What often happens is people get together using insecure attachment styles because that’s how they learned they could get connection initially. And it feels like connection for awhile until one or both people manage to get in touch with wanting something more genuine (life shifts seem to cause this; like getting married, having children or career shifts, etc.). When that happens it often feels like the rules change and both partners are left frustrated and confused of what to do. Let’s take just one possible combination for example:
Evan was a hard worker. Ever since he was young Evan never settled for less than excellence in whatever he did. When he did not feel he could be excellent in something he would often lose interest in it or disengage. This strategy for life served Evan very well in many respects. After all, people respond well in our society to excellence. However, Evan's emotional state was a fragile one. He was terrified of feeling he was underperforming but also simultaneously over burdened. He struggled to allow himself to relax. In fact it seemed the only way he could feel good was by achieving something or doing something or by totally numbing out (an act that left his wife and friends feeling ignored).
Often a couple will come in and talk about a fight they're having. The problem usually is, they are talking about the issue but they're also not talking about the issue. Our fights, I mean our repetitive deeply felt fights, are about more than what's one the surface (unloading the dishwasher, helping with the kids, making plans, cleaning the house, sex, in-laws, etc.). The surface issues are really houses for the core issues. They do matter, otherwise you wouldn't be triggered by them, however just talking about the surface issues will never solve the problem.
All of these styles are not good or bad, they are amoral and simply the ways that our young minds devised was the best way to get our needs met in our initial environments. Problem is, these schemas (attachment theory calls them, Inner Working Models), become outdated as we grow up and encounter new environments but because we operate out of them unconsciously we continue to react to our world as if it was the same as the one we grew up in (an act that tends to turn our current environments into our initial ones).
Trauma is a word that probably gets thrown around too much. When that happens words often lose their accuracy and impact. So what is trauma and what does it have to do with repetitive relational struggles?
Does this sound familiar? Your wife or your friends or family are telling you that you have anger management issues, that you’re a scary person! Often times, men come in and say they have an anger issue and often times by the end of the first session I respond by saying, “you don’t have an anger issue, you have an outdated strategy for dealing with emotions”. What the heck does that mean, right!? Let me explain…
To talk about empathy and our ability to grow in empathy we have to first define it. Empathy is NOT sympathy, kindness, compassion or the like. Empathy is a neutral skill that can be used for good or bad or both. Heinz Kohut (the father of one of the major contemporary fields of psychoanalysis called, Self Psychology) put it simply when he said...
Our most repetitive experiences of fighting or conflict point to not just whatever it is we're fighting about but something else that's deeper, older and more important. Learn how to identify and meet those deeper needs in order to stop the repetitive, bitter fighting or deafening silence.
Is fighting bad? Not necessarily, fighting can actually be a sign of life, showing we still care enough to try and get the other person to see what we need from them. In fact, according to John Gottman (the field's foremost couples researcher) conflict is required for building intimacy. However, because of all the clever ways we learn to protect ourselves from being hurt emotionally growing up (often these protective ways are actually unconscious to us) being super vulnerable with someone (even the one you love) can be really hard. In this post and next we will look at two tools that will help you start to get off the merry-go-round of destructive conflict.
In pretending we’re perfect we get a shroud of security that we can use in order to feel less needy. In short, we project the picture-perfect because it makes us feel more desirable (and more secure about keeping our relationships)...not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.