A husband and wife are lying in bed. She says, with some tension in her voice:
“You work too much. You’re always busy and pre-occupied. I want you to spend more time with me.”
His reply, laced with barely suppressed annoyance and impatience:
“That’s just the kind of business I’m in. There’s nothing I can do about it. Give me a break”
What happens next? They retreat into a silence that leaves both of them bruised and disconnected. Or, a fight ensues in which the partners, with increasing shrillness, reiterate their positions – with an equally unsatisfactory ending.
In this, and so many other moments like it, each partner longs for intimacy: To be seen, heard, valued, and met. But, sadly, the goal seems hopelessly out of reach. These unsatisfactory incidents continue to accumulate. The years slip by.
In this Reflection, I offer a model for transforming these moments and, with it, our intimate romantic relationships.
The man and woman in our example think that they are 2 adults, engaging in a fight. But that is almost never the case.
The reason? Romantic love is not, at bottom, about finding a good companion: Someone who, like you, loves tennis, Mexican food, and travel to exotic places.
To the contrary, it is nature’s plan for bringing you together with a person who has the blueprint for (1) healing your childhood wounds, and (2) growing you into the emotionally masterful adult you are capable of becoming.
Here’s how it works.
When our couple met, the woman was irresistibly drawn to this man, not because was the smartest or best looking, but instead because she instinctually associated him with the people who raised her. And with that association came the unconscious fantasy of a relationship that would recreate the formative wounding scenarios from her childhood and, crucially, offer the possibility of a different ending.
In her instinctual brain, this man held the “promise” of recreating the painful dance with her distant, preoccupied father and, with it, the hope that her father (emotionally embodied in her new partner) would grow into the loving, attentive father she longed for.
This is the “bam” that she – and the rest of us – feel when we fall in love.
And, of course, in their coming together, the man is doing the same thing in reverse, instinctually enlisting her in his formative, childhood wound: An overly involved mother who implicitly demanded perfection and regularly crossed his boundaries.
Formative childhood wounds come on line when we are very young and, by their nature, are more than our still developing emotional and cognitive systems can handle. For this reason, they are encoded in the fight or flight part of our brain.
Understanding this fact – and its implications – is crucial if we hope to fundamentally alter the course of our hypothetical couple’s bedtime conversation.
Because fight/flight is our survival brain, it has a number of unique qualities.
- Since we need it – RIGHT NOW, WHEN DANGER POPS UP – it is fast, very fast, 10 times faster than our thinking brain; and
- It is more powerful than our thinking brain, only going off line when IT decides that the danger has past; a reality we all experience when try, in vain, “just stop” being anxious or angry; and
- It is highly infectious, almost invariably provoking a fight/flight response from the person to whom it is directed.
Finally, our fight/flight brain experiences time in a very different way. Designed to ensure survival, it never forgets, reacting quickly and decisively a crouching tiger just as we did 5, 15 or 30 years earlier. For it time, stands still (hence the reaction of PTSD sufferers).
So when our couple interacts in a tense moment there are, unbeknownst to them, 4 voices jostling for airtime:
- Her progressed, rational, adult voice;
- The fight or flight voice of her childhood wound, ever ready to be activated when this most important – and therefore potentially highly dangerous – person, she is in bed with, triggers her into the traumatic pattern that was her painful reality with her distant, pre-occupied father;
- His progressed voice; and
- The fight or flight voice of his childhood wound.
Lying in bed, here is what’s happening.
When she says, “you’re preoccupied and overly focused on work, I want more of your time” she thinks she is making a rational, emotionally unexceptional request. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact her child has co-opted her “adult’” voice. Behind her quiet, measured tone is a wounded child screaming for daddy’s attention.
And because we are so instinctually attuned to each other’s emotions he, sensing the “fight or flight” urgency behind her words, is (infectiously) triggered into his own childhood wound, reacting with annoyance and impatience, hallmarks of a “fight” reaction. This, in turn, triggers an escalated fight or flight reaction in her, followed by his further escalated response, and so on, until they each retreat into their stalemated and painful neutral corners.
If our couple fully understood the 4 voices, however, think how different their bedtime talk might be.
Step 1 (Her):Understanding the emotional link between her father and husband, she might lead, not with a demand for different behavior, but instead with an acknowledgment of the pain she feels when disconnected from her husband: “When you get busy and pre-occupied at work, I feel sad and alone.”
Step 2 (Him): Equally aware of her childhood wound – and his – he might: (1) Enlist his progressed self to manage and soothe his wounded child’s instinctual reaction – triggered by the emotionally embedded memory of his over bearing, demanding mother; and, then, able to stay in his progressed, adult brain, (2) forego the need to defend and counterattack – simply acknowledging her pain instead.
Step 3 (Her): With her childhood brain soothed and quieted by his acknowledgment of its pain (and very existence), she would then be able to reach for a response that, like his, comes not from her wounded child but from her progressed, adult brain: “Your understanding how emotionally loaded this subject is for me means a lot. I imagine its tough for you as well.”
Step 4 (Both): With their childhood wounds acknowledged and under control, they would both be able to problem-solve as progressed adults – tending, always, to their core emotional wounds as well as to the important practical issues that need to be dealt with.
In seeking to deal with the 4 voices, a key point to remember is this: In the course of any discussion, there are many moments in which one partner or the other can veer away from the old pattern.
So, for example, if our hypothetical husband reacted to his wife’s initial comment with unvarnished reactivity, she could still take the lead at that later point in the conversation, foregoing her instinct to push harder for an acknowledgment of her demand, moving instead to a place of sensitivity toward his childhood wound: “I know the pressure you’re under. Thanks for listening.”
This last point is especially important. The work involved in acknowledging and accommodating the 4 voices is difficult. It requires sustained clarity and persistence since we need to both (1) wean our selves from our culturally engrained ways of interacting and, at the same time, (2) work to rein in the daunting, biologically wired power of our fight/flight brain. For this reason, we need to be forgiving when our partner (or we) falls short, and be ever ready to be the one who takes the lead.
Finally, we need to remember – always – that while the work is hard, the potential pay-off for you and your partner, in doing the work, is truly life altering.