In Emotionally Focused Therapy, we speak of a cycle which captures the couple in distress. Often there will be a partner caught in the cycle who will experience deep, visceral anxiety over being left alone. That feeling of utter isolation has brought to my mind an iconic scene from Kubrick’s classic 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Frank, one of the two astronauts on the craft which is run by the malevolent computer, HAL, is performing repairs outside. HAL manages to cut Frank’s life-line and we see this desperate figure floating out into nothingness. The spot we see on the right is Frank, struggling for air….unmoored……lost. This is the image that strikes me when I hear of the desperation of the partner who feels emotionally abandoned in the relationship. She (not always, but often she) will struggle against this panic. It is Frank’s panic as he disappears into a vacuum.
So often, when one partner experiences the panic of isolation in the void the response will be heightened protest – a very intense effort to achieve some connection….some oxygen. This may be experienced by the other partner as attack. His (not always, but often his) experience brings to mind the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. The thousands of landing craft approaching the beach. Reinforced steel doors shield the soldiers from any assaults. Then, with a spin of a locking-wheel, the door swings down to create a ramp for the the soldiers to disembark. However, many of these men are decimated by machine gun fire before they can move a muscle. It is a violent assault and you want to swing those doors back up to protect the men. People who experience themselves to be the target of the anger and desperation of their partners, tend to (emotionally) curl up in a self-protective ball. Often, withdrawal to “safety” is the only conceivable step.
Thus, begins the cycle of pursuit/protest and withdrawal/protection that so many couples bring with them to couples therapy. The task we face is to slow down this rapdily spinning cycle. Over time, if we can slow it down, we can begin to create some safety in the couple’s interaction. One will feel less dismissed/abandoned/despised and the other will feel less attacked/demeaned/despised. Slowly we begin to incorporate a positive momentum in couples interactions. We create a positive cycle. I imagine a propellor on the Titanic. The scene from the movie can be accessed on the web. In a panic, the watchmen phone down to the engine room. These people have no time to reverse the course of the great ship. We watch the propellers slow to a stop and then reverse themselves.
The hope of the work we do, is to support couples in their passage from propellers spinning in their cycle at full speed – slowing to a stop – then picking back up at full speed, supporting a positive cycle.
Thank you James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick – marital theorists all!