Love in a blind alley and you want to solve relationship problems?
When we get engaged in a new relationship, we feel strongly attracted to our new love. We feel deeply connected and our heart feels warm and open. We feel at home, safe and dare to be vulnerable, we dare to really open up.
How can it happen that that – sometimes so soon already – can change, that the bond of love and cherished intimacy seems to disappear and arguments and an air of distance take their place?
How can it happen that so many relationships in the course of the years change in an emotional arena, in extreme cases even in a battle field or scorched desert, or in a chilly ice field? How is it possible that the partner you love so much, seems to have become that unattainable?
Learn below how you can recognize 3 destructive patterns in order to save your relationship. Learn that all these patterns are just a signal of an intense, unanswered, desperate desire.
Intimacy kills intimacy
That is an odd sentence, isn’t it? And yet, there is a lot of truth in it. The same thing we long for so much, the intimacy that makes us feel connected with our beloved, the very safety that enables that intimacy, can at the same time be the death blow for that intimacy and connection.
Attachment is a survival program
Attachment, feeling emotional connected, apparently is not only a fundamental need for children. Also for adults it is a deep, natural longing, related to our survival instincts. When that deep emotional bond with our beloved partner is at stake, a primal panic arises. Dr. Sue Johnson poses in her book ‘Hold me tight’ that the desire for emotional connection (“attachment”) even supersedes our need for food or sex! Isn’t it interesting then, how seeking comfort or distraction in the fridge or the next petting-party often is a frequently practiced remedy for the pain of experienced lack of feeling connected.
The perils of safety
Again a strange sentence. Yet a paradox that certainly applies to relationships. It is very normal to have more conflicts in close relationships. For the very fact that they offer that much safety. Since we feel safe with our partner, we dare to open up more, we allow our partner closer than others and we show more of ourselves. This causes that we feel more vulnerable and that we can be triggered more lightly. Do you recognize that exactly the person you love the most, also is able to push your sensitive buttons the most?
Another aspect is that many of us in the past have collected some bruises in intimate relationships. They have suffered periods of time wherein they lacked that longed for connection so dearly. Due to their experiences possibly even started to doubt whether they are worthy enough of a tight relationship. Doubt whether they are good enough to be loved. The safety of an intimate relationship brings us, except from in contact with our desire for that connection, also in contact with the pain of the lack of it, and the fear of not being worth it. What then can make us close again (if we don’t know this mechanism!).
The safe connection with our partner is so important for us, that we, so to speak from mortal fear, can react very intense when we perceive a threat of losing it. At which we can get entangled in patterns that distance us even further from our partner – and sometimes even distance us from our contact with our own desire for that connection. While we get caught in this – actually desperate – strategies, thinking that we are fighting for our survival, we are not aware anymore that what we miss is the intimate connection and that what we need most is getting closer.
How now, can you solve relationship problems and save your relationship, if your relationship got lost in a dead alley and you and your partner got distanced from each other? If it’s indeed the case that your relationship is an emotional arena or emotional desert. Or even worse, a battle field or ice plain?
Recognizing destructive patterns
The first step you can take is to be aware and acknowledge that there is a need to come closer within you and that what you missing is emotional connection. Next to recognize how you respond to the threat of losing that safe connection. Below you find three most common patterns, as described by Dr. Sue Johnson in her book ‘Hold me tight’, as a result of observing couples in stagnating relationships for decades. She calls them “diabolic dialogues”.
1. attack – attack
This is the pattern of attack and counter attack. Fights, arguments. The pot calling the kettle black. One partner blames the other and the other responds with a next accusation. Nobody listens to the other, both only try to “score”. There is a drive to point out who is de cause of the problems – and off course that is the other (“not me, but you”). The search for the offender, trying to proof who is to blame is fruitless, while it increases the feeling of unsafety and the lack of attachment and connection (as also the fear of losing the other). It maintains a downwards spiral of more and more intense accusations to and fro and further drifting apart.
It by the way doesn’t even matter that much whether you really live out this game, or whether you play it mainly in your head, and the blaming is merely an internal dialogue – both are as killing …
2. attack – withdraw
In this second pattern, that often follows the previous one, both partners each develop a different self preserving strategy. It is kind of casting, whereby one is demanding and the other withdraws. One complains and attacks and blames, and the other persists more and more in silence, take a distance and become unattainable. This can also be expressed as nitpicking and defending. Often either of both have a fixed role in this game, but roles also can alternate, depending on the situation.
One partner more and more harries the other, as a firm protest against continuing absence of emotional response and loss of connection. The other feels falling short over and over and closes down more and more for unpleasant feelings, both their own feelings as those of the other. Both the attacking and demanding, and the silencing and withdrawing are counterproductive reactions to lack of closeness, to encroachment of the safety of feeling at home with the other. Both don’t feel seen and desperately alone. Also this pattern is like more and more ardently trampling in quicksand, while further and further sinking in.
3. withdraw – withdraw
When those previous emergency strategies don’t work, the relationship can reach a point where both partners give up, and withdraw. The freeze and flee. In the best scenario resulting in a emotional desert, a relationship that withered en parced, but in more extreme cases can turn into a cold, hostile ice plain. Each partner has given up on trying to, or even wanting to reach the outer en the relationship evaporates a scorched desperation. Blunted, depleted, disillusionate. Cut off from their own feelings and needs and from those of the other. Intimacy has extinguished and the social intercourse is mechanical, functional (if not hostile). Possibly seeking consolation and solace in addictions or other relationships.
Are you entangled in one of these patterns? Or do you see that you went through more of them? Do you recognize that your real longing is to come closer, to restore the connection? Do you want to solve your relationship problems and save you relationship? Recognizing and acknowledging these destructive patterns, preferably in the moment you live them, is a first step!
Solve relationship problems
Do you see how these patterns are rooted in our most primitive survival responses? That indicates how stressful loss of connection is, since these responses (fight, flight, freeze) are primal autopilot habits in circumstances that our autonomous nervous system experiences as life threatening.
All those patterns conceal the real need: coming closer. Restoration of emotional connection. Loving intimacy. Being heard, being seen, being felt. Feeling safe in the presence of the other, especially in your most vulnerable moments. Knowing that the other is there when you need them.
Step 1 – Recognize your pattern (or patterns)
If you want to restore intimacy, solve relationship problems and save or improve your relationship, you can start with recognizing these patterns. By becoming aware that your are captured by a destructive survival strategy, you will gradually be able to observe, witness with more distance. Maybe you want to share with your partner what you became aware of.
Step 2 – Acknowledge your need
Check in with yourself what is your real need in the moment that you attack or withdraw. Be aware that loss of connection triggers your primal survival mechanisms and that what you really want is restoration of connection. That you want to feel safe with your partner and that you need the attention of the other. May you could also share this with your partner, let them know what your real longing is, let them know what you miss and need.
Note: this can be a difficult step! It can bring you in touch with the pain of not fulfilled needs, and insecurity you experienced in moments you felt vulnerable and needed support while not getting it.
Step 3 – Know that both of you are in the same boat
Know that your partner struggles with the same problem as you do. Even if that might show different than with you. Know that your partner’s desire basically is the same as yours: a need for connection, security to know to be able to count on you. And know that your partner’s fear is the same as yours: the fear to lose you. Awareness that you both are in the same boat, even if both may express that differently, acknowledgement that the other wants and needs you as much as you want and need them, can help to stop the blaming and seeking of a wrongdoer.
Step 4 – Step out of the pattern
Often this is the hardest step. Try if you can catch yourself when you’re in the pattern, when you see that the destructive mechanism is active. And step on a pedal. See if you can stop, if you can step out. Look whether you can get still for a moment, still inside, and whether you’re able to get in touch with what it is that you really want and need. Conscious that your longing for connection is moving you.
Now, in many cases this is not easy, it requires courage to do this, to be the first to step out. Imagine two attackers facing each other in an alley, both their knives ready to strike. Both got their knives out because they felt threatened, only wanting to protect themselves. Actually none of them wants to hurt the other, but both are afraid to be hurt. Who drops his knife first? (Or: who decides to leave their shelter first in case of withdrawal?). That is taking a risk. It requires to show up vulnerable, before having absolute certainty that your safety is guaranteed.
Step 6 – Show up
To be seen you need to be visible. To be met in your need requires that those needs are known. When you have been able to recognize the destructive pattern and stop it, you can make first steps to get closer. To restore the connection. By expressing how you feel and what you need. By sharing what you miss and what you long for.
Again, this also is not always as easy. The fat can be in the fire in no time. It is an art to share one’s desires and feelings, without making another responsible for them, and without making the other feel they do something wrong or fall short. How easy a blame or a resentment can be hidden in our words (or our energy – because it doesn’t matter whether we only feel and think something, or actually – whether more or less covered or not – really articulate it).
This step requires that we learn to communicate from our heart.
Communication from our heart
Learning to communicate from our heart is a journey in itself. A delightful journey by the way. And THE medicine for a healthy relationship. Whether you want to learn it because your relationship is in a dead alley and you want to solve your relationship problems and save your relationship, or because you are enjoying a wonderful relationship and you want to bring it yet another step further, you want to deepen your connection even more.
Communicating from our heart is an art, and also a “practice”, something that improves by exercise. It requires from us to be able to hear the voice of our heart and then have the skill set to speak from the heart.
If that is something you would like support with, feel free to get in touch with me to explore how you can learn that. You can skype me (cramerscoach), FaceTime me (+31 6 242 131 33) or send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I hope this article helps you to let your relationship thrive. I am curious to read your response. Feel free to share your reaction and your own experiences. Or to ask your questions, I will reply in person.
In her book Dr. Sue Johnson calls the three patterns “demon dialogues” and gives them the names “Find the Bad Guy” (1), “The Protest Polka” (2) and “Freeze and Flee” (3).