The inner child – That part of you that requires care
The core wounds and perennial hurts of the inner child eventually surface in virtually every long term relationship. When examined honestly, these pains often reveal a doubt about oneself – about our basic goodness, worthiness, value, or desirability.
The inner child might be experienced as a visual image, as a memory, as a dream, or even as a feeling in your body. However they are experienced, the significance of the inner child is that they are that part of you which requires care. When the child shows up, it is because the opportunity is ripe to be gentle and caring with yourself.
When the image or experience of the inner child appears we are presented with a choice… Do we reject them, or do we embrace them? Do we turn away, or do we turn toward?
Interestingly, both options hurt. There is no pain-free choice. But I think you’ll find that the quality of pain is different in each case. Rejecting the inner child tends to produce a hardening or numbing or buzzing kind of pain. Embracing the inner child produces a more tender kind of pain, one that might break us open.
This is a reconciling or reckoning, and a healing opportunity for the great many of us who have not been particularly gentle or kind with ourselves in the past. For this reason, the appearance of the inner child can be upsetting, reminding us of our abandonment of our own tender heart. To face the truth of our own self-abandonment is painful but important, it is the bittersweet first step to turning toward our own heart, and healing the rifts within.
These inner rifts, by the way, are commonly projected onto our partner in relationship; befriending the inner child goes a long way in creating more loving and harmonious partnerships.
The idea of an “inner child” gives us a personified, concrete image of our vulnerable self, our innocent self, our tender self, and it places this self outside of, or separate from, the “adult” self that we identify with in our day to day lives. In concept and in practice this allows one part of self to engage with and care for another; you might have actual conversations with the inner child, or write to them. As one client astutely observed, “You become both giver and receiver”.
This experience of one part of self caring for another part of self, of becoming both giver and receiver, marks an important psycho-emotional emergence in a person. It’s an experience worth embracing, and an ability worth intentionally developing.
The hurt or frightened or misunderstood or needy child hopefully elicits feelings of care within us, and helps us turn our heart toward our self, but the opposite can also be true.
Encountering the inner child can activate feelings of shame, rejection, judgement, denial, even rage. I’m speaking from personal experience here; I am someone who rejected my own tender self for decades. I can’t sufficiently describe the pain this causes, but if you have done the same, then you know, and I am so sorry for your suffering. I did eventually begin to befriend and soften to my inner child, and that relationship continues.
In the early stages of formal couples work, grievances are routinely leveled against each other. As the process continues, our grievances toward ourselves usually enter the picture; the emphasis shifts from partner confrontation to self-confrontation.
We so badly want from our partner the tenderness, care, devotion, and unconditional love that we have denied ourselves, but few of us can acknowledge this truth without doing some inner work first. Hence my oft repeated claim “couples work is personal work we do in front of each other”.
When the inner child shows up we get the opportunity to really feel how we deny ourselves. Having your partner present to witness you in this can spontaneously create the kind of understanding and empathy that is so often hoped for and strived for.
Part of the gift of the inner child showing up in couples work (for either or both partners) is that there is now a new persona in the room. Directing attention toward the child provides a healthy triangulation. The inner child is a more neutral presence, and some of the tension and defensiveness between partners is relaxed. In this more relaxed and neutral space, more gentleness, care, and understanding might be possible. Watch for the opportunity, and if it arises, please take it.
None of these are bad assessment tools, and each holds value for a facet of the relationship, but there’s one fundamental way of seeing ourselves in relationship, one particular relationship goal that gives us crucial information and always sets us on the right path. It’s this –
Your sense of personal integrity.
Relationship goals: Personal integrity is the key to growth in relationships
My clients often report being confused or frustrated at trying to correctly meet their partner’s needs, trying to implement new communication tools, and generally trying to “get it right” amidst a sea of moving parts. It’s true that relationships ask much of us, and that we are called upon to develop greater relational skillfulness, but we can always return to one simple guiding principle for clarity and vision.
Ask yourself, “Am I being the person I want to be in this relationship?”
This is your North star, your single best compass. Come back to this when you get lost along the way.
This sort of integrity means being accountable to yourself. It doesn’t matter so much what your partner thinks of you if you are not connected strongly to your own thoughts and feelings about yourself and about how you behave in the relationship.
Even when you are trying to decide whether to stay in a relationship or end it (perhaps especially in this case), your sense of personal integrity is a crucial guide.
Relationship goals: Be honest, be wise, be kind
One of my mentors lived by the credo “Be honest, be wise, be kind”. This was his guiding principle, and it illustrates the potential complexity of personal integrity. These three directives – being honest, being wise, being kind – are sometimes in conflict with each other, and we must wrestle with the tension that arises between them.
There is no simple formula for defining or attaining personal integrity; we must continually find our way through our inner conflicts and confusions. If we do not focus on this, our inner conflicts will certainly be projected onto our partner and our relationship, becoming outer conflicts, and the situation becomes even more dire and confusing. Break through the confusion by bringing your attention back to your thoughts and feelings about yourself, and how you behave in the relationship.
If there is work to do, do it there first. It will never lead you wrong.
I recently had a lovely chat with my friend, neighbour, and yoga teacher Nicole Berns. She invited me as part of a course she’s offering, and I thought I would share the video here with you as well. (Click here to view the video now).
We got riffing on some resonant topics over the course of an hour, while the sunlight wanes… By the end we’re sitting in near darkness, but hopefully the conversation continues to provide some illumination!
The three main operating systems for human beings (rational, emotional, survival).
The evolution of marriages and relationships.
Good and bad types of conflict.
We also touch on yoga, personal growth edges, chakras, Nicole’s own relationship, and more!
[Nicole Berns is the founder of Wild Well-Being, an online wellness platform, and the Empowered Lover Program, a 5-week online adult sex-ed course. She is a yoga instructor, alpine guide, and retreat leader building programs that allow you to enjoy your body. You can read up on her work by visiting wildwell-being.com.]
Please feel free to add your comments and questions, and to share this video with your friends who might need it.
Here’s a simple relationship rule: Never, ever re-enforce your partner’s negative self-talk.
In other words…
Let your partner face their own inner critic, rather than your criticism
Before you offer criticisms of any kind, ask yourself if they already have that voice telling them the same thing in their head. If they’re feeling down on themselves because they made a poor decision, let them confront their own inner critic before you jump in.
Whatever their struggle, do they really need you echoing their own hurtful inner dialogue?
In many cases you might not need to say a word. If they ask you, try gently putting it back to them. Ask how THEY feel about it. If you agree with their assessment, you can say so. I’m not saying you should lie about what you think or how you feel, but let their confrontation be with themselves rather than with you whenever you have the choice.
It’s through self-confrontation, and by creating a relationship environment where that is possible and encouraged, that growth happens. Like so many keys to growth and change, this depends on “catching yourself in the act” and changing habitual, reflexive behaviour.
Are you robbing your partner of their personal growth?
You might not have noticed this, but every time you take on the role of critic, you potentially distract your partner from an important task.
Leila works full time at a very stressful job and feels guilty about not spending enough time with their infant son. Their current childcare is not sustainable. Leila is thinking about preschool, but has mixed feelings. She struggles with her familiar internal dilemma. Franz sees her struggle and steps in with his own opinion, which is always the rational point of view.
“Think about it Leila, preschool is the only logical solution.”
Leila reflexively snaps at Franz and accuses him of being cold. The internal struggle that Leila was facing has now been externalized, and Leila no longer has to feel her dilemma. She can now project the criticism that she had for herself out onto Franz.
Don’t turn an inner conflict into a relationship conflict
If your partner is having an inner conflict, let them. When you butt in and take over one of the voices in their head, their inner conflict gets externalized and becomes a conflict between the two of you. Then, not only do you create unnecessary (and unproductive) conflict between the two of you, you also rob your partner of a golden opportunity to resolve something within themselves.
This doesn’t mean you can’t weigh in or be a sounding board or be supportive, just practice good emotional boundaries and recognize what is theirs and what is yours.
[Note – This is the transcript of the facebook live video shown above].
Three stages of relationship
Relationships move through three predictable stages. If you, like most people, are not aware of this, you are bound to end up confused and disheartened. Honestly, you will probably be confused and disheartened at some point regardless, but if you understand that relationships naturally move through these three stages, and if you understand the nature of each stage, and what it asks of you, you will be far better equipped to deal with what is coming.
Each stage of the relationship journey presents you with certain developmental tasks, and you can’t effectively move to the next stage until you’ve accomplished the tasks at the previous. People get “stuck” at a certain stage of relationship because they don’t recognize what the relationship is asking of them, and they resist moving forward into the unknown and intimidating territory ahead, pining instead for the easy love and good times that came previously. The bad news is that there’s no going back to easier and sweeter times. The good news is that if you successfully navigate the next stage, you will be poised to make a kind of “homecoming” or a return to what you enjoyed previously, but with more maturity, more depth, and more richness. You’re likely to have some emotional scars and war-wounds, but they will take on a special significance and will be worn proudly.
Backward or forward?
In the introduction to my book, The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I state – “The search for re-connection might have us gazing wistfully backward whence we came, looking for something familiar, something we believe we lost when we took a wrong turn somewhere. But true re-connection is not sentimental, nor is it necessarily repair or reclaiming (although it might include elements of both). We re-connect at a new point on the path, at a place we’ve not been before. Real re-connection is less about getting something back, and more about finding our way forward. Perhaps most accurately it has flavors of both; we arrive at a place that feels familiar and is yet unknown.”
As we look at the three stages of relationship this statement will become even more clear and meaningful.
The first stage: Falling in Love
The first stage of relationship is Falling in Love, also called the honeymoon stage, or the age of innocence. At the Falling in Love stage, differences between partners are ignored, invisible, glorified, or minimized. Compatibility is emphasized. Connection and bonding is the theme at this stage.
The voice of the Falling in Love stage says things like –
“I need you.”
“We’re perfect together.”
“We are one.”
“We’re meant for each other.”
“You complete me.”
“You’re my soul mate.”
“Our differences make us better.”
“We get along so well.”
“We have so much in common.”
“We’re so lucky.”
Each stage presents us with tasks. These tasks are crucial for our continued development and growth, and they’re a prerequisite for effectively moving to the next stage.
Developmental tasks at the first stage
Developmental tasks at the Falling in Love stage include –
Opening your heart to another
…and generally yielding to love and attraction.
Many potent hormones and neuro-chemicals help us accomplish these tasks at this stage. It’s called “Falling in Love” for a reason: If we are able to let ourselves go, gravity takes care of the rest. This letting go, opening up, connecting, and loving comes easily for many, but not for everyone. Some people have to make an effort to “fall”!
Most adults, not all but most, have some experience with the Falling in Love stage because it happens more or less automatically. As attachment theory advocates rightly say, “We’re wired for connection”.
Some couples therapy and marriage counselling attempts to keep you at this first stage and tries to shepherd you back to blissful communion. But from my point of view, the Falling in Love stage never lasts forever, nor is it designed to. Difficulty must follow. Everyone who’s read a fairy tale knows this.
The second stage: Disillusionment and Trouble
I call the second stage of relationship Disillusionment and Trouble. This is where many relationships end, sometimes for good reasons, but very often simply because we are unable to successfully complete the tasks that are required, and we waste our energy trying to return to better days. This stage is when most couples call me for counselling.
The Disillusionment and Trouble stage is when the differences between us show up and become a problem. You’re a night owl and your partner is a morning person. You discover that you have different sexual styles or appetites. In-laws become unbearable. There’s an affair or infidelity. Differences in parenting philosophies, in money management, work ethic, communication styles, attachment styles, preferences, desires, and needs all become glaringly apparent.
Maybe you discover deceit or manipulation at this point. Maybe your partner pretended to be someone they aren’t (maybe you did).
Confronting your illusions in love
Disillusionment is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the illusions of the Falling in Love stage are very beautiful, and the bonds that are formed there are real and will be an important resource for you both as you navigate this next difficult chapter. On the other hand, illusions mask the truth, and when they crumble, the truth, not always pretty, floods in. I encourage you to treat your own illusions with tenderness. They have been necessary; not an error, not a mistake. But now, it’s time to reconcile your disillusionment and attend to the tasks at hand.
One of the primary tasks that the Disillusionment and Trouble stage requires of us is discernment. Will we carry on with this relationship or will we end it? This is when we confront our non-negotiables, and discover the real meaning of the popular word “boundaries”. Ending a relationship that was previously a delight is painful, but it is sometimes the only way we can keep our self-respect and our integrity. Sometimes ending the relationship is the right option at this stage. Some people gain clarity about this quickly; others struggle for a long time.
The voice of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage says things like – “I don’t know if I can do this.” “I feel so much doubt and hopelessness.” “We used to be so good together.” “My heart aches.” “I’m angry. I’m hurt. I’m disappointed.” “I’m broken.” “The trust is gone.” “I don’t know who my partner is anymore.” “Is it me or is it them?” “Is this a healthy relationship?“ “Are we good together?” “I’ve lost myself in this relationship.“
Emotional differentiation (There’s a chapter on emotional differentiation in The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples. You can download a free sample on my website.)
This stage is necessarily marked by confrontation. To do what this stage asks, you will find yourself confronting your partner. This is difficult for many people; not so difficult for others. You’ll also need to confront yourself: your own blind spots, manipulations, and deceptions. Your own decision making, and responsibility, your own integrity.
Developing independence in relationship
The earlier Falling in Love stage is about strength in togetherness, in merging. It’s about dependence. The Disillusionment and Trouble stage reminds you that you are indeed two distinct individuals. It’s about claiming independence. This is a tricky stage, because claiming independence within a relationship usually threatens the relationship, at least in its former version where dependence was implicitly or explicitly celebrated.
If we decide to stay in the relationship, we must keep sight of the emotional commitment and the radical acceptance we practiced in the earlier Falling in Love days, but we must also now acknowledge the space between us, the unbridgeable gap, and the need to be a sovereign and integrous individual in the relationship, not just a “partner” or one half of a whole. This is where co-dependent tendencies really come to the forefront and will need to be addressed.
To make things even more difficult, partners don’t always enter this stage together. In fact it is very common for one partner to begin advocating for independence and autonomy while the other is still in the highly enmeshed, dependent stage. Moving from dependence to independence in a relationship feels disorienting and even painful for some people. For others, it can be a relief.
The key to getting through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage is to recognize it as a stage and to keep going. If you can accomplish the tasks associated with this – differentiating from your partner, navigating conflict, standing up for yourself, pursuing personal interests – while maintaining emotional commitment, you might then proceed to the “Homecoming” stage that follows. But if you continually resist the Disillusionment and Trouble stage, if you fail to recognize that it is a necessary stage of development for people and for relationships, and you dig your heals in and insist on the blind love of the Falling in Love stage, you might remain stuck here for a very long time. It’s not uncommon for people to be stuck here for years. If your relationship ends at this stage, and you never successfully recognize it and navigate through it, you will likely repeat it with new partners.
Recognizing and respecting differences in relationship
Moving through the Disillusionment and Trouble stage means either resolving or managing, and ideally coming to honour and respect differences between you and your partner. It means coming through disappointment and doubt, and sometimes mistakes or wrongdoing, with a much fuller understanding of who your partner really is, and maybe of who you really are. It may also mean a period of grieving what has been lost.
Once you’ve been through it successfully you look back on the process and you feel the pain of it, but you recognize that it was worth it, and maybe even that it was unavoidable and necessary. Many clients have described this experience to me after a few months or maybe a year of couples therapy.
Here’s an example of a couple entering the Disillusionment and Trouble stage –
Two ways of crossing the street
I was working with a new client couple by telephone. We’ll call them Joshua and Samantha. I had asked them for a specific example of a recurring conflict in their relationship. They rather sheepishly told me that they argue about how to cross the street. I assured them that even petty sounding conflicts hold the seed to greater understanding and even reconciliation, which is true; there is some wisdom in the saying “How we do something is how we do everything”.
Joshua wants to cross the street at the intersection, in accordance with the pedestrian signal. Samantha prefers to look both ways, then jaywalk mid-block rather than go to the intersection and wait for a light. Joshua felt that Samantha was putting his safety at risk by jaywalking, and this made him indignant and superior feeling. Samantha felt controlled by Joshua, and this made her angry and defiant. I could tell we’d hit a goldmine of personal and interpersonal issues and I wanted to help them find the value in it. I asked both of them to brainstorm as many possible solutions to this problem as they could, to really press their imagination. They came up with a few, but there was one, very obvious to me, that did not occur to either of them.
“How about Joshua goes to the crosswalk as per his preference, Samantha jaywalks as per her preference, and you meet up on the other side of the street in a minute or so?”
Neither Joshua nor Samantha, out of all the possible solutions, had imagined this possibility. Why not? Joshua was in the stage one relationship mode of believing that all decisions needed to be made together. Any autonomous move by either partner was seen as a threat to the partnership. Samantha too had not imagined that they could exercise their autonomy without terrible consequence. Even though she felt controlled by Joshua, she resorted to anger and defiance rather than imagining the two of them crossing the street (or presumably doing many other things) as individuals according to their own needs and preferences. This is the epitome of being stuck at the first stage of relationship, and it’s a great example of the sort of everyday circumstances that push us toward entering stage two.
As we continued to work together over a few months of weekly calls it was fascinating to see how this one example revealed so many core beliefs, so many unexamined dynamics, and, appropriately, so much disillusionment and trouble. I felt a lot of satisfaction helping this particular couple move from stage one into stage two. That’s what was happening here: a grinding progress from the falling in love stage where everything is about “togetherness”, into the Disillusionment and Trouble stage where things inevitably break down. Remember, Joshua and Samantha, when asked to brainstorm, couldn’t even imagine crossing the street on their own, in their own ways, and meeting on the other side. That illustrates just how all-encompassing that first stage of relationship can be, and how difficult, and in a way how counter-intuitive the move forward into stage two is.
What worked in stage one no longer works in stage two. That’s why my clients often describe a feeling of “banging their head against the wall”. You need the bond that you formed in stage one to help get you through stage two, but stage one skills won’t reconcile the troubles at stage two. This move nearly always includes serious self-confrontation and soul-searching, as well as new ideas, new understandings, new behaviours, and ultimately new breakthroughs.
And then you come home.
Stage three: Homecoming
The Homecoming stage is equal parts coming home to yourself and coming home to your partner. A love and respect for your partner co-exists with a love and respect for yourself. You’ve been through an initiation together, and now you are more mature. You bear wounds and scars from the journey, but they have mostly healed and you are simultaneously more strong and more tender than ever.
The Homecoming stage happens more or less spontaneously when you have sufficiently attended to the tasks of the Disillusionment and Trouble stage. Some people are pleasantly blind-sided by the Homecoming stage, even bewildered. It’s a hard thing to imagine when you’re up to your neck in disillusionment and trouble, but it is there somewhere around the corner.
The Homecoming stage marks a kind of “coming full circle”. Former versions of dependence and independence now reconcile to become interdependence. There’s a lot of talk in popular culture about interdependence in relationship and why it is a good thing, but you don’t just decide one day to become interdependent. You enter the stage of interdependence in relationship only after you have successfully fulfilled the tasks of both dependence and independence.
The Homecoming stage is loving, like the Falling in Love stage, but it is a more mature kind of love, based upon a fuller recognition and reconciliation of the reality of your relationship, including its limits. Illusions have been exposed and resolved, so this stage is more resilient and more sustainable than either of the former.
Homecoming is marked especially by a deep respect; for yourself, for your partner, and for the difficult process you have successfully navigated. From the Homecomimg perspective, the early stage of Falling in Love couldn’t embody much real respect because you hadn’t yet seen the worst of yourself and your partner show up in the relationship. If there was respect before, it was based more on surfaces or fantasies than on real lived experience.
Moving into the Homecoming stage is the reward for all your hard work and perseverance at recognizing, reconciling, tolerating, or managing differences. But not all differences are reconcilable, tolerable, or manageable… and that’s OK; it has to be. If you choose not to accept certain differences (and that’s absolutely the right choice sometimes) or if you are unable to do so, this stage will not be attainable in this particular relationship, and that’s a difficult but necessary fact to come to terms with. Not all relationships get a homecoming.
The story of Eros and Psyche
Here I want to briefly touch upon the classic Greek myth of Psyche and Eros. Psyche is a woman whom the Gods demand be sacrificed. She’s taken to a cliff where she falls. It turns out to be a fall into love. The wind carries her to Eros, the god of sexual/erotic love. Psyche becomes Eros’s lover, and she lives blissfully for a time. But the love affair has a catch: She mustn’t ever actually SEE Eros. He comes to her at night, in the dark. She can never know him fully. Eventually she becomes dissatisfied with this arrangement. She wants to know her lover. So she tricks him and lights a lamp. Here is where the Disillusionment and Trouble stage begins.
Psyche is banished from her lover, and she must accomplish a series of seemingly impossible tasks. Each time, just as all hope is lost, help comes from some unimaginable source. Eventually she beats all odds, accomplishes her tasks, and is whisked to Mount Olympus where she is rejoined with her lover Eros, but now in the form of a god herself. She has been transformed.
The symbolic relevance in this story to the three stages of relationship is uncanny. In fact, the relationship journey, in the stages I’ve laid out, bears clear resemblance to the Hero’s Journey as told in many forms: An innocent and naive protagonist leaves their familiar home, finds trouble, miraculously accomplishes seemingly impossible tasks, and then returns home initiated, transformed, matured, often scarred or wounded, and ultimately, now a gift to others in their community.
I’ve sketched out this three-stage model of relationships to give you a map for identifying where you are on this journey, where you are going, and some insights on what you might need to do to get there. But the map is not the terrain. If you want help navigating the real challenges of this terrain in your relationship, request a client information package and see if my services might be a good fit for you.
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Each of us enters a marriage or relationship wearing masks. These masks have a necessary function: they hide the less agreeable aspects of ourselves, making us more acceptable and attractive.
The masks we wear hide our lust, our depression, our insecurity, our pathologies. Sometimes they hide our strongest abilities (if these abilities have for some reason been deemed unacceptable). They cover up our true intentions and motivations, our ambitions, our addictions and compulsions. Our masks hide our pain, our doubt, sometimes our hopes and desires. They might hide either our strength or our weakness. They hide our co-dependency, our abuse (or abusiveness), our desperation, our faith in whatever it is that we truly believe in.
Perhaps most importantly, our masks hide our fantastical imaginings, the depths of our inner world, the images that indelibly mark our heart and our psyche, that which we carry but have not actively chosen.
Deceiving our partner – Deceiving ourselves
The masks we wear allow (and require) us to deceive our partner and oftentimes ourselves. Arguably this is, for better and worse, a necessary part of courtship and of life, at least for a time. Masking is ubiquitous, and it is possible – likely in fact – that you are only dimly aware of some of the masks you wear.
While masking oneself may be a requirement of beginning a relationship, unmasking ourselves is certainly necessary for maturing it. In fact, the second stage of relationship (see my video on the three stages of relationship), sometimes called the “disillusionment stage“, could accurately be called the unmasking stage, but only if we’re willing to see it through that far.
It is perhaps our greatest accomplishment and potential in any relationship to unmask ourselves and reveal ourselves fully to our partner. In no small part this is because when we do, we are simultaneously revealed to ourselves. This homecoming is the shocking joy (and terror) of intimacy that some of us crave: knowing ourselves through our revelation to another, and vice versa.
The hunger for intimacy is the hunger for authenticity, for that which is most real and least unencumbered by the various deceptions, pretensions, obfuscations, and lies of the masked personae we encounter at every turn in life.
To be free of our masks and to discover that connection remains possible – that we can love and be loved for who we actually are in our entirety – is one of the greatest satisfactions of life and one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves and others, and yet it remains out of reach for most people. If we are unable or unwilling to witness, to confront, to “see”, and to reveal ourselves, with no guarantees, we can not experience unmasked intimacy.
Many people who do achieve this do so somewhat accidentally. They are cornered by life or their partner and the mask crumbles. Sometimes it makes a big mess. But we can also be pro-active in this regard; we can choose to confront our masked self rather than making our partner do it for us. You see, at some point your partner will feel your incongruence (and you theirs); they will become suspicious of you, sensing that what you present of yourself does not match their deeper intuitive experience of you. This creates rumblings and fractures. It can not be avoided forever, and it will kill or anaesthetize a relationship.
This unavoidable process begins once the “shine is off the apple”, it marks the end of the honeymoon stage, the end of innocence, and the beginning of your next initiation.
Conflict can be necessary and valuable in relationships when it helps a couple identify differences, develop appropriate boundaries, and facilitate constructive negotiation and agreements. But there’s a particular type of conflict that only leaves couples feeling frustrated and stuck. It’s agonizing because it repeats and repeats but it never leads anywhere, accomplishes anything, or satisfies the underlying hopes or needs of the individuals involved: To feel safe, to feel understood, to feel the possibility of moving forward.
Ten years of helping couples worldwide has taught me that if you experience this kind of “conflict loop” in your relationship you are in very good company! People don’t always talk about it, but most of us have experienced this at some point.
Because this type of conflict is a result of survival mechanisms getting activated in the nervous system, I call it “fight or flight” conflict.
Fight or flight conflict almost never delivers any positive results. Over time it erodes goodwill and turns potential allies into enemies. After we look at how to identify it, I’m going to walk you through a simple practice (I call it “soothing the beast”) for de-escalating the fight or flight responses that characterize this kind of conflict.
Identifying fight or flight conflict
Fight or flight conflict can be identified by a set of observable characteristics. Once you able to identify that this is what is happening, you can apply the practice I explain below.
Fights repeat in eerily familiar patterns, but the issue is never resolved because you can’t address it without getting triggered and reactive.
It feels like the worst in each of you comes out.
Your partner feels like an enemy, not an ally.
You have a visceral (body) response, during or after the conflict, ie – shaking, sobbing, numbing or freezing, feeling sick to your stomach, headaches etc.
Human beings have three distinct “operating systems”
To put this kind of conflict into context, we can think of human beings as having three distinct “operating systems.” Each of these three operating systems has their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own particular scope of concern. They are all three working in the background at any time, but usually one or another is operating in the foreground and defining your current experience.
Three human operating systems –
The rational OS is associated with the forebrain and is responsible for ideas and concepts, language, a sense of time, and everything we think of as “rational”.
The emotional OS is associated with the mid-brain (mammalian brain) and is responsible for forming and managing emotional bonds with others.
The survival OS is associated with the brain stem (reptilian brain) and is responsible for basic life functions and also for automatic survival reactions (fight, flight etc).
(I describe the differences in more detail with a classroom analogy in the video.)
When we can engage in conflict while still being able to retain some access to our rational and emotional operating systems we might successfully reconcile the differences or issues that are making trouble in the relationship. This is never easy to do, but the hard work can pay off. This is “good” conflict.
When the survival OS gets activated we lose access to the other two systems, and so we can not effectively consider other perspectives. We become highly reactive; a sideways glance or tone of voice can push us over the edge. We become hyper-vigilant and aggressive (or withdrawn), and our reactions are disproportionate for the situation (in hindsight). We don’t make progress in our relationship when we descend into survival mode, so we can probably agree that this is “bad” conflict.
Here’s my “soothing the beast” practice for calming the nervous system arousal that comes with the survival OS, and bringing your rational and emotional self back “online”.
Soothing the beast – A four-step practice for de-escalating fight or flight conflict
One person calls “Code red” (or whatever other cue you two choose). When code red is called you both stop talking.
Facing each other, take ten breaths together. This calms the nervous system and begins to build a bridge of coherence between you and your partner.
Whoever called code red reports on one sensation in their body, ie: “My stomach feels tight”.
The other person listens and acknowledges – “I hear your stomach feels tight” – then reports on a sensation in their own body, ie: “My face feels hot.” Repeat back and forth until your two nervous systems calm down and you can access your rational and emotional self.
Here are three of the insightful real-life examples readers generously shared, with a few comments of my own:
“I let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me.”
“I have let go of the notion that my partner must agree with me on most issues. That has freed up a lot of energy that would otherwise have been wasted fighting over what are essentially meaningless points. I have found that my respect for her has grown, and I hope the reverse is also true.”
Finding ways to manage differences and “agree to disagree” in relationships really does free up a lot of energy, and the part about increased respect matches my observations: when couples are able to respect differences, the overall respect for each other grows.
“The sacred pause…”
“The biggest change I implemented in my behaviour is the ‘sacred pause’. This allowed me space to then look at his words/reactions with curiosity instead of reactivity.”
“It is still a new behaviour in a middle aged woman who spent her life in reactivity so I am not 100% with it yet, but when I am successful it means that I can either hear the actual words my husband says and/or notice that whatever energy or words that may have traditionally felt like an attack on my worthiness are either not about me at all or I can now respond thoughtfully to the interaction. My pattern was definitely to take any perceived slight or any negative energy and attack, even if the interaction had nothing to do with me. If there was negativity of any kind attached to my husband I did not feel safe and I attacked him verbally. It was very humbling for me the first few times I was successful at being able to separate myself from his energy.”
“I found some awareness about myself in your article about self-regulation and co-regulation. I recognized that I used co-regulation as a tool to get out of my own discomfort and create enmeshment. I learned to shift into more self-regulation. I directly noticed a decline in the drama of our relationship.”
That got me wondering if they had experienced any loss in feelings of intimacy or closeness as a result of decreased drama (drama is often part of “the glue” in relationships, for better and for worse), so I asked.
“Some yes. When I became more solid in myself, the space between us became greater. The drama fed the tension, which fed the excitement. With less drama, the lack of a more solid connection showed. I did, and do, feel more intimate with my own self, a big win for me.”
Changing behaviours in a relationship is always a matter of “catching yourself in the act” of unconscious, reflexive, habitual responses to stimuli and choosing something different in the moment. With practice and repetition new habits are formed.
How have you changed your behaviour to improve your relationship? Share your real-life examples in the comments or on my facebook page.
Anger is often used to avoid sadness or grief. This habitual and unconscious use of anger wreaks havoc on personal lives and relationships.
As I’ve claimed previously, resentment is anger that got stuck. One of the main reasons that anger gets stuck is because it never properly gives way to grief.
Grief is a natural response to loss. This loss can be anything: loss of a life, a relationship, a hope, an ideal, a personal identity, a love, a fantasy, etc. Anything and everything that we hold dear can be lost.
When we use anger to avoid feeling grief, the anger tends to get stuck because the necessary grieving never happens.
If you don’t know how to grieve, you will likely be plagued with resentment. Probably you developed a life strategy early on that displaced grieving and put anger (or maybe numbness) in grief’s proper place.
A brief story to illustrate –
Candace and Matthew were in their third or fourth telephone session with me. Married for over thirty years, Matthew’s early behaviours as a young man in the marriage (drinking, going out constantly, ignoring and neglecting Candace) became a source of resentment for Candace. Even though Matthew had “grown up” and changed his behaviour significantly for the past decade, Candace’s resentment persisted, and had come to largely define the relationship.
Matthew was tired of being resented. He readily admitted that his behaviour used to be awful, but ten years after the fact he thought he deserved some warmth and forgiveness. He had apologized and tried to make amends in every way he knew how. Frankly, he had done a pretty good job.
About half way through our session, while I facilitated an exercise between them, something emerged spontaneously for Candace; an insight. “Every time I make a request to Matthew, or a complaint, there’s a meanness. It’s like a poisonous barb that I attach to every interaction.”
We talked for a while about vulnerability and emotional intimacy, and Candace broke down. “I’m never vulnerable with Matthew. Or anyone. My anger is stuck in me. It’s that poisonous barb. I got hurt so badly. But I am seeing that I have never really showed Matthew my hurt. I could blame him for this, say he isn’t trustworthy, but I don’t think it’s really true. The truth is I don’t know how to express hurt feelings without attaching that, that… barb.”
The “angry barb” that Candace described had driven Matthew away, to the point of near despondency. Witnessing Candace as she felt her pain and confronted her inability to grieve was like healing balm for Matthew. For the first time, the thing that had come to define their marriage was being named, was being addressed.
Candace was sobbing. She was sobbing for all that she had lost, not just because of Matthew’s earlier behaviour, but for all that was lost through a lifetime of her disconnection to her own grief. The floodgates opened and I knew things would never be quite the same for her, or for the marriage.
In this example Candace was “ripe” for the insight she received. Her grief had been ripening beneath her anger for who knows how long, presumably for her entire life.
In service to helping you move past the resentment in your life and relationship, try this embodied grief practice.
Start with feeling sensations in your body. Where do you feel resentment or anger? In your belly? Your chest? Your fists? Your face? Usually anger shows up as tightness or constriction, so let yourself feel the tightness. Stay with that sensation of tightness for a few moments. Then slowly, intentionally, soften the place in your body that is tight.
Watch for any small sign of sadness. Usually a trace of it will appear. Notice how you manage the sadness, how you resist it. Maybe you tense up around it. Maybe there are words in your mind that try to manage it. Just notice.
Do whatever you need to do to allow the sadness to exist. If you felt anger or resentment in your body, the sadness exists somewhere in relation to it. The sadness is beneath the anger, or above it, or within the anger, or beside. If the anger felt hot, the sadness might feel cool. Or maybe the sadness shows up as words or an image in your mind. Let it be there, follow it, nourish and encourage it. This will feel strange if you’re used to avoiding it.
The sadness wants to move your body in some way. Maybe you bend forward or curl into a ball. Maybe you squish your face up and cry, or cradle yourself in some way. Notice how the sadness wants to move your body. Let it.
Work with this practice. Notice how your resentment or anger interacts with your sadness. Keep making room for your sadness; rather than repressing it, give it room to express itself. Over time your sadness may connect you to grief, to what you have lost. Let it.
At the grief level, sadness is like a rollercoaster, or like riding the rapids in a river raft. You let it take you. You are not in control of it. This loss of control is the main reason we develop an anger strategy in the first place. Part of a grief practice is submitting to being moved by feeling; this is something many people have spent their lives avoiding.
If you do this repeatedly, over time, old resentments (stuck anger) can turn to grief and move through you. If you want help, consider working with a therapist who understands this process. I’m happy to email you a client package by request.
Do you have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.
The purpose of anger is to make something change, to protect a boundary, or to bring something into alignment quickly.
Long-term resentment in relationships happens when anger didn’t get expressed or, for one reason or another, did not bring the desired result.
Moving through resentment means revisiting the anger that got stuck. Is it current? Does it want or need something now? Is there a change that still needs to happen? Is there a boundary that still needs protecting?
If there is change that still needs to happen, attend to it. If there is a boundary being breached, protect it.
If your resentment is old news, if it has no current needs, then it might be time to grieve whatever was lost. That’s an important part of moving past resentment; grieving. This is the part that so often gets missed, and one of the reasons that resentment persists.
If your old anger was ineffective at protecting your boundaries or making a needed change, you probably ended up losing something. Maybe it was a feeling of safety that was lost. Maybe it was dignity. Or feeling understood. Or maybe you lost a relationship, or an aspect of a relationship. Maybe you lost a part of yourself. Maybe you don’t even know exactly what was lost.
To recap, resentment lingers for two main reasons –
The change or protection functions of anger did not accomplish their desired result.
Consciously or unconsciously, we would rather remain angry at what remains undone than grieve what was lost.
This presents us with two possible paths –
Attend to whatever your anger asked and is continuing to ask of you. Deal with what is current.
Grieving is hard for many people, for so many reasons. It can also be completely unknown, a mystery. You might need to learn how to grieve. Consider this possibility, and in the meantime I’ll work on putting together a basic grief “practice” that you can try.
My couples counselling clients often tell me “I lost myself in the relationship” or “I lost my identity in my marriage”. By the time they are able to clearly articulate this feeling they have often already detached from their partner (but not always).
One of the questions I ask them is “Can you imagine claiming your own identity within this marriage? What would that require of you?”
A life without a self is not an option
Most people will not tolerate a life without a self. A psychological survival instinct will kick in eventually and say “You’ve lost yourself. Get out”. With today’s increasing personal autonomy and options, and a growing sense of the importance of self-identity within the culture at large, few people are willing to sacrifice their sense of self for a marriage.
Interestingly, in my couples counselling practice it is the partner (in hetero relationships it’s usually the man) of the person who lost their self-identity (usually the woman, often tied to mothering) who is often the biggest champion and supporter for their partner re-claiming their identity. Perhaps surprisingly, this encouraging stance is not generally met with much receptivity, and is often met with hostility. Why? Because by this point the lost-identity partner is already fantasizing about a new life, a life free from the self-erasure of their marriage. They’ve already broken the bond and are out the door.
The film “Marriage Story” is an example
Early detection is crucial. In Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story the wife, Nicole, has clearly lost herself in the marriage. (For some interesting discussion on the themes in this film, see my facebook page here). By the time this begins to get explicitly addressed in the relationship it is too late. She is done.
The trouble is that losing yourself in a marriage or relationship happens slowly, little by little. We can tolerate the small compromises one-by-one. We don’t even notice them. But they build until a tipping point is reached.
Starring roles and supporting roles
An insightful colleague has suggested to me that in all relationships one person plays the “star” character or leading role and the other plays the supporting role. I’m not convinced that this is always the case, but it’s certainly true often enough to warrant attention.
Is there a starring role and a supporting role in your marriage? How do you feel about this? Discussing this with your partner is one way to help protect yourself against the lost-identity crisis. All relationships contain asymmetries of some type and it’s up to you to stay current (with yourself and your partner) about your comfort with these asymmetries, and to negotiate them before resentment builds.
If you occupy the starring role in the relationship, you will be wise to give your partner some of the limelight, a share of the power, to make compromises that allow them to feel solid in their own identity.
Protecting your relationship from a “lost-identity” crisis
There’s a particular complicity that takes over many relationships and is typically only visible in hindsight, after it’s too late. The lost-identity or “supporting role” partner will abdicate their own responsibility for advocating for themselves. This abdication is often correlated with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, passive/aggressive strategies for obtaining love, and other unconscious, unresolved issues. The dominant or “starring role” partner is complicit when they ignore or “don’t notice” that their partner is betraying themselves, is living small, is unhappy, and is growing resentful.
The lost-identity partner (unconsciously) believes that if they live small and let the dominant partner enjoy the spotlight eventually it will work out well. The starring-role partner interpretes this as “support” and active willingness (even though it is not), and is shocked when they find themselves blamed for their partner’s loss of self-identity. By this time the whole thing has gone on for so long that much damage has been done, and it can be difficult to recover.
Recovering from losing yourself in relationship
For couples trying to recover from this predicament –
The lost-identity partner must confront their own responsibility for giving their identity away, and recognize the limits of their partner’s responsibility.
The starring-role partner must confront their own self-centredness and complicit denial in the dynamic.
These are both critically important steps, and can be a long process to complete. The role of each partner in this case is never simply about their behaviour in this particular relationship, rather they come to examine deeper psychological patterns of superiority, inferiority, the handling of power, blame etc.
As difficult as this scenario is, when couples are able to work through it they come to the other side at a new level of personal maturity and integrity. If a couple is unable or unwilling to work through it, each individual is likely to repeat the pattern unless they do significant work on the issue individually before beginning a new relationship.
Love is Not Enough – Why good boundaries make good relationships
Emotional empathy is often touted as a relationship panacea, but there’s another piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked. In this episode Justice Schanfarber makes a case for the value of emotional boundaries in relationships. Join us as we explore –