Sometimes in our love relationships, we have been hurt or let down so often by our partner that we begin to develop an adversarial relationship. We are always on guard to protect ourselves from further pain. Our relationship becomes us vs. them in an attempt to wall off our heart from the one who knows us best, and therefore knows how to hurt us the most. Most of the time in these situations, our partner isn’t trying to hurt us. Our partner is hurting themselves and like us, is trying to protect from further pain.
In the book Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson describes what happens in these relationships:
“When emotional starvation becomes the norm, and negative patterns of outraged criticism and obstinate defensiveness take over, our perspective changes. Our lover slowly begins to feel like an enemy; our most familiar friend turns into a stranger. Trust dies, and grief begins in earnest.”
She goes on to say that the “erosion of a bond begins with the absence of emotional support”. This is key. In order to keep our most important relationships strong and healthy, we have to actively work on being an emotional support for our partner. We need to be there for them, and we need them to be there for us. Emotional supportiveness creates a teammate mentality. Instead of problems turning into us vs. them scenarios, they are approached with the couple as a team, facing the enemy (or the negative cycle) together.
One roadblock in our ability to be there emotionally with our partner is our hurt and anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion. Its purpose is to act as a shield, protecting our more vulnerable (primary) emotions. If my husband doesn’t call me when he said he would, it’s easier for me to lash out at him in my attempt to make sure he knows how hurt I am. My lashing out is likely to cause him to feel defensive and respond with anger of his own (because he is also using anger as a shield to protect himself). If I take a moment to breathe, and calm myself before commenting on his missed phone call, I might say something like, “when you don’t call me when you say you will, I feel really hurt. I worry that I’m not important to you, and you mean so much to me that it hurts in my chest to think that I don’t matter to you.”
Instead of expressing my secondary emotion, anger, I’m expressing my primary emotion. Fear. Fear that I don’t matter to my partner as much as he matters to me. I’m being vulnerable and asking my partner to reassure me and be vulnerable in return.
If my partner responds to my vulnerability with criticism, it reinforces my view that he is not a safe person to turn to, and the emotional bond is further damaged. If he responds with reassurance, the emotional bond can be strengthened. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I got so busy with my meetings that I forgot. I know it means a lot to you that I call when I say I will, and I’m sorry I let you down. You do mean so much to me.”
Dr. Johnson describes three questions that we can ask ourselves and our partners when we are working to strengthen or repair our emotional bonds.
1. Are you Accessible? (Will you give me your attention and be emotionally open to what I am saying?)
2. Are you Responsive? (Will you accept my needs and fears and offer comfort and caring?)
3. Are you Engaged? (Will you be emotionally present and involved with me?)
Dr. Johnson combines these into one “core attachment question”. ARE you there for me?
Sit down with your partner and talk about these questions. Do you feel like your partner is accessible, responsive, and engaged? Are you accessible, responsive, and engaged with your partner? When have you been successful at answering “ARE you there for me”? When have you struggled? Think about the last struggle and look for the primary emotions under the struggle. Try being vulnerable with each other.
The stronger our emotional bond, the easier it is to deal with the frustrations that crop up in every relationship. Sometimes the damage in our relationships has gone on for so long, or is so emotionally painful that we need help in repairing it. Couple’s therapy can help break the cycle of negative interactions and allow emotional bonds to be rebuilt stronger than ever.