By Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D.
“I just feel so abandoned by him”, she says. A twitching muscle in her jaw is the only clue to the tension she carries in her body.
“Even our dog feels so abandoned that he leaves little pools of urine by the front door”.
As Susie is saying this, Dirk sits beside her, looking out of the window in my office, not saying a word. Not even a muscle twitches in his face. I cannot read his nonverbal cues: is he holding so much tension in his body that he is frozen and shut down or has he given up and spaced out with indifference?
Susie is looking at me, not Dirk, as she speaks.
“I don’t know if he has any idea how excruciatingly painful it is for me to sit in the living room, day after day, waiting to connect with him. It starts to feel like death. I start to think about dying, and how dying would be a better fate than this, this icy morgue we call our relationship”.
Susie and Dirk are not able resolve this impasse on their own because of one critical barrier. Their attachment styles interfere with their ability to have the conversation they need to have. Susie has what we call an Insecure Anxious style in her relationships. This means she has sensitive radar to disconnection and loneliness and cannot tolerate separations without going to a dark intense place inside herself when there is a prolonged separation. Dirk has an Insecure Avoidant style, which means that he relies primarily on himself for emotional nourishment, avoids intimacy that feels stifling, and shuts down his emotions during conflict to avoid feeling like a failure. It is quite common for Anxious styles to meet and marry Avoidant style folks.
Their attachment styles feed their perpetual conflict cycle. Dirk takes care of himself and his needs by joining fitness groups in town. With a running club or a workout class, he meets his needs for social interaction, fun, laughter, and company without the expectation of closeness, self-disclosure, or accountability. He can come and go as he pleases, and he can show his extroverted personality and get positive reinforcement. While engaging in physical activity with other like-minded individuals, he feels equal. He does not feel like a failure there.
But Dirk’s fitness activities take him away from Susie. She pines for his presence, his attention, and his desire for her. She craves a feeling of being wanted and being invited to connect in an emotionally safe bond. She sees Dirk’s outside activities as a barrier to their intimacy. When Dirk goes out, Susie spirals down. The real fireworks begin when Dirk comes home after a fun activity with friends and finds Susie waiting for him in the kitchen with a sullen look. She lets him know, in not very kind words, how his absence has sent her into a hopeless tornado. He clams up and calls her a “crazy lady” for her emotional outburst, and off they go on an endless loop of blaming and shaming. Later, Dirk tries to apologize but it is too little too late. Susie also tries to mollify him but it just sounds sarcastic, not gentle. Neither one of them feels good after the spat, and neither one of them knows how to get out of it.
This is where, Dr. Susan Johnson, founder of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy, and researcher into adult love and attachment, has some words of wisdom to offer. Watch her describe what the couple needs to understand in this moment:
How do we help Dirk and Susie find each other in the wilderness of intense negative emotions? By helping them see the negative cycle as something that takes over the relationship, not as something either of them are doing on purpose to the other. By helping them see that their attachment styles developed from thousands of small and large experiences they had in childhood and that the interpretations and automatic responses have been programmed in over many years. Does this mean this relationship is doomed? Not at all. By learning to re-program their reactions to each other and change small automatic thoughts and beliefs whenever they are caught in the spiral, Dirk and Susie can begin to learn to lean in, reach for, and connect with each other with tenderness and care rather than defensiveness and spite.
By understanding the primary, tender emotions underneath their defensive reactions, each partner can forgive themselves and calm down inside so they can become an emotional safe haven for each other. By taking tentative small steps in the direction of trusting each other and relying on each other (not fearing dependency but giving voice to attachment needs), this couple and many others can begin to find their way back to each other and to an experience of true love in the warm embrace of someone who needs them.
And what about the dog, you ask? He is also less likely to leave liquid gifts when he has the same experience of bonding and safety with his owners.
Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., Master Trainer for the Gottman Institute and National Marriage Seminars and Licensed Clinical Psychologist, has been a Certified Gottman Therapist and Workshop Leader since 2006. She is the founder of the Austin-based Center for Relationships (@ctr4relships). Follow her on Facebook at the Center for Relationships and on Twitter @VagdeviCGT.