One of the big goals in relationship work is to help shift people who are intimately bonded from a place of defensiveness and anger to one of connection and safety. It’s a process and requires patience, but it is a goal many have achieved. One of the steps along the journey occurs when one partner will shift, if just for a moment, from that hard, self-protective, space and reach out to the other. The gesture may be a glimpse of vulnerability, or word of tenderness. It is what Gottman calls a “repair attempt” and when a couple is clicking, these repair attempts are acknowledged and reciprocated and the temperature lowers to safe levels.
However, one thing I have noticed over time is that men, more than women, tend to respond to the softening from their partner with a continued recitation of old hurts and past insults. I often wonder at this tenacious grip on earlier pains in the face of (what seems to me at least to be) ardent attempts by their partner to reach out. It seems to me that what these men are saying is that they still don’t think their partners really, deeply, understand the pain they experienced (and if my partner doesn’t understand the depth of the pain I experienced, how can I believe and trust that they will not strike out again). This dilemma points to one important goal in any successful couples therapy, which is to help the partner understand that when he brings up these old wounds it is not because he wants to continue fighting. He just desperately needs assurance that his partner is safe for him and she gets how their conflict just knocks him off his feet. He needs to hear that she does not want to hurt him so deeply and will be very careful – even if she is, herself, hurt or frightened. It may be a slow, halting process, but once that trust begins to settle in he will almost always find himself free to be who he has always wanted to be in this complex, rich, intimate dance.