Brian and Kate came to see me for couples therapy. As you read their different versions of the problem between them, see if you can identify the real problem.
This is Kate's version:
"Ever since Brian got a promotion, all he does is work. And when he is home, he's not really there. I try to talk to him, and he either doesn't hear me, or worse, he acts like I'm bothering him. I just don't matter to him anymore."
"Also, he's been such a jerk. I'll make us a nice dinner. Not only does he come home thirty minutes late (once it was even an hour), but he doesn't even call to let me know he's running late. Then, after all of that, he'll want to have sex. You've got to be kidding me! I just don't matter at all."
This is Brian's version:
"Since when is it a crime to be attracted to your wife? And why would I call if I'm running late…so she can scream at me twice - when I call her and when I get home?
I'm sorry if I'm working a lot, but before I got this promotion she complained that I wasn't making enough money. I just can't please this woman. Nothing I do is ever good enough. It's hopeless."
What's going on here?
Kate and Brian are suffering from the number one problem that distressed couples have. You ask what is that problem? No, the problem is not disagreements about money, frequency of sex, or a work/life balance. It's rarely the content of the argument that's the real problem. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, a researcher, psychologist and one of the leading innovators in the field of couples therapy, the real problem between couples is emotional disconnection and feeling insecure in the attachment with your partner.
Why is feeling disconnected from your partner so distressing? Our primitive brains are hard-wired for connection to others, especially with our children and one precious other. Why? Connection was essential for survival. During prehistoric times, if you lost your partner to death or they abandoned you for another cave dweller, you probably had twenty-four hours before you and your children were eaten. Staying alive meant staying connected to your partner.
Today when we feel emotionally disconnected from your partners, research shows we go into primal panic, experiencing extreme distress. We can even feel physical pain. Have you ever literally felt your heart was breaking after romantic rejection? It physically hurts. This is because the same part of the brain that gets activated following a romantic breakup-the anterior cingulate cortex-is the same part of your brain that registers physical pain. In fact, in The Psychological Science 2010, researchers published findings that Tylenol can reduce physical and neural responses associated with the pain of romantic rejection (as a psychologist, however, I don't recommend anyone numb themselves as a way to escape pain. It can interfere with healthier ways of dealing with pain).
Where couples get into trouble with each other is in their attempts to reconnect, they trigger each other, exacerbating the disconnection, causing a negative cycle or negative dance.
The most common negative dance according to Dr. Johnson is called the "protest polka." When Brian is promoted and starts working more, Kate becomes distressed at the increasing distance between them. Before, they were each other's safe haven. Their partner was the one person they could count on always to respond, always to have their back. Frightened at the eroding connection, Kate protests. She's the pursuer. The pursuer is sensitive to distance in the relationship and monitors for closeness. Initially, protests can be soft. "Hey, it bothers me when you work on the weekend now." If not heard (i.e., her partner gets defensive), feeling increasingly panicked, she's likely to escalate her attempts to bring him closer. Unfortunately, as the pursuer feels more desperate, their protests are typically expressed through anger, blame ("You only care about yourself and work"), criticism and demands.
The other role in the dance is the withdrawer, who monitors for threats such as "I'm failing. I'm a disappointment. I'm not good enough." When these fears are triggered, Brian gets defensive and tries to make an airtight case for having done nothing wrong. "Whatever I do is never good enough. Before you complained I wasn't making enough." This doesn't land because it doesn't reassure Kate that she's important. Triggered, she escalates more.
Fearing things will escalate out of control, the withdrawer, Brian, tries to protect the relationship by putting a lid on the escalation by withdrawing. "Look, I'm just not going to talk about this anymore," and he leaves the room. This really triggers Kate. She follows him, screaming, desperate to engage him. Brian flooded and overwhelmed, refuses to talk and shuts her out.
What is the key to a successful relationship? When you get caught in that negative dance with your partner, how do you change the moves?
Next time you feel disconnected from your partner, reach for that person in a vulnerable way.
You can practice this by completing these three sentences.
When ____________________ (you work so much, criticize me…)
I feel _____________________(sad, scared)
I need ____________________(reassurance that you love me; reassurance that see me as a good man).
So what might Kate share if she were coming from a vulnerable place? How would she reach for Brian in a vulnerable way by filling in the blanks? Perhaps:
When you work so many hours
I feel sad, unimportant and unloved.
I need reassurance that I am important to you and you love me. I also need you to find more time to be with me.
So what might Brian say if he shared his soft, tender feelings? He is sensitive to threats, feeling inadequate, not good enough. His tendency as the withdrawer is to defend and shut down. How could he fill in the blanks? Perhaps:
When you tell me I'm a workaholic and only care about money.
I feel scared you're going to leave me, I'm a disappointment, I'll never be good enough.
I need you to not criticize me and reassurance that you see me as a good man.
The next time you feel disconnected from someone you love, how might you share the soft, vulnerable feelings by filling in the blanks? Perhaps:
When you spend more time with you friends than with me.
I feel sad, unloved, unimportant.
I need you to spend more time with me, I need reassurance that you love me.