PHOTO: Priscilla Du Preez
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
“Why do I always have to think about the shopping? Don´t you see the dishwasher is full? Why didn´t you empty it?”
When couples come to counselling, we can observe how each couple has a central conflict that seems very prosaic on the surface but deep-down touches on aspects that are intrinsic to each partner, related to their traumas or past painful experiences or have a special meaning that is hidden behind the everyday nagging.
- Let´talk about attachment
As I explained in a previous post, attachment is our style of relating to others that is, according to various studies, established when we are babies and is stable throughout our life. Early relational experiences, when repeated, form patterns of relationships that condition our relational styles with our friends or partners. Experiences of attunement and secure bonds prepare us to know how to healthily depend on others, to trust that we are not alone and to create healthy and satisfactory relationships. Lack of attunement, on the other hand, together with feeling of abandonment and not being present in the mind of our caregivers, condition us to be overly sensitive to these in our adult relationships or to try to make up for these deficits in other relationships. However, although we want a new relational experience, if we repeat our old patterns, we are going to get more of the same thing. So, it is not rare that we will choose a partner who has a relational style that resembles the one of our caregivers and the things that he or she does or doesn´t do will activate our early wounds or deficits.
- Vicious cycles
If we re-create the same story over and over again, we will draw the same conclusions about the world around us and about relationships. How does it work?
Let´s have a look at an example. A patient named Carol suffered from early abandonment by her parents: her father literally abandoned her when she was a baby, and her mother was very busy trying to re-establish her life and meeting other men that she didn´t have enough space for her daughter. Carol became very sensitive to tiny cues of abandonment that would trigger very strong emotions. As a consequence, for fear of being abandoned again, she would withdraw and damp anyone who could presumably damp her. In the end, she has been feeling lonely and fear even more the abandonment that would lead her to being even more cautious next time.
- Co-creation of relationships/conflicts
If Carol could, for some reason, instead of always choosing the familiar pattern of men that tend not to be sensitive to her needs, end up with someone who is, she could experience a new relational situation. As if she found a new tango partner and she needed to adapt her dancing style because the old one didn´t fit any more. In such case, she could learn to fear abandonment less and therefore open up more. If she could open up more, she would give herself a chance to create a deeper connection and feel truly attuned and taken into consideration. Therefore, the relational style we create with our partner is always co-created and is the responsibility of both partners.
What happens if, instead of someone sensitive to hear needs, she ends up with someone overly sensitive to their needs, too, however in a slightly different way?
- Snowball effect
One day Carol met John, whose attachment style is insecure. After the first date John texted Carol to say he wanted to see her again, but, because of her fears, she didn´t reply straight away as she didn´t want to come across as too engaged. But before she even could reply, John texted her again: “You don´t have to reply if you don´t want to.” As a result, Carol did reply, and a dynamic has been created where he would always feel like he is going after her and she feels constantly overwhelmed by his passive aggressive way of expressing his needs. However, they never talked about that nor solved the conflict.
10 years later, Carol and John come to couples therapy because they always fight over the same thing. John complains: “Why do I always have to think about planning everything and she is always withdrawing when I start rebuking her? It drives me crazy”
Carol doesn´t really know why yet. Do you want to explore how a couples therapy session with Carol and John would look like?
I will explain more in the next post.