As one who has worked in the field of intimate relationships for many years, one abiding fascination of mine is the question: What draws us to our partner? Sadly, many who are in conflict and estranged don’t remember, or dismiss the idea that they were really attracted at all. As Dan Gilbert says in his wonderful book Stumbling to Happiness, we see both the past and the future through our present experience. So if we’re really alienated from our lover, we have an almost impossible time thinking of how we felt when we were first drawn to that person. However, I have observed another reality in my work.
When we get beyond the physical attraction and compatibility, I find over and over that what drew individuals to one another is the force of an intuitive sense of safety. Like magnetic attraction, it is unseen and not easily measured, while at the same time, it is intense in its invisible strength. Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is based upon Attachment. This is a deep need in the center of our being for connection and it exists in all of its intensity when we are infants and persists until our dying day. However, many of us (perhaps most of us) had these tender, vital and consuming needs thwarted when we were very young. This left many with a deep, yet not consciously recognized, sense of shame for our fundamental being (after all this is what was rejected when these needs were unfulfilled). Perhaps we may not resonate to the word or notion of “shame” but somewhere inside we carry some combination and gradation of feeling completely alone or inadequate or unlovable. We may silently despair of ever being with another person and being truly accepted – to find that safe harbor where we don’t have to protect ourselves from buffeting winds of judgment or rejection “if they really knew what was inside.” Most of us who carry these wounds inside, learn to cope and carry on. We can be very attractive, smart, sociable, supportive, accomplished or supremely self-sufficient. Any one or a combination of these attributes – or any number of others – help us get through life. Yet, there is a niggling voice, if we are attuned to it, which yearns for a safe place – “where I can be myself.”
I think what often draws us into the intense bond of an adult intimate relationship is that the voice whispers to us (so that whether we actually hear it, the voice registers) that “Here, you have found someone who understands.” Somehow, you intuitively sense that this person may have experienced loss, or fear, or shame in the recesses of their early life that somehow resonates with your own and that they are safe. If this is so, then it certainly explains the intensity of the hurt, anger and sense of betrayal when, in the throes of the inevitable intimate conflict, this person flips from uniquely safe, to dreadfully unsafe. To have taken the risk to open up, only to be judged and rejected is horribly destabilizing.
But there is good news! With time and working with a good couples therapist, we can find that the judgment and rejection were actually the reaction of their partner to their own fears and pain of feeling rejected themselves. It takes time, but that safety can be regained. This will be the subject of future posts.