In the course of couples therapy, clients will usually, at some point, be asked what initially attracted them to each other. There will be conscious choices, such as ‘I liked the way she looked’ or ‘I liked the way he seemed interested in what I had to say’.
There are also underlying unconscious choices in selecting a partner and one common motivation is to heal the wound(s) of childhood, those experiences that have hurt us in some way. This may help to understand why some relationships seems to be a recreation of something in the past, arousing in us a familiar emotional charge such as fear. A child is also vulnerable to messages and cues they pick up from others, including adults, siblings and peers, media and society in general. They teach us how to behave and how to survive and ultimately who to trust in a world that can be quite scary at times.
As a small person, if we fall and hurt ourselves, our bodies experience a fright and we will automatically seek to reduce that fright so we can return to play.We really look for comfort ‘to make it all better’. We usually look to our caregiver who is often our mother to satisfy this need. But what if she does not adequately tune into us and give us that comfort? Maybe we are told to stop acting like a baby, or shebecame upset herself, thus deepening our own distress. Or what if there’s no one there to witness our fright and we are left to manage on our own?
The Fear System/Stress Response
How we experience and respond to fright/stress is developed from an early age and depending on the circumstances, we decide it to be the best way to cope with it. A typical response is as follows.
• I become angry (I really want you to know how distressed I am and maybe I also want to scare you away too – you might see my anger but underneath it, I am quite frightened)
• I run away/withdraw and go quiet (I am overwhelmed right now and need to physically remove myself or psychologically tune out so I can calm down)
• I freeze (I need to fix this and quickly but I can’t think straight and I feel numb).
The power of thinking
How we interpret our experiences will influence the shaping of our beliefs e.g. if I was told to be quiet when I got upset (because my tears were too stressful for my caregiver), then there’s no point in me getting emotional in front of anyone else, because they won’t able to help me calm down. I might then decide that my feelings aren’t important enough at all and become more of a thinker type and a ‘fixer’ of other people’s feelings. After all, it’s a safer place to exist – it hurts too much to have feelings. I might even become an expert at hiding them from myself.
I might also pick up some other information along the way e.g. ‘relationships are painful’ or ‘men/women will let you down’. If these beliefs are active, then it is from these beliefs that I will operate and they will become the platform for how I treat my partner and myself.
When a person’s thinking is fuelled by those beliefs, then those ‘hot’ thoughts are true e.g. ‘they don’t care about me’. They remain true until they are tested for their validity. Often these negative thoughts are just distortions but have somehow formed part of our automatic thinking. It isn’t until a person has an opportunity to slow it down and really look at what they are holding onto, that they can form new, more balanced thinking which is supportive to the intimacy they say they want, rather than keeping them in the insecure/defensive position.
Supporting the self and the other
Not only does our thinking influence how connected we can be to another, but our bodies are also an important support to us, particularly when faced with a threat. In the couple relationship, it can be anything from harsh words, a disapproving look or a sense of being undermined or ignored by your partner. In the moment, our breathing can change. It moves from being a deep, steady breath to a faster, shallower version of itself. Sometimes, for a few seconds, we stop breathing altogether.
If the breath is the first point of support in the body and it too has fallen away, it will be very difficult to calm down or to attune oneself to another whilst in this state.
It would be ideal if one person in the relationship was always completely calm and mature, so that when the other becomes triggered that they can remaining tuned in and accommodating. Unfortunately, the fear system in one partner will usually trigger the fear system in the other and communication becomes defensive with no resolution.
Communication is often at the top of the list of reasons why a couple/individual will seek professional help for relationship issues and fear is right at the heart of the problem. It’s worth holding the thought that reducing the fear reduces the fight. It is really by addressing this that they can develop a communication that they long for, where it is open and safe, and a relationship that is trustworthy and respectful.