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Have you ever been stuck in a dilemma of choice? We call it the “double bind,” meaning that either choice comes with certain problems. Relationships often offer us this double bind of either maintaining connection or protection. When we our attachment becomes threatened, we are forced to make a choice.
Humans have two very basic emotional needs in life. Our first need is to be taken care of, this need for safety can also be understood as a desire for protection. Our second most basic emotional need is for connection with the other humans in our life. Sometimes these two needs work in alignment with each other. In marriage counselling, I refer to getting both needs met as magic in a bottle. Other times, the desire for both connection and protection comes into conflict.
For most couples that seek help with their relationship, they are in conflict with getting neither of their needs for connection and protection met. In conflict, the main obstacle to overcome is prioritization. In moments of danger (conflict), we almost always select protection over connection as our coping strategy and to feel secure. Imagine walking through a forest and being warned of a bear. The first instinct is to protect ourself from the possible bear attack. The defense strategy is strong and wreaks havoc in relationships and often leads to pain from feeling alone and disconnected.
Take for example, Jessica and Niles. After a nice evening at home and binge watching their favourite new show, Jessica looks at her phone to see what’s happening in her social media world. Niles looks at her and is immediately annoyed that she is looking at her phone again after they had recently talked about using their devices less when they were together. He instantly felt disconnected from Jessica. This is much like many other couples that experience some form of disconnection. The next moment is so crucial, because it either puts out the grease fire or makes it worse.
In session, I often refer to the conflict between couples as a grease fire because much like a grease fire, there is a right and a very wrong way to put out the fire. And just like a grease fire, our natural inclination ends up being the exact opposite thing that we should be doing to manage the disconnection. In a grease fire, the worst thing you can do is add water however that is probably the instinctive reaction to fire. In conflict, the instinctive thing to do in Niles and Jessica’s case is to fight, flight, or freeze. Niles could complain and protest that Jessica “always” does this, which would guarantee an equally defensive response from Jessica. Niles could get up and walk out of the room and leave Jessica wondering what is wrong with Niles, or he could go silent and not engage any further as a way of retreating from the pain of the disconnection he experienced, and teaching her a lesson about how not to treat him in the future. Alas each of these strategies does little to keep the connection in tact.
There is a fourth option: fix. The better way to put out the conflict “grease fire” is to first slow down and reach for connection instead. Many relationship models such as Imago, EFT, and Gottman methods emphasize learning how reach toward connection by tuning in to the emotional needs of the partner while also presenting themselves as safe to the other.
When Jessica realized that Niles was beginning to flee to protect himself from the pain of the disconnection, she began to fix the rupture. She put down her phone and gave Niles the attention he was seeking. She asked him if he wanted to talk about what was bothering him, and as he started to share, she not only listened but also repeated back, or “mirrored” his words back to him with compassion and understanding. Months before, this conversation would have gone in a very different direction but they had been getting some needed help and she was slowly learning how to attend and not defend herself. The instinct to protect herself was still there, and she could feel her heart race and the signs of stress. She wasn’t being heard or understood either, and this was really difficulty to combat. But she also knew that the old patterns had never worked and their old ways of defending was just like adding water onto their grease fire.
As Jessica took time to prioritize her partners thoughts and feelings, she noticed that he was calming down and not nearly as dis-regulated. Niles realized he was feeling annoyed that Jessica wasn’t meeting his hopes for the evening and that Jessica also had her own needs that weren’t getting met either. But instead of remaining in his protest state he also slowed down and asked Jessica what she was thinking and feeling. There were many times he was tempted to interject and disagree with her perspective but he remembered the therapists words and also decided to attend and not defend. Niles reciprocated what Jessica had done for him by seeking to understand and then validating her perspective. It wasn’t long before Jessica was feeling heard, less defensive, and more connected to Niles again. She then apologized for breaking their agreement to put the devices away.
It may not always go so smoothly. Niles and Jessica have had to really work at combatting their natural instincts to prioritize protection over connection. As they kept at it though, it became more natural to them and each time they prioritized connection, they felt even safer with each other.