When faced with our partner’s difficult feelings, the reflexive response tends to be some version of this: “Stop feeling that.” We might dress up our response in language that sounds more caring or compassionate, but the essential meaning of our message – stop feeling that – rings loud and clear.
We want our partner to stop feeling what they are feeling because it makes us uncomfortable in a hundred ways. Until we examine the discomfort that their feelings activate in us, we will continue to respond with some version of “Stop feeling that.” The problem with this response is that it easily turns the partner’s feelings into a point of contention, defensiveness follows, and a familiar escalation of conflict is often not far behind.
Another possibility is to respond to our partner’s difficult feelings with some version of this: “Please tell me more.” The problem with this is that it conflicts with our true intentions and desires. “Please tell me more” is a nice idea, but the truth is that we don’t want our partner to tell us more; we want them to stop feeling that.
Who would we have to be in order to genuinely want our partner to tell us more about their difficult feelings?
“My partner doesn’t listen to me; they try to fix me or control me. I just want to be heard.”
Of course, the person saying this isn’t always telling the whole truth. Often there is a secret desire to have our partner rescue us, or there’s a not-so-secret attempt to pin our feelings on our partner, which makes it even harder for them to just “be with us” when we are suffering. There can also be an expectation that our partner demonstrate sufficient understanding, acknowledgement, or agreement when we reveal our feelings.
These dynamics can best be seen in the context of a “relationship system.” Thinking of relationship in terms of a system means acknowledging that relationship dynamics can’t be reduced to a simple cause and effect, but rather that there are multiple inputs that shape the system in complex ways, and that each person in the system has a part in either maintaining or changing it, no matter if they see themselves as the protagonist or the antagonist.
Brian and Glory had been working with me for just over a year. The complex impulses and patterns shaping their relationship were slowly being revealed. Brian had a war-like energy, and could escalate a conflict to massive proportions in a matter of moments. This frightened Glory, who disliked conflict and shied away from any expressions of anger, even just a raised voice. To Glory it was obvious that, faced with a partner’s anger, any reasonable person would naturally want to retreat.
Glory was a highly intelligent and sensitive woman, and she had been clear in our sessions that she was willing to investigate her role in perpetuating the conflict cycle that had developed. Nonetheless, despite her stated willingness in this regard, she always came up empty handed when searching for her own complicity. After all, it was HE who would raise his voice, it was HIS anger that would spark and catch fire.
Many counsellors, as well as family and friends, will naturally side with the more “peaceful” person in this dynamic, the assumption being that the onus is on the “war-like” personality to change. This bias has its problems, as we’ll see.
To really understand all that is going on beneath the surface of a relationship like Glory’s and Brian’s it’s useful to take problem-solving off the table for a time. I like to do this transparently with clients, and to get their explicit consent and participation. I assure them that we can and will come back to the matter of solutions, but for now, I ask, can we just investigate without any agenda… can we simply be curious? Interestingly, this is where change tends to actually begin. When we start to examine a relationship with simple, genuine curiosity we make new discoveries.
Putting problem solving aside allowed Glory and Brian to come to some new realizations about their relationship patterns. By doing “little experiments” (this is a Hakomi term for setting up small, carefully controlled interactions for the purposes of observing the experience and noticing habitual responses) Glory discovered that she had virtually no tolerance for anger or conflict. In the face of anger, even the subtlest anger, she would begin to retreat. The idea of meeting anger or conflict face-on had never even occurred to her as a possibility.
In Glory’s world, anger and conflict were intolerable. They were, in the simplest terms… bad. It made sense that she had been unable to identify any role that she might play in the relationship conflict cycles that plagued her marriage. After all, she always did everything in her power to avoid anger and conflict!
Once it dawned on her that her aversion to conflict and anger might actually be her role in the pattern, Glory had something to work with. She experimented with facing anger and conflict more directly. This let her see just how conflict-avoidant she was, and she got a glimpse of how this part of her personality had shaped her life.
Now remember, we’re still in simple curiosity mode. No problem solving, no prescribing, just noticing. And we’re not just talking about anger and conflict, we’re actually working with it as it comes up in session. We’re doing little experiments all the time. This requires a particular orientation from a therapist – they must recognize these opportunities as they naturally arise and use them for a client’s insight and learning.
This is not an orientation every therapist shares. I’ve been witness to many sessions where a counsellor does just the opposite; they try to calm down or smooth over strong emotions or outbursts in session so that they can get back to talking about the couple’s problems from a safe distance. Certainly there are times for de-escalation and peace-keeping, but if this is always the strategy, and if it is an automatic or unconscious strategy, opportunities will be missed, and old cycles will continue.
Back to Glory and Brian… Glory has now realized that she has always treated anger and conflict as inherently bad, something to be avoided, and she is beginning to see how this avoidance has both perpetuated their cycle, and has blinded her to role within it. She sees that her task may be to confront Brian’s anger and, it is revealed later in our sessions, perhaps her own anger as well; not surprisingly, it isn’t just other people’s anger that makes her uncomfortable.
Here’s what I presented to this couple and asked them to consider –
The moment that Brian feels Glory retreat in even the smallest way, he panics (it took some careful attention for him to recognize the degree of this panic response). Brian’s panic is expressed first as annoyance or criticism, but then moves quickly into rage. His rage is the rage of abandonment.
On her side of the equation, the moment Glory feels the smallest expression of Brian’s annoyance or criticism, she begins to retreat; she knows what is coming next. It’s crucial to note that we are talking about the tiniest expressions here. Barely discernible eye movements. Subtle changes in body language, posture, or verbal tone. Like most long-term couples, Brian and Glory are exquisitely attuned to each others state of being, and like most couples they are in denial of the power that their anxiety holds over each other and the relationship.
As we debriefed a particular incident that had threatened to escalate into a familiar multi-day meltdown, I was struck by the fact that both Brian and Glory experienced major incongruence between their two accounts of the event; they believed that their stories did not match. But I found their two stories remarkably consistent, the only notable discrepancy being this –
Each was acutely aware of each others subtle cues, but more or less oblivious of their own.
Glory could describe in detail Brian’s eye movements and the change of tone in his voice that led her to retreat, and yet she was blind to her equivalent cues to Brian, cues that essentially said “I’m disconnecting from you now.”
Conversely, Brian had a photographic memory of the moment Glory averted her gaze, and how that affected him, but he could not understand how his accusatory tone could possibly elicit such a strong response from her.
This was a good opportunity to draw some parallels. I explained that their two accounts of the same event sounded remarkably congruent to me, and I observed that each of them put disproportionate significance on each others cues, while downplaying the impact of their own responses on each other.
In other words, Brian couldn’t believe that a tiny little bit of criticism from him could make Glory retreat so dramatically, and Glory was baffled that the mere hint of disconnection or retreat from her could throw Brian into a rage. Each downplayed their own cues and reactions, while simultaneously inflating the other’s.
“I get a little angry. No big deal. But then she totally withdraws!”
“I take a little space for a few minutes, like any normal person, and then he totally blows up!”
The behaviour of each is deeply habitual, and feels completely “natural” from the subjective point of view. Neither Brian nor Glory could imagine how their minor little habits could trigger such a strong reaction in the other. A switch gets flipped, for both of them, a switch that runs right to their core.
As we continued experimenting and gaining insight through a collaborative curiosity and a willingness to suspend judgement, Glory and Brian each discovered how much impact their own triggers had on each other, and how this caused the escalation they experienced.
This was in important and ongoing discovery. Previously, they had dismissed each other’s reactions, while simultaneously holding their own to be natural and valid. Now they were each beginning to see how the other’s experience was as legitimate, in its own way, as their own. This, by the way, is an example of genuine empathy.
Empathy has its own nature and arises spontaneously when the conditions are right. Having an actual felt experience of each other’s vulnerability, coupled with a growing understanding of each other’s life experiences, outlooks, and character provided the right conditions for empathy to organically emerge. This allowed Glory and Brian to imagine themselves more as allies than adversaries, and it set the ground for co-operation as we began to address behavioural change.
As we began to address behavioural change and taking responsibility for one’s own actions, we started with some education on what I call “building capacity.” Both Glory and Brian needed to develop tolerance for each others anxious behaviours.
Brian needed to practice allowing Glory to make small retreats. Glory needed to practice allowing Brian to express anger or criticism. Neither Brian’s anxious anger nor Glory’s anxious withdrawal were inherently bad or wrong, and they only threatened the relationship to the degree that each could not tolerate the other. By growing their capacity, stretching their tolerance for each other, the burden of change falls on neither, and yet both are apt to find their own way of changing. Like most profound relationship work, it’s paradoxical. By allowing each other to be themselves, by practicing tolerating one another, a behaviour pattern is interrupted and the stage is set for change based on personal maturation; much more valuable than ultimatums or even negotiated compromise.
Change that comes out of growing our capacity feels satisfying and nourishing. It’s a source of pride and freedom. Change that comes from making demands, ultimatums, or even negotiated agreements about behaviour – “You promise to do this and I promise I won’t do that” – tends to be short-lived and can even be potentially destructive.
You might have noticed that there is virtually no story, no content, no “he said/she said” included in the account above. That’s because the issue that this couple faces isn’t, at core, about a particular disagreement or argument. Their conflict is rooted in something much deeper. We might call it habituated nervous system responses, or we could use another lens and call it attachment styles. The point is, we could spend forever dancing around the details of who said what and who did what, but underneath all that are two nervous systems doing their thing. Attending too much to “story and content” would just distract us from the work of capacity building.
So how to build capacity? How to develop tolerance for our partner’s small cues that set us off?
First we must begin to notice that which has always gone unnoticed. Brian and Glory, like all of us, developed strategies early in their lives for getting their needs met – needs for safety, for connection, for soothing, for autonomy, and so on. These strategies are unconscious, and are sometimes even pre-verbal. We make certain decisions about how to be in the world and with others before we even begin speaking as children. These strategies do not live in our conscious mind, they are held in the body, in the nervous system, in the emotional and instinctive parts of ourselves.
When these unconscious strategies get expressed in our adult relationships, they might create strong impulses and feelings (or perhaps numbness), but they tend to elude conscious awareness. Because they feel so naturally a part of us, it’s necessary to practice recognizing them. Until we do some work examining them, they really aren’t negotiable, they’re more or less hardwired. It’s also worth mentioning that the gender associations in Glory and Brian’s case can just as easily be reversed; a woman might tend toward anger and a man toward withdrawal, in fact I see this just as commonly.
You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…
Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.
Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?
Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?
But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.
Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.
Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.
Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.
Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.
As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.
Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.
These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).
Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, “He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.
Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.
We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.
Relationship triggers and de-escalation.
It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.
This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.
We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.
I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.
Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.
A client came to counselling bracing themselves for what they expected would be a terrifying and awful experience. I was the fourth counsellor she had seen over the period of a few months.
This client was a woman who had been suffering from depression and anxiety following an extended period of abuse. In my office she fidgeted, avoided eye contact and appeared anxious and distressed. She told me she was tormented by something that had happened a few years ago. She had finally sought help, but after one session with her first counsellor she couldn’t bear to go back for a second.
She’d tried other counsellors too but it always ended up more or less the same. They would ask her about the event that was troubling her, she would tell part of the story, the session would end, and she would go home feeling like a wreck. Now she found herself in an impossible bind; her symptoms were getting worse but she was increasingly afraid to get help.
Being with this woman in my office, I could practically feel her nervous system reaching out and clawing at me in desperation. I focused on moderating my own nervous system as we began our first session. (Our human nervous systems, like those of other mammals, are constantly, silently communicating with each other.) I explained that I would not be pushing her for any details around painful life events. In fact, I assured her that I didn’t need to hear the story of her abuse to help her.
Everything I was sensing from this person, from her story to her body language, hinted at trauma. Here’s a useful definition of psychological trauma –
Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.
My trauma counselling approach is in some ways different from my other treatment methods. Without a suitable map for working with trauma, it’s easy to inadvertently re-trigger a traumatic response in someone and cause harm. This is true for counsellors and therapists, but also for doctors and medical professionals, teachers and educators, even parents and spouses.
This woman in my office had been repeatedly re-traumatized by helping professionals who either didn’t recognize trauma, or didn’t have a sufficient map for working with it.
Traumatic life events are generally experienced in one of two ways –
The event is experienced and then integrated over time until it takes an appropriate place in our memories, or
The event is experienced but then continues to haunt us with a variety of persistent mental, emotional and physiological symptoms.
In the first case, when we talk about a traumatic event from the past it feels like it happened in the past. It has taken its rightful place in the past and although it may trigger painful memories we do not feel our safety threatened in the present moment.
In the second case, talking about a traumatic event from the past may trigger extreme distress in the present moment. We may feel, against all rationality, that the event is happening again or may happen any moment. We may understand logically that this is not true but our nervous system is in fight or flight (or freeze) mode.
When past traumatic experiences get triggered, we might become panicked. We might perspire, tremble, clench. We might feel rage or despair. We might freeze, go numb or dissociate.
As you can see, trauma can trigger a lot of different symptoms. What they have in common is immediacy and a sense of disproportion. We might be confused to see someone get so triggered or so shut down by just a few words or a sound or some other small cue.
It’s important to understand that the post-traumatic response is much more visceral than it is logical. It’s a body experience more than a head experience. Feeling more than thinking. When someone is panicked or dissociated it is very hard to get through to them with reason. Trauma therapy that works directly with the body rather than entirely cognitively, or that engages reason in slow, small steps can be effective.
By instructing someone to tell the story of their traumatic event we may be setting them up for re-traumatization, as happened with the client mentioned above. If we understand something of the nature of trauma, and learn to recognize its signs, we can better support people who are struggling with its lingering effects.
Pacing is critically important when working with trauma. There is a window of tolerance that must be carefully observed. Go too fast, push too hard, and a traumatized person can quickly go into hyper-arousal or dissociative states. Nothing useful happens in these states.
Here are some signs that a trauma response may be activated in a person –
Trembling, clenching, flushing of skin
Darting or wide eyes
Shallow breathing, minimal movement, “freezing”
Far away sounding voice, avoidance, sense of not being present
Rage, aggression or terror
If you suspect that a trauma response is activated, it’s best to slow down whatever process you’re engaged in. Back off the hot topic. De-escalate any conflict or stress. Simplify your language. Show support and caring with words and body language. Attend directly to the nervous system activation that is happening in the moment. This is vitally important.
As my sessions with this particular client continued, she slowly revealed details of her ordeal. It isn’t that she didn’t want to tell her story – on some level she wanted desperately to talk about what happened. But every time she did it made matters worse. By parsing out the details at a pace that was manageable for her, and by attending to her nervous system directly at every step, and by working relationally and building trust, I was able to help this woman get some relief from her symptoms.
Telling her story – to me and to key people in her life – was actually an important step for regaining perspective, moderating nervous system arousal, and healing the sense of alienation she experienced. But she had to build up to it slowly. Only by understanding the effects of trauma and having a map to navigate it in therapy could I work with her in a truly helpful way.
Understanding and treating trauma requires training, study and practice. I use somatic processing rooted in mindfulness and Hakomi principles. This allows me to gently work with the trauma that is locked in the body, without forcing clients into potential overwhelm or retraumatization.
Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at how two couples, Chris and Stephanie, Leila and Franz, reflexively use “conflict loops” to cover up deeper issues and temporarily provide functionality to relationships that threaten to collapse.
Today we look at what is risked and what is asked of us as we grow through these patterns.
I take the position that we are brilliantly complex and resourceful creatures who grow and strategize with and without the benefit of conscious awareness. In other words, our conflict loops can be a kind of training ground where we build resourcefulness and capacity for facing the truth of our lives. The conflict loop in a relationship continues, below awareness, until we’re ready to see it and to face the task that it asks of us.
Imagine building a scaffold for years in your unconscious. This scaffold is made to support the weight of an as yet unknown truth about your life, about who you are or who you are meant to become. Eventually this scaffold reaches up and out of your unconscious and into the light of day. You look down with amazement at this incredible support you’ve “unknowingly” been building for yourself. Our relationships, including the challenges, are part of this.
Here’s the crucial part to understand –
Recognizing our role in the relationship system, and then changing it, is inherently risky. It is likely to break the relationship, at least temporarily, and there is no guarantee it will be put together again. We feel the risk of this at some level even if we don’t quite acknowledge it, and so we continue the cycle until until we’ve built enough depth of character, enough resilience, enough maturity to risk breakage.
Until we’re ready to confront our own dark fears (and desires) in relationship, we will continue to feel “stuck” in our own particular conflict loops.
People may come to counselling when they are ready to risk breaking the relationship… “I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve tried everything.” As Anais Nin puts it “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” What Anais Nin doesn’t say is that we can not know what blossoming will look like until we have risked breaking.
The breaking that we risk likely goes far deeper than the hot-button issue we face in our relationship. We end up facing patterns of avoidance, bullying tendencies, self-esteem issues or whichever life themes we’ve grown up with. Breaking our relationship system is one way to bring us to the heart of the most definitive themes in our lives. This is why the tension we feel as we simultaneously grow toward blossoming and feel the pain of breakage is so significant. Much is at stake.
In some cases entire life strategies may be crumbling. In this regard we face an initiation, a new beginning born from an impending ending. No wonder we remain stuck for so long – A huge amount of ripening and preparation is going on beneath the surface.
Even as you work to support your own awareness and insight through reading, self study, therapy etc, consider that this ripening has a life and intelligence of its own. Supporting our own ripening means being present to the tension without necessarily struggling to resolve it. Pushing for resolution too quickly can easily dig us more deeply into more conflict, more confusion. The insights we seek often reveal themselves to us only after we have exhausted ourselves. Part of our exhaustion comes from seeking answers, part comes from defending the position we’ve come to depend on. This is yet another face of that tension between blossoming and breaking.
This is difficult territory to navigate. In this short series we’ve looked through the lens of relationship systems, getting some insight into the functions that conflict provides. Let the stories of the couples in these articles sit with you. See if you can feel the tension these couples feel. Notice what the tension of your own blossoming and breaking feels like. Is there any sense of initiation in the feelings? What have you been protecting? What have you been unwilling to risk? Honesty? Feeling too much? Loss? Being wrong? Desire? Grief?
What wants to blossom –
Responsibility? Truth? Integrity? Surrender? Something else?
Last week we learned how Chris and Stephanie used their conflict loop to (temporarily) protect their relationship and avoid facing their deeper issues.
Franz and Leila have a different but similar loop.
Here’s what became apparent in our sessions –
Leila is plagued with anxiety. She constantly feels an inner struggle between her rational self and her emotional self. (This struggle is painful, but I believe critically important.)
As Leila struggles with her own internal dilemma, Franz steps in and gives voice to one side of Leila’s struggle. The rational side. Franz is in the habit of representing the rational side of every issue.
Watch what happens next –
The moment that Franz embodies the rational voice of Leila’s internal struggle, she gets some relief from her own dilemma. Suddenly Leila no longer has an internal struggle. She has an external struggle, and an enemy in Franz. Turning against Franz feels bad, but not as bad as endlessly turning against her self.
An example –
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. This is their loop. It’s incredibly functional.
Franz, for his part, gets to be the logical one, which is important for his identity. He manages to continue avoiding feeling too much, a holdover from a strategy he learned early on in his family life. He also plays the unlikely role of rescuer for Leila, temporarily saving her from the endless conflict she faces in herself, and from the anxiety this inner conflict creates in her.
Franz is essentially fearful that Leila cannot handle her internal turmoil, that she might crack, and so he rescues her from herself. The resulting relationship conflict is painful, but apparently preferable to the fear of watching Leila implode.
At some level Leila is aware of the role Franz plays. If Franz waits too long to step in, her internal anxiety becomes unmanageable and she baits him with “What do you think?”. And the pattern plays out again. Functional.
In session, I explain that Franz’s task in this case is to hold back on offering his opinion to create some space where Leila can wrestle with her own struggles. I assure them I am not asking Franz to withdraw. On the contrary, I want him to be exquisitely present, to slow down the process enough that he can pinpoint the moment where he gives in to his own anxiety and responds habitually. From that precise point, new possibilities emerge.
Leila and Franz were initially intimidated by the implications of these insights, which isn’t surprising, given the enormous function that their conflict loop has been fulfilling, but they’ve been willing to stretch themselves and experiment with what they’ve learned.
Next week we’ll tie the pieces together and look at what is risked, and what is required, to change these deeply embedded patterns and open a new chapter of relationship.
It was deja-vu. Chris and Stephanie were arguing about dishes. Again. Her tolerance for a messy house was lower than ever since the baby came. His tolerance for being nagged or pushed was just as low. And so they bickered in circles. Tempers flared, ultimatums were declared and a familiar pattern played out until they both collapsed, each feeling isolated and exhausted. The whole thing would likely repeat tomorrow.
Repeating painful relationship patterns hurts. It makes us feel broken, hopeless. We wonder – Isn’t life hard enough with kids, dirty laundry, sexual frustration and work stress? What’s wrong with us? Why are we so dysfunctional?!
I’ve come to believe that our familiar patterns of conflict, far from being dysfunctional, actually have crucial functions to fulfill in the relationship, at least for a time.
After a few sessions with Stephanie and Chris, a pattern emerged –
Stephanie would launch into a complaint or grievance. Then before she could finish her thought, Chris would interrupt her and begin playing devil’s advocate, analyzing and reframing her experience. Specifically, he would emphasize their accomplishments or goals, putting a positive spin on the issue, or defending his actions –
“Yes, yes, yes, but you have to agree that we’ve gotten better.”
“Every time? Really? Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? Just the other day you said…”
Again and again Chris would hijack Stephanie’s thought mid-sentence. Even though we were working on the phone, I began to viscerally feel his anxiety and his need to manage (and effectively minimize) her experience. There was a sense of constant interruption, not just of the conversation, but of a deeper process that was trying to happen.
Stephanie and Chris were repeating their loop of criticism and defensiveness because it allowed each of them to avoid this deeper process for a little longer.
As we continued counselling it became clear that Stephanie was being confronted with the possibility that her husband would never meet her expectations. With a young child to raise, this was a terrifying prospect. Chris was being confronted with the flipside – The possibility that Stephanie would leave because he did not fulfill her expectations. “Not good enough” was the story of his childhood and the shadow that he avoided in his adult life.
These two underlying issues were creating enormous anxiety in each of them. Their conflict loop would allow them to discharge enough of this anxiety to remain relatively functional while continuing to avoid confronting their core issue.
Stephanie would focus on Chris’s minor daily infractions rather than addressing her own serious doubt about the relationship (facing the depth of her doubt might ultimately require her to make the difficult choice to either end the relationship or learn to accept Chris as he is – equally unappealing options). Chris would deflect and minimize Stephanie’s criticisms because he could intuit where they were potentially headed… ie – to his ultimate rejection and termination as partner. Chris had plenty of motivation to interrupt this process at every opportunity! Stephanie and Chris would unconsciously collude in seemingly pointless bickering so they could each avoid facing these most difficult aspects of their lives together.
The anxiety of not being good enough, of past hurts and traumas, of not being known and loved for who we are, and of knowing that we – along with everyone we love – will one day die is a powerful, often invisible force driving us as individuals, and also shaping our social structures and agreements, both explicit and implicit.
“Please rescue me from this feeling” we plead in a thousand ways to spouses, bosses, employees, cheeseburgers, pornography, facebook, yoga, and television. We may recognize the insanity of certain actions – repeating abusive relationship cycles, poisoning ourselves with cigarettes, checking facebook a hundred times each day – but the underlying anxiety driving our actions remains unseen, residing deep inside our own bodies – our nervous systems most specifically.
If only the kitchen was clean, if only I had another beer, if only they listened to me, if only my team would win, if only we had more sex, if only I had more money, if only people weren’t so stupid, if only we had a holiday. The source of our anxiety always appears to be “out there” somewhere. So that’s where we focus, out there. Then we come to realize – That cigarette didn’t satisfy. My new car is already feeling old. Yoga hasn’t made me a new person. Nothing my partner says makes me feel better.
Trying to change ourselves and other people and the world is valid and reasonable and perhaps intrinsically human, but it doesn’t address the core anxiety that tortures each of us from the inside out. Whatever actions we take in the world will be more effective, more direct, and more healthy when we are also addressing the anxiety that lives inside us. So how do we do that?
First, notice your anxiety
Once you consider that your anxiety might be rooted inside you, not in other people and circumstances (no matter how it got there originally or how legitimate your grievances might be), you might assume that it’s in your mind, a head thing, something that comes from thoughts and beliefs, and so you try to change your thinking. That’s fine, but anyone who’s tried to talk themselves out of a feeling knows the struggle that can bring. The experience of anxiety often includes thoughts, but its roots are deep in your nervous system, in your body, out of reach of intellect and reason.
If you want to know your anxiety first-hand (and you do – it’s how you get loose of its grip), notice what it feels like in your body. Anxiety is a body sensation that happens when your nervous system gets activated. Your spouse nags or yells and you feel your throat tighten. That’s anxiety. Your kid slams the door and your face gets hot. That’s anxiety. Notice it. Notice it simply as a sensation in your body. Name it, internally or out loud. “Throat tight.” “Face hot.”
Now stay with it
Throat tight? Stay with that sensation. Face hot? Stay with that sensation. Feel your anxiety wherever it shows up in your body. Do this slowly, with curiosity and awareness. Unless your safety is actually being threatened in this moment, nothing needs to be done. If judgement or internal dialogue appears, notice it, but come back to the body sensation. Stay with it. Stay with it because you want to fully know it. Uncomfortable? Part of what we’re doing here is building our capacity for that discomfort. It’s like exercising a muscle. It gets stronger with the right kind of use. In this case, the right kind of use is to stay with the body sensations triggered by an activated nervous system. Think of it as physiotherapy for the nervous system. Be curious about the pure sensations, without jumping to interpretation, meaning or conclusions. If you find yourself in your head, problem solving or assigning blame etc, gently come back to the body sensation.
The normal tendency is for an activated nervous system to immediately trigger a reaction (ie – fight or flight). We move so quickly to action that we miss the actual sensation, the in-body experience of nervous system arousal. Slow the process down and notice it directly. Stay with the sensations.
An activated nervous system can be extremely uncomfortable. We instinctively want to be rid of this discomfort. This is why we reflexively lash out, shut down or distract ourselves. I’m asking you to practice not doing these things. Instead, simply notice the feeling of an activated nervous system, of anxiety, and stay with it, without doing anything about it, without trying to get relief. It’s hard, but it won’t kill you. Don’t move to step three until you’re intimate with the feeling, with the direct sensation.
Next, attend to it
Once you get used to what anxiety feels like in your body, once you can name the sensations an activated nervous system triggers (“Throat tight.” “Face hot.”) you can start attending to it. But don’t rush to this step. It’s important to build some capacity for discomfort before doing anything about it. Slowing down is key.
When you feel ready, start relaxing your nervous system directly using conscious breathing. Throat tight? Breathe. Feel yourself sending relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your throat. Face hot? Breathe. Send relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your face. Breathe into the places that are tight, contracted, or fired up. Also, notice if you have an impulse toward movement. Perhaps your hands want to cradle your face or stroke your throat. Perhaps your hand floats to your chest. Go ahead and follow those impulses.
There’s nothing fancy about this. Don’t worry about doing it just right. What’s important is slowing down, breathing, and feeling the sensations directly – without flying into reaction, decision making or problem solving. If there are thoughts, just notice them. Then come back to the sensations and soothe yourself with breath and touch. This practice can be quite profound. Tears are not uncommon. Rage and other strong emotions can also show up.
If you stay with the sensations of anxiety directly, tension eventually tends to soften, and then the mental chatter and negative thoughts also calm down. You’re practicing having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This awareness practice, sometimes called mindfulness, gets us out of the “loops” in our head. From here, new possibilities can emerge.
Recap – Managing anxiety in three steps
Notice what anxiety feels like in your body. Name it – “Throat tight” etc.
Stay with the feeling in your body. Don’t jump to action or conclusions.
Attend to the sensations directly. Breathe into the places that are affected.
Nervous system arousal and the resulting discomfort of anxiety are facts of life for all mammals, and are normal human experiences. Our goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety, repress it, or cut it off, but rather to expand our awareness and tolerance of it so that it holds less power over us. The three-step practice above is one that I use with clients in session and that I teach for home use. Feel free to experiment and adjust it to suit you. Like practicing any new skill or exercising any muscle, results come with time. Be patient and kind with yourself. Small steps can have a big impact.
[Note – While we all experience anxiety to some degree, it can be overwhelming for those who suffer from unresolved trauma. Those who suffer from trauma induced anxiety (PTSD) can try the steps above, but may find themselves too hyper-sensitive or prone to dissociation to manage their experience effectively. These people should consider working with a therapist skilled in somatic processing and body-centred trauma therapy.]
Leslie called me in a state of panic. She was worried that her twelve year marriage was beyond repair. She loved her husband David, but their long-standing differences were threatening to tear them apart.
Leslie was a worrier (self-proclaimed), and David, although cool-headed, wasn’t much for talking. Leslie would get overwhelmed with mothering, work and household responsibilities. Her anxiety would build, and she would desperately turn to David, who was consistently unable to validate and soothe her in the manner she expected. (She wanted him to say the right things). Leslie worried that maybe David didn’t possess empathy.
This set off a pattern of conflict that had gone on for their entire relationship and had landed the two of them in counselling early on. Their counsellor quickly came to the conclusion that David needed to improve his communication skills. A common assessment, here it is broken down into its basic points –
Leslie and David have issues.
They need to be able to talk about the issues if they are going to get better.
Leslie wants to talk about them, David less so.
Therefore, let’s solve the problem by helping David learn to communicate more effectively.
This can be considered a fairly standard marriage counselling approach, based on a belief that more talking about the relationship issues, with an emphasis on validation, will ultimately foster understanding and bring a couple closer together. Sometimes it helps.
In this case, the frustration between Leslie and David only grew worse. Leslie became more certain than ever that David held the key to their core issue. If only he could get it right! David tried, but found that the more he attempted to match Leslie’s verbal speed and agility, the more nervous he got, and the more he failed. No matter what he said, she was always upping the ante and staying one step ahead of him. Their well-meaning counsellor had unwittingly given a professional stamp of approval to the couple’s dysfunctional pattern. They stopped going to counselling and the issue continued to be a source of pain and conflict.
Much later, as life and relationship stress was becoming unbearable, Leslie heard about my work. She requested an information package and set up a call with the three of us. She was clear about her expectation that David participate, and she assumed we would focus on helping him learn to be a better communicator.
In our session, I listened with curiosity, looking for clues… What was driving the relationship system? What were the unexamined assumptions? Since Leslie was much more comfortable talking, the two of us talked. David listened. This matched everything Leslie had told me about their relationship dynamic, but I didn’t assume their differences to be a problem, and I said so as I managed the session.
Leslie explained their issues in detail and I listened, reflecting on key points I was hearing –
“Sounds like you get really anxious.”
Yes, she agreed emphatically.
“And it sounds like you turn to David and want him to reduce your anxiety.”
Yes again. Full agreement.
“And when he doesn’t reduce your anxiety successfully you find it intolerable.”
“And the only relief you can find in the moment is to pull the plug on the relationship, which you do again and again.”
Here Leslie paused for a moment, letting the pieces fall into place, testing the implications of this. “That’s exactly what I do,” she finally confirmed.
As our weekly sessions continued, Leslie was shocked to discover that there was actually nothing David could say that would satisfy her. For years she had believed that if only David would say the right thing, she could finally relax. This belief was echoed by friends, family, counsellors and expert authors everywhere. The belief was so ubiquitous that it was never challenged, even though it never led to a happier marriage. But in our sessions Leslie discovered that this belief simply did not match reality.
From this point onward, new possibilities emerged. Fortunately, there were still feelings of attraction, love and respect between Leslie and David. Leslie’s ability and willingness to observe her own experience, beliefs and behaviours were an asset. Also, neither Leslie nor David were invested in making the other wrong. In fact, both were relieved to finally see a way out of their long-standing deadlock.
Our sessions increasingly focused on helping Leslie learn to track the anxiety in her body and to moderate her nervous system directly. This was a brand new experience for her. With help and practice, Leslie learned to use mindful awareness to turn her attention inward rather than reflexively projecting her anxiety out onto David. This change created a refreshing spaciousness between them. When he didn’t have to struggle to keep up with Leslie’s panic and demands, David was able to finally help her. She became more open to the tactile soothing that David was good at providing. (As long as she was expecting David to “say the right thing,” she had been closed to the idea of being touched while anxious.) I began facilitating experiments between them about what kind of touch each of them enjoys moment-to-moment, and they continue to explore new ways of soothing themselves and each other.
Paradoxically, only after Leslie let go of her attachment to David understanding and validating her in a specific way could she enjoy the genuine gifts that David brings to the relationship. Only after looking inside and taking responsibility for her own anxiety could she find any satisfaction in the soothing he was capable of providing. Unstuck after a decade, the process continues, with new layers constantly being revealed.