The Timeless Internal Tension

I know what you’re thinking – “Sounds like the name of a great new rock band!”  Well, sadly, not yet.  Maybe they will emerge from a Portland  garage some day, but, for now we’ll have to content ourselves with discussing The Timeless Internal Tension as a universal psychological experience.  It was beautifully described by one of the early masters of family therapy, Murray Bowen, as the tension between the two basic, and competing, drives we all possess – toward connection and togetherness, on the one hand,  and autonomy, on the other.  Both are vital for our sensetug.1 of well-being.  Too much of the first results in our losing ourselves in a need to merge with others.  Too much of the latter results in our utter isolation.  This is also reflected in the basic Attachment Styles described in an earlier post.   Perhaps a more appropriate image would be a person on a tight-rope, because the key to managing this tension is balance.   When we feel the forces of merger rising within us so that our sense of separate identity and integrity in the world is threatened, we need to re-calibrate.  Similarly, when our drive to be separate finds us erecting personal boundaries that become impregnable to contact from others, so that our sense of connection with others dissolves, we need to re-calibrate.  Those of us who tend  toward an avoidant (or adult dismissive) attachment style may have difficulty summoning up the internal resources to make that re-calibration.  “I hear that my partner wants something more from me but I don’t know what she means or how to satisfy her,” is the desperate and frustrated plea from the person whose psychic energy throughout life has tended toward the drive for autonomy.  “I mean nothing to my partner.  I am more alone in this relationship than if I were truly alone – and it makes my furious,” is the, often excruciating, cry from the person whose psychic energy throughout life has tended toward the drive to find a safe and secure connection.  Those of us who were blessed by temperament and early parenting to have a basically secure attachment style (about 70% according to most researchers) are able to say on that tightrope, hands firmly – but not too tightly – gripping the pole for balance.  For the remaining 30%, or so, that balancing pole is as insubstantial as a drinking straw.  Whether the tendency is toward a dismissive attachment style of separation or the anxious attachment style of merger, there seems to be a common thread of discomfort – and even shame – around this life position.  For quite understandable reasons, these two different approaches to being with another in an intimate relationship will find themselves frequently joined in an intimate relationship.  The person who tends to separate will trigger their partner, who experiences disconnection as cruelly wounding, causing an almost desperate drive to stave off isolation and to join, while the other, who tends to merger, will cause their partner to feel easily overwhelmed – triggering further withdrawal.  Thus, one’s drive to cut through protective walls for connection will be experienced by the other as a profound and threatening violation of personal boundaries.  At the same time, the other’s drive to erect protective walls to protect their own sense of integrity and separateness in the world will bring an often soul-shattering experience of isolation and dread to their partner.  This is the cycle which is so well described by Sue Johnson and the Emotionally Focused Therapy Community.  With the compassionate support of a couples therapist, each person can engage in the process of slowing down their part of the cycle and re-establishing (or establishing for the first time) the sense of safety they seek.  “You are not alone.”  “You are safe.”