How do you dance with your partner? Is it smooth and flowing, or do you step all over each other? I’m not talking about physically dancing, but emotionally dancing. I’m talking about the patterns of how the two of you relate to each other, and if there is conflict.
When we are in conflict with our partners, our nervous systems are activated. Our bodies may be in fight or flight mode. This comes from our attachment needs. You may wonder how this occurs and what I am talking about. We learn how to be in relationships from our primary caregivers. These are the people we attach to. We are wired to attach to our caregivers, because it is essential for our survival. This comes from John Bowlby’s theory.
If we feel safe and secure with our primary caregivers, we are wired to learn that the world is safe and predictable. We have many resources to turn to when we are in distress. We turn to people who will calm our nervous system down and make us feel safe in the chaotic world.
However, if we don’t grow up with secure attachment, we learn that the world is not safe and predictable (because our primary caregivers were not there to nurture us when we needed it). Our nervous system will get more easily activated when we are in distress. Our brains don’t develop in the same way as those with secure attachment.
We can’t depend on others to meet our needs; because the ones we needed the most were not there to meet our needs. This is seen with the person who says, “I don’t need anybody, I can handle this all on my own.” When we are in conflict with our partner, we ask ourselves the question, “Will you be there for me when I need you?” This is a basic attachment need. Can I count on my spouse to meet my needs? If your partner shuts down, you may feel your partner is not there for you.
Here is the way a common relationship dance goes. Someone is the pursuer and someone is the distancer. The pursuer is the one who is actively trying to connect. However, the way they do so may appear harsh or offensive. This approach may shut down your partner, as they are so anxious that they can no longer respond. Or it may be that it is so overwhelming as nothing they try seems to work, so they have not choice other than to stop dancing. When they stop dancing, it appears that they are not there for you. As a result, you escalate as a way to try to connect even more. But the way you do so shuts down the person.
Some of what I am talking about here are the basic tenets of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy by Sue Johnson. Her theory makes sense when we ask ourselves why we act the way we do. Have you ever had a conflict with your partner, and then later realize that your approach your partner prevents you from getting what you really need? Perhaps you were really hurt, so you came off as angry. It is very difficult to want to connect with an angry person. The natural response is to avoid that person.
Showing your anger vs. fear prevents you from getting what you need. When you are able to be authentic with your partner and be vulnerable, you can get your needs met. It is much easier to have empathy for someone who is in pain vs. someone who is angry. I once heard someone say that it is difficult to hug a porcupine. So if you feel like a porcupine, and want a hug, share your pain and vulnerability with your partner. That is the only way you can get your needs met.
If you feel you are stuck in a horrible dance with your partner, and want to be able to glide through life, you may want to consider couples therapy. I have work with many couples and I would love the opportunity to help you. Please call me at 713-304-6554.