Updated: Dec 11, 2018
Mary and John had been stuck in a cycle that was slowly wearing away all the good will in their relationship.
Every time Mary wanted to talk about the relationship and their problems, John would become critical and try to ‘shut her down’. He would argue with her telling her what she was saying was wrong.
She would feel dismissed, unheard and would start to shut down to him. She would then withdraw, and he would become angry and frustrated because she was not becoming less emotional, she was becoming more emotional.
He would feel dismissed and like a failure – he would then withdraw.
Understanding what’s causing the raw spots
Underneath every couple’s defend/attack/withdraw/blame/criticise/freeze/flee cycle are raw spots!!
Emotional triggers that get activated when we fear disconnection, disapproval and rejection.
We move into one of these defences as a way of trying to protect ourselves. Biologically part of our brain lights up with survival messages. Fight, attack, withdraw etc etc. Each of us has our own response. For me, I move into defending myself pretty quickly at times, if I feel I am being criticised or disapproved of. That is why it feels so devastating to us all when we are fighting with our partners. We often can’t listen to the other as we are in survival mode. We make big assumptions about why the other person is acting the way they are (often not pretty); and we move into labels and judgments around their motives.
Unmet emotional needs from the past
If we have unmet attachment needs from our first families we can be triggered into these very quickly with the person who is most important to us. Being disapproved of or rejected may mean ‘death’ from a survival perspective. Attachment needs are about feeling safe, secure, loved and being able to depend on another to care for us. When there is conflict this can shake the foundations of the relationship without understanding the cycle and why it feels so devastating to us. It’s important to understand these primal fears and needs and how they are activated in our most intimate connections. We also need to understand how our own histories play into these reactions. We need to learn about our partners raw spots with understanding and compassion.
Understanding our own ‘raw spots’ and our partners
When we come to understand how our raw spots are triggered and work towards soothing ourselves and assisting our partner to soothe themselves, we can step out of these difficult conflicts. It leads to being able to communicate without blame what our need is or what it is that we are fearing is happening.
Double edged sword of needs and fears
It is a double edged sword when we are triggered. We have an unmet need and a fear often at the same time, that is why it is often so intense when the feelings emerge. The need might be to feel heard, or acknowledged and/or valued in our partners lives. The fear might be that you are not good enough; or you fear abandonment, rejection or not being important in your partners life. Both of these work together when a ‘raw spot’ is triggered.
John and Mary
What was going on was that John had learnt from an early age to dismiss his own feelings as he was punished every time he showed sadness or anger to his parents. He learnt to shut them down and to use his rational mind to try and sort things out. He felt like a failure every time Mary wanted to talk to him, an internal script he carried with him from childhood. He couldn’t fix the relationship problems so he tried to ‘shut Mary down.’ Just like he did with his own emotional life. Hi anger was a mask to what he was truly feeling. He couldn’t show how scared he really was!
Mary on the other hand had grown up feeling that she was not important or that what she said, wanted and needed was a bother to her family. She learnt to dismiss her own needs. She believed she was unimportant. Every time Mary took the risk to tell John what she needed she felt dismissed and each time John tried to shut her down, up would come those feelings again and she would withdraw as she had as a child.
What happened for John and Mary
Both John and Mary needed to understand what was triggered and why. Then they could work towards understanding each other and to communicate in a way that stopped John feeling like a failure, and Mary feeling like she was not important. They grew together in a new way of expressing their needs and their fears and got back on track with their relationship. They also learnt how to appreciate each other, talk about their dreams and fears and become closer through sharing their feelings with each other in a safe and productive way.