Hold Me Tight:
Conversations That Cut to the Core of Couple Conflict
In the last issue of Tonic, I wrote about Bowlby's Attachment Theory. It posits that our relationships with our caregivers when we were young, especially in relation to whether we were comforted in times of distress, greatly influence how we interact in our adult relationships. If we felt safe to go out to explore and cared for if we were in distress, then we usually developed secure attachment to partners and friends. If not, we may have developed attachment coping strategies that made sense at the time, but might no longer work well for us in our adult relationships.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)
Dr. Sue Johnson has developed an approach that helps couples connect on a deeper level- or even just identify a pattern of fighting. The premise of EFT is that we are social animals and need connection with others. Even the introverts among us need a bond with others. The Western perspective is that dependency is inherently unhealthy. Dependency can indeed be unhealthy, however “constructive dependency” makes us stronger, not weaker. She emphasizes that we did not evolve to be self-sufficient. The autonomy that we crave and that is healthy develops when we know that others are there for us when we need them. She believes that our main strength is our connection with others: this longing for connection is actually wired into our brains. Most arguments between couples, at their root and underneath the protective cover, is a “protest over emotional disconnection.”
For example, a classic pattern among many couples is the pursue/withdraw “dance”, as she likes to call it. One partner reaches out, perhaps in an ineffective way, to seek reassurance about the other's commitment or to feel seen or loved. Sometimes this reaching can be expressed as an angry “You are not listening” or fearful “You don't seem to care”. This manner of expression can come across as demanding, attacking and/or clingy, to which our partner often withdraws in order to protect themselves from the intense emotions. The more the one partner pursues for connection, the more the other withdraws. It is not the conflict that causes the stress or demise of a relationship, but rather the decreasing emotional connection between the partners.
The first step to resolving conflict is to understand the underlying “demon dialogue”. It is about uncovering what is underneath the argument. Is it that one partner is upset that the other is working a lot, or is it really underneath that they are missing the other? Is the argument about the other partner not doing their chores, or a fear that they no longer matter to the other? Are they fighting about the vacation plans or does one feel that what they do (e.g. planning vacations) is never good enough for the other? Uncovering what the dialogue is really about and the recurring pattern is key to resolving the dance of the relationship.
Emotional responsiveness is the key to a healthy and happy relationship, according to EFT. There are three main components of this responsiveness: accessibility, responsiveness and engagement. Accessibility refers remaining emotionally open to a partner even when we feel insecure or overwhelmed. We need to pay attention to what our emotions tell us about ourselves and our wants in the moment, even when those are hard to examine or accept. We might need a short time out, but then we need to reconnect when we are ready. Our partner wants to know that they can reach us. Next, we need to offer and feel responsiveness. We need to know that our partner will interact with us on an emotional level and that how we feel matters to them. Thirdly, we crave engagement. We want to know that our partner values us and will not run away. We want our partners to be emotionally as well as physically present to who we are. It helps us to know that we are not alone.
Finding the Raw Spots
Everyone has their triggers or raw spots. We each have our own unique sensitive places, often related to wounds from our past or current relationships, especially those with our parents. We might be more sensitive to certain tones in which our partner speaks to us, specific words or accusations, even our partner's behavioural response (or lack thereof) to what we have to say. Our response can seem like hypersensitivity or over-reaction to the situation, but it is the rawness and history of the wound that increases its intensity in the moment. We are often unaware of these raw spots despite their reappearance in conflicts over and over again, as they are masked by the particulars of the presenting situation.
Emotions Are Not Irrational
Our emotions happen for a reason: they are not irrational. Emotions are usually influenced by our longings or needs, raw spots, and can be magnified by other current emotional impacts, such as stress at work. Emotions are very primal and immediate, not cognitive. They usually make sense once we look at our past and how we handled previous interactions with our raw spots or how we coped with difficult situations, especially those coping skills we learned as kids. We can learn to suppress our emotional reactions; however they are still there, under the surface. Sometimes we need to put our emotions aside temporarily, such as when we need to be strong for another. Sometimes we hold them back because it is not safe to let them out given the context and the people present. Sometimes we are feeling so much that we are overwhelmed and numb out in order to get through the moment. The key is to allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel the emotions when we are in a safe and caring place. Suppressing our emotions regularly can have a negative impact on our physical and mental health and our relationships.
If you are curious to learn more, Sue Johnson's book Hold Me Tight is a great resource to read alone or with a partner or friend to help better understand pattern demon dialogues, raw spots and emotional responses. It is designed for professionals and lay folks alike. If you like the approach and want to dive a little deeper, a therapist trained in EFT can help.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to www.goodforher.com