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.

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

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

The Purpose of Our Intimate Relationships

Naomi and Ben are both in their late twenties. They are part of a bigger group of friends. On and off they have crossed the line from platonic friends to friends with benefits. Ben seems to be comfortable with this spontaneous commitment-free arrangement, but Naomi is growing more and more dissatisfied with it. Yet, she feels the need to follow popular relationship advice and pretend to be strong and self-sufficient, appear busy and not interested in a serious commitment. Ben can have his cake and eat it too; he gets the excitement of being together intimately while not truly needing to be vulnerable. Meanwhile, Naomi is trying hard to be mysterious and is not expressing her genuine needs and feelings. She has noticed that Ben is more interested in her when she goes out with other guys. Lately, she has half-heartedly started going steady with Rick. All of a sudden, Ben’s interest is really peeked. He wants Naomi to break up with Rick and go steady with him instead. Naomi feels excited, yet guilty. She is confused by Ben’s change of heart as well as by her own feelings. What is at the bottom of this situation?

Attachment theory designates three main “attachment styles”, as well as combinations of them: securely attached, anxiously attached and avoidant of attachment. Stan Tatkin has named these three styles as being an anchor (secure), being like a wave (anxiously torn between attachment and non-attachment) and being like an island (avoiding attachment and favouring independence).

Attachment theory is based in research with children and their primary care-givers, and considers our evolutionary programming. We have been programmed by evolution to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and become attached to them to increase our chances of survival. Our brain has a mechanism that consists of emotions and behaviours that ensure our safety and protection by staying close to our loved ones.

baby-father-hands-cropped

In the 1940s, parenting experts warned that “coddling” would result in needy and insecure children. Parents were told to let their infants cry themselves to sleep, and train them to eat on a strict schedule. In hospitals, the common practice was to separate mothers and babies at birth and keep the babies behind a glass window in the nursery for the first days of their lives. In the 50s and 60s, attachment theory (Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby) proved that infants who had all their nutritional needs taken care of but lacked an attachment figure failed to develop normally. Their physical, intellectual, emotional and social development was affected.

In fact, attachment is an integral part of human behaviour throughout our entire lifetime. Our learned attachment style is relevant for a variety of relationship situations in adulthood. “We live in a culture that seems to scorn basic needs for intimacy, closeness, and especially dependency, while exalting independence. We tend to accept this attitude as truth—to our detriment” (Amir Levine, Attached). The co-dependency movement and other similar approaches portray healthy adult relationship attachment in a way that is similar to the detrimental views held in the 1920s about child rearing. According to these ideas, we should be able to distance ourselves from our partner and look after ourselves. If you are emotionally attached it is looked upon as “too enmeshed” and “co-dependant”.

couple-holding-hands

As much as I agree that we are responsible for our own feelings, we are also in each other’s care in a partnership. Partners can have a huge stress relieving effect on each other. The assumption that we should control our emotional needs and soothe ourselves in the face of stress is at odds with our biology. “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood.” (Amir Levine)

If our partner does not know how to reassure us when we are stressed, we are programmed to continue our attempts to achieve closeness and reassurance. That might look like “neediness” or “clinginess”. In reality, we are only as “needy” as our unmet needs!

Needy

There is in fact a phenomenon that is called “dependency paradox” in attachment literature. “The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become” (Amir Levine). The ability to step into the world on our own stems from the knowledge that there is someone we can count on for emotional and physical support. If we feel secure, the world is at our feet. We can step into the unknown, take risks, be creative, and pursue our goals and dreams. As adults, we provide the attachment role for our partner. We are able to provide a secure base for each other if we understand our attachment styles and work on being securely attached to each other.

When we flip between feeling insecure, anxious or even obsessive and feeling elated and passionate in our relationship, we might mistake this for love. However, what is most likely going on is an activated attachment system of somebody who has a non-secure attachment style. Jealousy, fear, and mistrust are not signs of love, but signs that we are in a relationship with an insecure attachment.

When we are in a relationship with somebody who has a secure attachment style, our experience is completely different. Securely attached people are

  • Great at de-escalating a conflict
  • Not threatened by criticism
  • Effective communicators
  • Not game players
  • Comfortable with closeness
  • Quick to forgive
  • Inclined to view emotional intimacy and sex as one
  • Respectful and loving with their partner
  • Confident in their ability to improve the relationship
  • Responsive to their partner’s needs and well-being

In such a secure relationship the true purpose of our intimate relationships becomes clear. The partners provide a sacred space for each other to be able to be who we truly are with all our needs and desires.

relationships_purpose

To get back to our couple from the beginning, Ben has a mostly avoidant attachment style. He sends mixed messages about his feelings, doesn’t like girls who are “too needy” or “too dramatic”, he pulls away when things are getting close, and he wants to keep the relationship light and non-committal. He feels most comfortable being aloof and independent. He only misses Naomi when they are apart, or once he realizes he might lose her to somebody else. Naomi, on the other hand, has a relationship history which has turned her from being secure in her affection for her significant other into somebody who longs for closeness but doesn’t dare to hope for a secure attachment. Their vibration matches. Ben mirrors her expectations and fears.

To get out of this painful pattern, Naomi needs to understand his attachment style and be authentic in regard to her own needs, feelings and dreams. We can all learn more securely attached relationship interactions. That shift begins with an honest relationship with ourselves.

Rumi_Love Barriers 1

 

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The See-Saw Effect – What You Suppress Your Partner Will Express

Have you ever felt surprised by your mood unexpectedly shifting and an emotion suddenly boiling up?

Maybe you felt a bit annoyed about something that happened during the day and when your partner comes home, you share with him or her, and suddenly you feel really angry?

Or you felt a bit concerned about your mother’s health and you talk to your father who is apparently not worried but quite calm. Yet, you suddenly feel really scared and worried about her?

What has happened in those two situations? You felt a bit annoyed respectively a bit worried and suddenly the emotions boiled over into anger and fear. Why? Who pushed the button for that eruption?

John Gray cartoon fear

John Gray: What You Feel You Can Heal

Your partner and your father pushed the button without knowing they did. Both of them where disconnected to their own emotions and had suppressed their anger and their fear. We disown certain energies because we have learned it is “bad” to feel or be a certain way. However, whenever one person is trying to bury an emotion, somebody else will express it for them. The more closely connected these two people are, the more they are able to feel and experience each other’s emotions.

In our example, you were feeling and expressing the anger and fear for both of you, yourself and the partner in your interaction. This happens unconsciously and automatically. Suppressed energy has to go somewhere. A vacuum of energy draws that energy in from somewhere else. John Gray illustrates with great humour how our emotional “tank” work when we are in a relationship:

John Gray cartoon anger

John Gray: What You Feel You Can Heal

Wilma is starting to feel anger but pushes it down because she has learned that nice girls don’t get angry. The more she pushes it down, the more Fred feels it and the anger rises in his side of the tank. All of a sudden, Fred starts to feel irritable and angry. Wilma might try to also repress his feeling of anger by attempting to calm him down. This continues until Fred explodes. If this happens on a regular basis, Fred might even be labelled as an angry person. Both remain clueless why the anger explodes.

When we push down a feeling, it comes up in our partner. John Grey calls this the see-saw effect. One example John Grey gives for the see-saw effect is the emotion of “need”. Fred falls in love with Wilma. He starts to feel his need for her but that feeling frightens him because he might lose her. So he pushes that feeling down, telling himself he does not want to get too committed. The feeling of need goes over to Wilma’s side of the “tank” adding to her own feelings of need. Wilma becomes insecure and desperate, and starts to feel what is commonly called “needy”. Some people go from one partner to another, wondering why their partners all become so “needy” around them. Who is the common denominator? The person who is out of touch with his feelings of need and fear.

A friend of mine who is generally seen as a peaceful and calm person always seems to end up in relationships with angry women. When he first meets them, they are quite pleasant. Yet, the longer their relationship lasts, the more annoyed and angry the women seem to all become. They yell at him more and more frequently, more and more loudly, while he shuts down more and more, unable to feel his own emotions. Eventually, he leaves them because he can’t stand being yelled at anymore. Until he embraces his own anger and learns to acknowledge and express it appropriately, he will always attract somebody who expresses this deeply buried emotion for him.

Are you tired of having all these invisible buttons on your chest that others can just push?

Would you like to stop triggering others and stop being triggered yourself?

Would you like to learn more about how we disown certain energies because we have learned it is “bad” to feel or be a certain way and how we can live more conscious relationships as whole human beings who love themselves and others?

I offer individual coaching sessions and workshops.

Angelika wide picture for blogs

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

Upcoming Workshop:

“Shadow Energetics” training with Darryl Gurney, June 18-21, 2015

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