You Are My Valued Tor-Mentor

In my last article called “Relationship Dance” we met Sue and John, who were caught up in a dynamic of one of them retreating and the other one pursuing. There are other patterns we fall into as a couple.

Karen and Frank came in because they agreed that Frank’s anger and jealousy was destroying their relationship. Their dance was that, whenever he was stressed and upset, she tried to rationalize with him. She wanted to show him that there was no reason to feel stressed. However, the more she rationalized, the more he felt judged and not heard, and the angrier he usually became.

A similar dynamic was going on in regards to Frank feeling jealous of Karen’s relationship with her two adult sons from her first marriage. Karen was dismissive of his insecurities and told him that her sons would always be more important than he was. The more jealous and angry he became, the more Karen wanted to avoid him and not even come home but rather stay the night at one of her sons’ homes when she visited them.

Both partners show up in this dance taken over by their protective parts. Frank’s protectors are jealousy and anger. Karen’s protectors are the rational part, a dismissive part and a part that wants her to hide or run.

We have learned to exile our sensitive and vulnerable child parts. Those parts in us are often love-starved and carry limiting beliefs about relationships. We enter intimate partnerships and hope to get the love those exiles crave from our partner. Because our vulnerable child parts are clingy, needy or feel inadequate, our partner often ends up feeling overburdened or not good enough. Due to the fact that we are disconnected from our own vulnerable inner children, we end up judging each other for having exiled parts and protective behaviours.

Internal Family Systems work, or short IFS, offers a solution to this seemingly impossible cycle. We all have a source of love within us referred to as “Self”. This is our compassionate core essence. From Self, we can retrieve our exiled wounded child parts and become the primary caretaker for them. When we take good care of our own parts and they trust us, they don’t have to take over. The exiled children don’t have to desperately bond into our partner. Our protective parts, like the controlling one, or the angry one, or the retreating one, can also relax, instead of dominating the interactions. That makes it easier for our partner to be the secondary caretaker of our vulnerable inner children.

In our sessions, Karen was able to witness how the angry and jealous protectors were revealing some very vulnerable younger parts inside of Frank. When Frank was 5, his dad died, and when he was 8, his mother surprisingly remarried while Frank was staying at his grandparents. When he came home, everything had changed. The little boy experienced a tremendous amount of grief over first losing his dad and then losing the close connection with his mother. He never grew to like the step-father, who he felt was an intruder. When his mom remarried, he felt betrayed and abandoned. He had learned that the people he loves will leave him and betray him.

Using IFS, he was able to re-parent himself and assist his younger selves to let go of the beliefs and emotions they were carrying. After releasing these burdens, his protectors were able to relax. His jealousy as well as his anger were greatly reduced. Karen gained more empathy for him and helped him to work through any remaining jealousy issues. She made sure that she included him in talks and activities with her sons and their families. She started reassuring Frank on a regular basis with words of affirmation that his feelings were as important as her sons’ and that she had no intention of abandoning him.

Karen did her own parts work to discover that underneath her rational part was a younger self that felt overburdened by taking care of her bi-polar mother. Just as Frank’s protectors were triggered by Karen, Karen was triggered by Frank reacting “irrationally” and “unpredictably” just like her mother. The rational voice had become her survival strategy to cope with being the emotional caretaker of a parent. At the same time, she felt resentment about needing to be the caretaker and transferred that to Frank. The retreating protector of hers would also kick in and would instruct her “to run away”, just like she did when she was 16 and moved in with her uncle and aunt.

Karen reparented her vulnerable younger exiled parts as well. Frank began to understand how Karen’s responses had nothing to do with him but everything to do with her childhood experiences. He learned to calmly let her know in different situations that he appreciated her being rational but that he needed her to non-judgmentally acknowledge his feelings.

Our relationships are without doubt our greatest teachers. When our partner pushes our buttons, we are given an opportunity to heal. Schwartz talks about our partner being our “tor-mentor”. Our partner mentors us by giving us an experience of pain and bringing the old attachment wounds to the surface.

“…our partner can be an invaluable tor-mentor—that is, a person who mentors us by tormenting us. It is very difficult to find all our basement children when we’re not in an intimate relationship because often we only become aware of them when they are triggered by an intimate partner. Inevitably, our partner will act like an early caretaker who hurt us, and we will have an extreme reaction—and attachment re-injury. If we follow the trail of emotion to its inner source, we will find yet another exile in need of our love.” (Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You Have Been Waiting For)

 

Join me on Sunday, August 12 for a workshop in Mississauga from 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. You will learn how to work with your parts, especially the critical inner voices and transform them, how to parent your inner child parts and heal them, and how to acquire the ability to lead more and more from Self. For more information or to register, please call me.

If you are curious about finding out more about working with your parts contact me for a free phone consultation. I offer sessions for individuals and couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

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Relationship Dance

Sue and John have come for help with their marriage. In their first session Sue seems desperate and eager to figure out what is going on with them. John has come along but he appears distant and disconnected. As the session unfolds, a not uncommon dynamic becomes apparent: One partner is the one who pursues closeness, the other one distances him or herself.

Sue tries to reach John frantically through her words, her emotions and her body language. One moment, she reaches out to him lovingly and patiently, the next she hurls some strong emotion at him. Nothing seems to penetrate his stoic and unemotional stance. Neither touch, nor loving words, nor angry ones, nor tears, make a difference.

Sue and John are in a vicious cycle that Terry Real calls “stance, stance, dance”. Her stance is to reach out for love and attention, his stance is to resist and retreat, and thus their familiar dance unfolds. The more she asks for closeness and emotional connection, the more alienated he feels. The more he senses her longing for connection, the more he feels “broken” because he is not able to provide the intimacy she seems to need. The more he feels inadequate, the more distant and closed off he becomes. As he retreats further, Sue interprets this as a rejection. She thinks, “there must be something wrong with me that he does not reassure me with loving words”. She tries even more desperately to get through to him. One moment she is loving, the next moment she gets angry or pushes him away. Nothing has an effect.

Reading my description you might feel for either Sue or John, and you might feel inclined to judge the other one as either “too needy” or “too cold”. While both are deep down longing for a secure loving relationship, they clearly have different ways of showing up in relationships. They might draw the conclusion that their partner is just not the right one for them, but a similar dance would most likely occur again with another partner. We have just often not been taught how to get out of our patterns and how to create that secure relationship we all want.

In the 1950s, Psychoanalyst John Bowlby brought our attention to the fact that our early experiences with our caretakers have a profound influence on our relationships. Mary Ainsworth tested Bowlby’s theory in the laboratory with mothers and infants and she distinguished four basic attachment styles.

  1. Babies who had mothers who were consistently and tenderly responsive to their baby’s needs were able to quickly soothe themselves when separated because they were securely attached. They had learned through the consistent loving parent that life was safe and that they were cared for.
  2. Infants of mothers who were consistently cold, rejecting, rigid or even neglectful, developed an avoidant attachment style. They showed little emotion and seemed to be indifferent to being separated from their mother. They had learned that it is best not to need or rely on anybody else. Stan Tatkin calls this group of people islands and speaks of people having “island tendencies”.
  3. Another group of mothers were inconsistent. They were sometimes appropriately nurturing and connected according to the child’s state of mind, at other times not. These children tended to clutch to their mother when they were together, and became inconsolable when they were separated. Stan Takin’s name for this ambivalent attachment style is waves. When we have experienced that our primary attachment figure is unpredictable and inconsistent, we crave their reassurance but learn to be unsure of being able to get it. Like a wave at the shore we might reach out to our partner and then retreat, reach out again and then retreat.
  4. The final group of children were victims of abuse or highly neglectful and unpredictable parenting. They showed a disorganized attachment style, and when separated from their mothers their trauma manifested as moving in circles, rocking back and forth or going into a frozen state.

The estimates are that only about 50%-56% of children have experienced a secure attachment style. That leaves every second one of us with an attachment style or at least attachment tendencies which can create issues in personal interactions. With these acquired attachments styles, we have also learned specific subconscious beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world. We might for example have learned that we are a burden, not important or lovable. Or that other people can’t be relied on and that the world in general is not a safe place for us. We all have certain attachment injuries. Some traumas are less intense than others but they all affect our relationships, especially our close love relationships.

Maybe you have guessed that John is an island and Sue is a wave. The more she comes crashing onto the shore of the island he has retreated onto, the higher his protective walls become. His history holds the answers to why he avoids attachment. John’s mother died when he was five years old, and he learned to get attention by being the brave stoic little soldier, independent and not needing any help or emotional support. His grandmother, who raised him, was controlling and rigid. That made him even more determined to be independent and play his cards close to his chest.

Sue, on the other hand, grew up with an older mother who was inconsistent. One moment she was overprotective and fearful, the next she was distracted and absent-minded. Sue remembers being very shy as a child and not wanting to part from her mother when it was time to go to school. She got most attention from her mother when she was helpless and needed something. She also had an emotionally distant father whose attention she tried in vain to get.

When our intimate partner does or says something that is similar to what our primary caretaker did, we experience what Richard C. Schwartz calls an “attachment re-injury”. We experience the same betrayal, fear, abandonment or humiliation, and the old limiting beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world seem to be confirmed. When John retreats, Sue experiences the same insecurity she went through as a child. When Sue wants to connect, John feels intruded upon just as he felt as a boy, and fears that his independence is threatened. By learning to communicate better, to resolve conflicts or make compromises, a couple might make some progress, but we are missing the mark because the attachment injuries are not unearthed.

The first step necessary to shift out of a specific relationship dance is conscious awareness of the pattern or patterns and the underlying attachment styles. When we bring attention to what a pattern is, it already slows down the habit loop. The awareness begins to disconnect some of the circuitry of the brain that makes the habit so powerful.

For Sue, the awareness is that she feels abandoned, disconnected, alone and unloved when John retreats. She starts to feel desperate and reaches out. What she wants is to feel safe and loved. For John, the awareness is that he feels intruded upon, smothered and inadequate. His protection is to close down. What he wants is autonomy and to feel good enough. If they connect to their needs and motivations for their individual stance, they are already creating space for something different. Without further interventions, they might still repeat the behaviour but it already weakens the pattern because they are now aware of their underlying motivations.

Becoming aware of the pattern and motivations also shifts our focus from “my partner is the problem” or “something must be wrong with my needs” to ”the pattern is the problem”. Sue and John can both shift into thinking, “how does he/she feel vulnerable in this dance?” Sue can realize that John is scared about being too close and feels inadequate. John can become aware that Sue’s intention is not to encroach on his independence, but that it is about her vulnerable feelings of abandonment. The second step, for both of them, is to work on the original attachment injury.

If you want to know how IFS (Internal Family Systems) offers a way to heal our attachment injuries and childhood traumas, please read my upcoming blog article called “You Are My Valued Tor-Mentor”, which will be posted in a few days.

If you don’t want to miss the article you can subscribe to email notifications. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. I greatly appreciate your time and your support!

I offer sessions for individuals and couples and you can contact me for a free phone consultation.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca