thrive only it has emotional safety. When we believe that our partner is there for us, disagreements don’t derail the relationship and the ruptures can be repaired without too much difficulty. This post talks about the first three steps of forming a loving relationship with your partner introduced by Dr Johnson in her book “Hold me tight”.
Conversation 1: Recognising the demon dialogues
Dr Johnson suggests that to start changing the behaviour patterns in your relationship you should start by recognising the behaviour / emotional patterns which demonstrate the disconnection and get you further and further away from your partner. She calls them the “Demon Dialogues” and describes the patterns to be like a dance.
The first example above, the case of Kate and Tom refers to the “Find the bad guy” dialogue. The characteristic of the engagement pattern is “mutual attack, accusation or blame”. It could also be called “attack is the best defence” – strategy. We feel unsafe and want to maintain control by highlighting our partner’s “faults” or shortcomings. Being caught in the pattern, one starts to expect it and the cycle continues, and it takes partners further and further away from each other.
The second example above refers to the “Protest Polka” – pattern. This is characterised by a partner trying to get their partner’s attention in a negative way as they are reacting to the sensed emotional distance and the other withdraws as a result.
Often one partner has an insecure ambivalent (very anxious about any distance in the relationship) and the other has avoidant attachment style (fiercely independent and has difficulty to form close emotional bonds). My recent post talks about how these early attachment styles impact adult relationships.
The third example refers to “Freeze and flee” – dialogue. This pattern has often evolved from Protest polka, when the critical partner gives up on trying to reach out to their partner and there is only silence left as the withdrawing partner finds it difficult to reach out for closeness. The relationship feels so unsafe that no one takes emotional risks to reach out to their partner. The partners are potentially drifting further and further away from each other and mourning the loss of their relationship.
Conversation 2: Finding the raw spots
All of us have raw spots in relationships, which are caused by being let down, neglected, abused and/or various other life events that have impacted our sense of safety in relationships. When these raw spots are being triggered, our brainbody is alarmed. Essentially our primary need is to feel emotionally/physically safe and a sense of disconnection / disapproval in the relationship. Someone said that relationships are 90% of what happened to you in your past and 10% of what is going on in front of you.
Reflect on your parents’ relationship with each other and what they taught you about relationships. What was your relationship with each of them like? Where they emotionally present or not (childhood emotional neglect)? Are you able to share with your partner these reflections?
“Generally in love, sharing even negative emotional, provided they don’t get out of hand, is more useful than emotional absence.” – Dr Sue Johnson
Conversation 3: Revising a rocky moment
This step can be a very challenging step for you if you feel very emotionally unsafe in your relationship and you be feel flooded with anxiety. If you are feeling relatively safe in your relationship you may be able to be more objective in analysing your relationship dance and where your raw spots get rubbed. There are three very important aspects of it for you to recognise, acknowledge and action.
Dr Johnson states that for reconnection partners will have to be able to de-escalate and create some emotional safety. She suggests taking these steps for creating harmony in your relationship when you are in the middle of an argument.
1. De-escalating disconnection:
a. Stopping The Game – Stopping and observing what is actually going on in an argument
b. Claiming your own moves – Naming how each partner is behaving and the other responding/reacting to it.
c. Claiming your own feelings – Reflecting and naming your feelings as the arguments unfold.
d. Owning how you shape your partner’s feelings – Recognising and acknowledging how we impact our partner during the argument.
e. Asking about your partner’s deeper emotions. – It is very easy to get caught in one’s own emotions but by becoming curious about your partner’s emotions you can create emotional understanding and closeness.
f. Sharing your deeper, softer emotions – Letting your partner know how it really impacts you when you argue. This may bring up feelings of shame and/or sadness that you have never shared.
g. Standing together – Dr Johnson states that taking the above steps together and the couple creates a common ground, and will not see each other as the enemy anymore but as allies with a shared goal.
2. Recognising your impact on your partner
This is about stepping away from you and your raw stops to taking a good look at how your reactions impact your partner. How does your partner feel when I say or do X?
Acknowledge that this may be uncomfortable for you as you realise how you may be rubbing your partner’s raw spots both consciously and unconsciously. This is not about blaming anyone but acknowledging that both of you are suffering in this situation and by assessing and acknowledging your “demon dance”, you can hopefully start to change the patterns.
3. Recognising how fear drives your partner
Be curious about your partner and how their raw spots are being rubbed in your relationship. Perhaps think about a recent not too emotionally loaded and painful conversation and assess how you both played different roles in it.
Unfortunately, our brain is designed to automate things and this includes your relationship, which can lead us to make assumptions about our partner that are not true. Therefore, it is important to remain curious about your partner and what makes them tick or unsettles their safety system.
Hope you have found this post useful so far. The second part can be read here. It talks about reconnecting, bonding and maintaining love in your relationship.
If you are looking for a therapist to help you to understand your relationship patterns, take a look at my services page. I’m always happy to chat on the phone.
* The above case does not refer to any actual past or present clients, but it is a collection of relationship stories I have heard over the years.
Dr Sue Johnson, Hold me tight.