How comfortable are we being close in our intimate relationships? Do our internal alarm bells go off frequently as we feel our partner pulling away from us? Or is it the opposite – we begin to sweat when they seek to be too close. Do our partners describe us as “clingy” or “aloof?”
Many of us struggle to one degree or another with connections. We often repeat the same dramas and frustrations in our relationships, if we allow ourselves to get close enough to risk the pain or aggravation to begin with – a risk that we willingly take for the love, comfort and companionship we gain. As with so much in life, there is nothing inherently wrong with our tendencies in one direction or another. The trouble, and pain, often arise when, as we so often will, find ourselves bonding with someone who has a contrasting style. Our need for space will feel to our partner like heartlessness and even contempt. (It’s hard to feel contempt from our partner and not freak out.) On the other side, our need for assurance will feel to our partner as clinginess. (It’s hard to feel that intensity and not close up and withdraw.) However, as is usually the case one person is not contemptuous and the other isn’t clingy. It’s the terribly painful cycle that gets triggered. There is an interesting test available on the web here: Adult Attachment Style which can give you and your partner some insight into your tendencies and where the gaps may be which you can fill in with understanding and compassion.
I have frequently said that a turning point in my marriage came when my on-the-go wife accepted my naps. For the first couple of years my afternoon fade into crankiness bucked up against her “How can you waste perfectly good day time,” plea. Eventually, to the blessed relief of my amygdala and the balance of life in the cosmos, weekend naps were accorded their rightful place in our home. I came across another confirmation in Slate today – an article which describes how lack of sleep contributes to heightened couple conflict.
Fatigue isn’t the only other stressor that may tax a couple. I have worked with couples who have no time with each other and haven’t since their first of three children came along or who have suffered with financial setbacks that have necessitated pulling back on a previously comfortable lifestyle or who have opened their home to one’s parents. While the heart of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is the exploration and calming of attachment-related anxieties and wounds inflicted in the whipsaw-like cycle which grabs the couple, we can never ignore the presence of stressors which attack and challenge connection we all hope to maintain in our relationships. Many years ago, Holmes and Rahe engaged in a study which attempted to identify and rate the intensity of various life stressors. A review of these events is an excellent summary of the kinds of external “psycho-social stressors” which can put pressure on a relationship and result in conflict over repeated issues – which may just be seen as symptomatic of the stress as much as (or more than) anything else. These include: trouble with the law, bankruptcy, illness, trouble with in-laws, beginning or ending a job, a child leaving home (or hitting adolescence), change in residence, change in work situation and loss of a close friend, among others. This is why, in any assessment of intimate stress, we must always ask, “What is happening now in your lives? Has anything changed recently?”