Listen to psychologists talk and you will often hear about how some behavior or attitude is “hardwired.” It’s a pretty descriptive term – particularly since the brain is an organ characterized by electrical circuits. For another example, just consider the most popular adage among neuroscientists over the past dozen years or so, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It suggests a certain immutable permanence in ways we think or act. Consider all the incredible identical twin studies in which they are separated at birth and meet decades later to find that they are wearing the same color, are married to women with the same name, pursue the same career and have named their children identically. One great example involves two brothers reunited after 39 years. Each was incredibly fastidious and detailed – compulsively neat and orderly in every respect. They were both completely convinced that their character was a function of nurture rather than nature. The first was asked why he was like that and he replied, “My mother is the reason! She was exactly the same way and I was raised to be compulsively neat.” The other replied, “My mother is the reason! She was so disorganized and such a slob that I had to be this way just to survive.”
Among the researchers who have been studying the brain’s inherent (“hardwired”) character is a man named Jaak Panksepp. His work with animals is incredible. One fascinating observation he shares in his book Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions involves the problem they had with rats who were very distressed and active after their cages were cleaned by a certain lab tech. After some investigation, they found that the tech had housecats and some of the dander was carried with him to the lab. What is fascinating is that these rats were born and bred in the lab. They had never seen a cat in their lives….nor had their parents or grandparents. They had been separated from actual exposure to a natural predator by many generations. Still, they reacted strongly to the scent of the cat. That’s one great example of being “hardwired.” What is even more important for us, is that Panksepp has found that certain emotions are hardwired into our brains. This will be the subject of a later post.
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.
Many (most) women who come into my office with their partners to work on their troubled relationships are quite high functioning. At least from my observations, these woman really display a skill in multi-tasking. Sometimes, this remarkable functionality keeps her busy – so busy that I get the impression that she’s racing to keep ahead of something. While I am not a fan of long dissections of our childhood to get at what is going on now, I also believe its impossible to understand that now without some flavor of the past. Our families of origin are where we learn our earliest and most indelible lessons. True or false – here is where we first learn about ourselves in the world. Are intimate relationships safe? Am I worthy of love? How do others really see me?
The highly effective woman will often come into my office with the most poignant, powerful dilemma. On the one hand, she has gotten it done throughout her life – often in the face of an utter absence of love and support from her important caretaker(s). She grew up believing that there was nobody she could ever really lean on. In fact, the idea of really leaning on anyone is so frightening – What if they can’t or don’t want to be there for me. What if my need is an imposition or a reason for them to judge and dismiss me as not worthy of love. Better I take care of myself.
Yet that is exactly what a close, bonded, adult attachment relationship is – Knowing that you will be there to catch me if I fall. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be taken care of. There are lots of ways that can happen for us. Guys need it in their ways. He may think of it in terms of sex or as being okay and still loved even if he screws something up. She may just need to know that she can collapse every once in a while – to be exhausted or overwhelmed or scared and it’ll be okay. She will be okay. She will still be seen as strong, worthy, desired – still be loved.
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?”
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!
Dan Wile, Ph.D. is a remarkably gifted – and funny – couples therapist who has written a number of fine books on the realities of joining our lives together. Two of his classics are After the Fight and After the Honeymoon. Here is what Wile has to say about the inevitable differences that arise between us in relationship:
“Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul, Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but then when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wants sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice wants when she already feels close.”
“…there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.”
Beef No. 2 – Martial Therapists are not umpires. Their job is not to hear each person’s complaints and to decide which one is more right than the other. It is this belief that both clients and some couples counselors embrace that makes couples therapy the least successful therapy with the highest failure rate. However, those trained in a specific approach to couples therapy (of which there are a handful), are remarkably more successful. Clients enter couples counseling with both a great certainty and a great fear. The certainty is that the problems the couple are experiencing are mostly because of their partner. The fear is that they, themselves, will be blamed. Blame and shame – these are the boulders on the shoulders of the individuals commencing couples therapy. Any therapist who tries to impart to each person, “If you do a little more of this or a little less of that you will improve your relationship,” will ultimately do more harm than good. What a shame that therapists (mostly trained in individual therapy – and often quite good at individual therapy) create an environment of blame and defensiveness that will usually result in one person feeling more identified as a problem, unheard, shamed and definitely unsafe. This doesn’t have to be, but couples therapists have to avoid becoming overly engaged in the tangle of content.
I think couples in conflict often engage in two conversations. One is overt, constantly repeated and endlessly frustrating. The other is almost always unsaid – and unacknowledged. If we can get to that second conversation, we can find the peace and connection we so desperately need in our intimate relationships. Instead, we get all tangled up in the conversation that doesn’t go anywhere. Like birds flitting back and forth above us, what we see is that which transfixes us and grabs our attention. I have seen it over and over again in my office – the sad, ever-so-discouraging dance of the upper conversation that almost guarantees that both people will just….feel….bad and not feel heard by the other. This conversation is always about something. “You don’t help around the house …..I do too help. What about last week when you were tired and I vacuumed downstairs…..Oh great, thanks a lot – am I supposed to bow down because you vacuumed once?” “How come you aren’t even trying to go back to work to bring in some money?…..I have tried. You just don’t know what it’s like out there….You aren’t doing nearly enough….You have no idea what I have done.” These conversations don’t go anywhere because they aren’t’ about what’s really going on inside for each person.
The real conversation – the one that can get somewhere – is the attachment conversation. It is about our needs that are deep and tug at our hearts. These are also needs that can be satisfied once there is a safe way to express them. They can be the need to feel truly cared for – or to feel competent and valued – or to know your partner is not going anywhere. They are almost always about the need to be actually seen and still loved and accepted. This most critical and meaningful conversation can be very difficult to have without the help of a relationship professional. My bias (and observation) is that Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a wonderful platform upon which these “conversations for connection,” in Sue Johnson’s words, can occur.
I hear it so often in my office. One partner or the other (usually both) will report that in the height of some nasty fight they escalated into, one of them said something so wounding that the target is still bruised. He or she struggles with how to make sense of a world where they are supposed to be working on their relationship and at the same time things are said which couldn’t feel more destructive. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain that good people can inflict on one another when they have escalated to the outer reaches of their own cycle. It is an inescapable fact that when two people are reacting to each other from the raw and vulnerable places inside – and they are swept up in their cycle of fear, anger and reactivity, they can spin so fast (almost instantaneously) that both feel out of control. It is for sure that these deeply hurtful statements aren’t made during a placid dinner conversation right after, “Please pass the peas.” These missiles that are launched almost always occur when the cycle is spinning so fast, that the centrifugal force of both people’s emotional reactivity throws them to the extreme edge of their experience. So, rather than mull on the thing said, it’s far more helpful to view the statements as symptomatic of a cycle that has gone from “zero to 60” in a nanosceond. The path to healing is to begin to find ways to catch ourselves at the very beginning stages of this emotionally reactive cycle – to slow it down at the outset and step out of this tightly choreographed automatic dance.