If there is one thing I hear more than anything else from my couples, it’s this:
“It feels like we endure more hurt from the way we discuss an issue than the issue itself.”
Couples want to know how they can stop what can feel like a vicious cycle.
The Relationship Achilles heel
Often, partners will move into the reactive mode when they feel like it’s the only way to be heard. It only takes a harsh tone – where a partner anticipates “what’s coming” – for communication to turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy and character assignation. When partners step into what I call “trigger climate,” they set themselves on a familiar trajectory of armoring up and self-protecting. In flooded states, partners release a surge of stress hormones in the body, which quickly stymies empathy and navigating challenges – with heart. Consequently, partners assume a “you-don’t-get-to-hurt-me” position, inevitably accumulating a crust of resentment and more scar tissue. This perpetual dynamic starves relationship growth.
Seeing the setup
Kate and Robby (permission to use clients’ names) came to see me because they wanted to stop feeling emotionally disconnected when discussing issues. Robby did not like the way Kate would bring up complaints. He heard criticism in his partner’s tone. He often felt like he could not meet his partner’s expectations. When Robby felt “pressured,” he would shut down. Kate saw Robby’s shutting down as a sign of rejection, which made her feel like her partner didn’t care. Kate and Robby had learned to discuss issues at the reactive level, where they could not hear each other’s needs – and attune to one another’s heart-rending plea. They continued to enter an “enabling cycle” in which Kate felt she needed to demand her partner’s love, and Robby retreated from feeling exasperated.
Reactivity in the bigger context
Reactivity is like the fragile parts of our soul crying out for connection.
Kate recalled early childhood experiences of not feeling seen. She remembered wishing her father would show more interest in the things she liked. Kate had learned to go along with things. She often felt like she had no choice but to repress her feelings of disappointment. Now, when Kate felt that her partner wasn’t prioritizing her needs, this, in turn, activated the old familiar emotional pang. In our sessions together, Kate learned to notice this feeling when it came up and be with the part of herself that wanted to feel important – that was still vying now for her attention.
The very thing we want from our partners – to be seen, to matter- is precisely, paradoxically, what we most need to learn: to give ourselves. If we don’t know how to be a salve to our emotional pain, we hold a mighty expectation from others, often laden with an unhealthy need that keeps us from meeting our deeper desires. Hence, we must learn to see the parts of ourselves that “tantrum” and rage.
Kate needed to learn to practice loving self-compassion to come from a responsive place when she talked about her feelings. This required her to work on course-correcting past experiences of not feeling cherished by others by being with her feelings and treating whatever feeling came up as important. To start, we focused on moving out of the “lizard brain” – that is, the flight, fight, fright system. I asked Kate to see feelings and emotions as sensations. For example, what is the sensation of feeling “unimportant”? Where does this sensation go in the body? Kate practiced being with the sensation without the story. She felt tightness in her shoulders and chest. As she stayed with this feeling, Kate recalled early experiences of feeling like her opinions didn’t matter. So the message she received was: I’m not important. When a familiar dynamic was felt, in her relationship with Robby, Kate would experience a similar sensation in her body and drop into the part of herself that identified with this past feeling of wanting so much for her father to pay attention to her.
Kate needed to “cradle” her fragile parts, feel her “inner-mother,” and talk to these undeveloped parts. I had Kate write down five self-compassion statements and read them aloud:
“You are worthy of love and care.”
“You know yourself better than anyone else.”
“You are special and unique and fine the way you are.”
“We hear and believe you.”
“Your voice matters.”
Kate realized that the third statement, “You are special and unique and fine the way you are,” elicited a lot of emotion. Kate said that she was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and remembered feeling relieved to understand the things that made her feel different. She expressed feeling hurt when her parents couldn’t accept what she was learning about herself in therapy. She felt unsupported and like something was fundamentally wrong with her.
Children are meaning-making machines and will “fill in the gaps” when they don’t understand something.
Kate said that the story she began telling herself is that she “wasn’t cool,” and she would need to prove her worth to others. Kate felt that she had set out on a trajectory of pursuing validation as far back as middle school.
Robby recalled early experiences of being made to feel that he needed to do more. Robby said that he has always been quiet and easily “overstimulated.” He can remember his parents pushing him to be more “social.” These early experiences caused Robby to feel severed from his natural way of being. He recalled going through a period of trying to “be popular” in high school. Robby describes feeling “pressured” like something trapped in his esophagus, his throat constricts, and he has difficulty talking. Whenever he feels like he is being forced to do something, Robby experiences a similar sensation connected to earlier experiences. This visceral experience or felt feeling causes him to disengage.
Holding your partner’s nervous system
When Robby heard Kate tell her story now, he felt like he gained new knowledge and understanding. I asked Robby to see the little girl Kate needing to be held. I had Robby write down five loving-compassion statements to support holding his partner with loving compassion:
“You are accepted.”
“You have the potential to make others feel safe and loved.”
“You do not need to change who you are.”
“Do not be afraid to speak your truth.”
“You are talented.”
Because Kate was learning to see herself fully and hold her nervous system – self-soothe – she was in a much more open and receptive place to receive Robby’s love.
As a partner, you are a “witness” to your partner and their life – it’s a sacred thing.
Robby was learning to stay present with his feelings. He wrote down five self-compassion statements:
“You are capable.”
“You can befriend anyone.”
“You are admired.”
“You are safe.”
“You are loved.”
Kate practiced seeing the little boy Robby that shut down when he felt pressured. She wrote down five loving-compassion statements for her partner:
“You are safe and cared for.”
“You can do anything.”
“You are special just the way you are.”
“You are valid and worthy.”
“You don’t need to change the way you are to be loved.”
In this emotionally safe environment, where they did not move into blame or defensiveness, Kate and Robby had allowed a new way of honoring each other’s desired wishes. They felt more confident in showing up for themselves – and believing “I’ve got my back.” Kate and Robby were learning to validate the parts of themselves, asking to heal, thereby helping them be each other’s soft place to fall.
Kate and Robby were able to identify un-serving beliefs that they were ready to release. Kate wanted to let go of the belief, “there is something wrong with me,” and “you don’t deserve love.” Robby wanted to let go of the belief, “my thoughts and ideas are not worth sharing.”
What happens in the vulnerable space
When partners no longer view each other as “rescuers,” they can end the cycle of hurt and better support one another.
Partners learn to notice their inner landscape and forge relationships with their bodily sensations that carry memories, stories, and unprocessed trauma. They take ownership of their emotions by holding them in powerful healing awareness.
Kate continued to practice self-compassion instead of reactively pursuing her partner’s validation and letting the “inner child” run the show. This helped Kate to share her feelings more honestly.
The corollary to doing this individual work within the couple dynamic is that Kate and Robby were learning to hack – yes, hack– personalizing to allow relationship calibration. Now Kate could express what was on her heart without a diffuse physiological arousal state setting her up, and Robby could stay present with Kate’s feelings when she shared her perspective. They were building a more expansive contextual relationship where their relationship growth felt rich with new understanding. They were doing much better at staying out of the personal – “I” and creating a partnership – “we.”