We previously saw what can happen when emotional connection between adult partners is weakened. This week let’s look at how it helps to slow things down, by doing these four things:
- Notice that you are getting into a familiar cycle of conflict – perhaps one pushing and the other withdrawing.
- Call out the cycle. Name it as an unhelpful external force and work on it together.
- Try to see from your partner’s perspective, without judging what you find, and
- Honestly look within yourself for the underlying feelings of vulnerability that are sparked in you by the conflict with your partner.
Sharing these deeper feelings will be the first step towards re-establishing emotional connection, once the negative, destructive cycle can be stopped.
More about how to slow things down
This slowing down, or de-escalation is vital but can feel difficult to achieve so it’s worth looking in more detail at how to manage this new approach to conflict. Dr Sue Johnson in her book Hold me Tight describes first, the process of recognising the pattern of conflict.
Recognising the pattern of conflict
There are three basic variants which Sue Johnson calls:
“Find the Bad Guy”- or “It’s Not Me, It’s You!”
This is a pattern of mutual blame which keeps the couple apart. Underneath mutual accusations and recriminations, there is a starting point of emotional flooding; You might think of this as a trigger. Something your partner says or does of the tone they use which “rubs your fur up the wrong way”.
If this feels like criticism or implied criticism, in order to defend ourselves we might react verbally in emotional self-defence at our partner. If this makes our partner feel vulnerable and alarmed, they may retaliate and we can easily get locked into a repetitive cycle of emotional negativity. Irritation and reaction escalate quickly. This destroys the feeling of safety and security with our partner which we actually need, so we need to slow it down.
A very frequently found pattern which she calls “Protest Polka”. In this, one party reaches out, “protesting” the emotional disconnection. The other, sensing an implied criticism of themselves, withdraws, inspiring the first partner to try harder, which pushes the second partner further away. You can think of this as Pursuer/Defender. As you might imagine this can easily become a self-perpetuating circle but one in which the real emotional motivation for the push and pull is never addressed. People come to therapy, aware of “communication problems” and this push and withdraw cycle is often what they are experiencing.
“Freeze and Flee”
This pattern may evolve out of the push and withdraw cycle if it is not improved. This third stage is one of mutual self-protection, lack of connection, pained silence and withdrawal. It happens when the pursuer finally gives up and also lapses into hopelessness and detachment. Quite often there are no rows. Partners are polite and civil with each other, but the emotional connection has been un-nourished for so long it has withered and may die unless action is taken.
How to handle these patterns
Keep blame out of it. Each of these patterns may emerge from our own specific ways of being, our family history and how we kept ourselves emotionally safe as a child or in previous relationships. Those mechanisms may have been helpful back in the day, and so we learn to fall back on them, however, we change as we grow and develop through life. What worked well previously with different people; parents or partners, may not work well for us now. It takes time and reflection for us to recognise that. Give yourself time. Slow things down and have patience.
If as a couple we want to improve our relationship, it helps not to harbour grudges. We are all carrying emotional baggage with us, but we can decide whether it is useful to keep carrying it. We can each choose not to point out our partner’s (former) faults and we can reflect on our own faults and choose to lay them down. That may be difficult and may take time. We may need help from each other or from professionals, but we can always choose to seek a new attitude with creativity and positivity.
Next week we will look at how to look in on ourselves and understand our own feelings and vulnerabilities. Once we have an idea of these and can share them with our partner, the door can open to the kind of close and mutually supportive relationship that so many of us want to find.
If you would like to get in touch to discuss difficulties in your own relationship in confidence and safety, please phone 07375 029 075 or use the contact form on my home page.