Rewire Your Relationship DNA

Guest Blog by Dr. Joe Whitcomb at The Relationship Society.

The thing that's so crazy about attachment style is that it can literally change how love and intimacy feel to you.

When you are insecurely attached - normal love and connection with your partner can actually feel painful. And unhealthy patterns that will ultimately ruin your relationships can feel soothing. It's like having crossed wires between your heart and your brain.

The Wave: Anxious/Pursuer/Initiator/ type - someone who's insecurely attached and subconsciously fears abandonment - might think that love is threatened when their partner is just expressing normal and healthy autonomy (wanting to spend a weekend apart, having different interests, wanting to sleep without touching on a hot night, or not being 'in the mood' from time to time).

The Island: Anxious Avoidant/distancer type - someone who's insecurely attached and subconsciously fears engulfment - might think that freedom and individuality is threatened when their partner is expressing normal and healthy closeness (wanting to interrupt your work with a kiss or a loving text, wanting to spend the night multiple nights in a row, wanting to drive together instead of separate, wanting to hold hands or walk arm in arm).

It's like an early warning alarm bell is going off inside - but it's been set to too sensitive a setting - just like those car alarms that go off when you are just driving by in a parking garage. The alarm bell is a good and healthy system (it regulates your relationship and prevents you from drifting apart or becoming too merged) But when its set wrong, the feelings you have inside about your relationship and the reality of how it is stop lining up. And that's the cause of almost every fight.

"Any time a couple is in conflict, there's an aspect of reality that both people are a bit out of touch with. The fact that you can see exactly where your partner is out of touch makes it even harder for you to believe that you are out of touch as well - and so you fight about it."

Dr. Joe Whitcomb

We’ll also talk about what you can use in the moment when your feeling abandoned or smothered by your partner - It will reset your alarm bell for you and allow you to come back to reality and see what's really going on. From that place you can make an adult request about what you want and get a loving response instead of escalating a pattern of fear and mistrust and the vicious cycle of complain-defend-complain-defend-complain-defend. 

I have used this process to become more and more securely attached (Anchors/Secure Connectors) ourselves as I have seen others shift from insecure attachment styles to secure attachments using the straight-forward practices that we will process in our therapy sessions together.

Pursuit and Distancing: Intimacy vs. Needing Space

The ability to have a passionate, fulfilling relationship requires that a couple balance two natural needs—intimacy and independence. If we don’t consciously balance these needs, what often results is a frustrating struggle caused by the PURSUER/DISTANCER dynamic. Pursuers pursue intimacy, unaware of their need for autonomy. Distancers seek autonomy, unaware of their need for intimacy.

The WAVE PURSUER/ISLAND DISTANCER Dynamic

When there are problems, Pursuers might say, “What are you thinking?” or “Let’s talk.” They like sharing thoughts and feelings, and feel personally rejected when their partner needs some space. As a result, they try harder and often feel rejected and hurt, and finally withdraw coldly. Distancers seek emotional or physical distance. They tend to be self-reliant and have difficulty showing vulnerability. 

They manage their personal relationships by intensifying work and activities outside the relationship. When a relationship becomes too difficult, they tend to end it completely and abruptly.We tend to attract into our lives what we disown. That’s why Distancers and Pursuers frequently get into relationship with one another. 

Pursuers, who may have received a lot of attention and connection as a child, are often attracted to those who are more independent. As their relationship moves forward, they yearn for that familiar connection. Sometimes, on the other hand, Pursuers never received enough connection, and spend their adulthood pursuing it. Yet, they may seek it in a way that appears to others as being needy. Thus, the cycle of near connection and rejection continues.

Distancers, who may have been left to themselves, and therefore have become very autonomous, are often attracted to those who are warm and connecting. Yet, over time, they feel smothered by the attention, and long for more space. They may fear the unknown discomfort in exposing their own vulnerabilities. They may also fear losing control and experiencing unwanted intrusion by others. They may also have a deep-seated fear that allowing intimacy to develop will only lead to possible abandonment or rejection. 

How do People become Pursuers or Distancers?

Imagine a child falls down and screams, “I’m bleeding!” The natural reaction of the parent is either to get upset with his outburst, or to run over anxiously to help him. An ideal parent would remain calm, and might say something like “Yes, blood … Let’s take a look at it and wash it.” That validates the child’s reaction, while moving him to a calmer place. The child learns how to stay calm in moments of anxiety.
Attunement is directly related to secure attachment

Responding to the needs of a child without becoming too anxious is what Winnecott referred to as “good-enough mothering.” “Good-enough parenting”—in today’s parlance—allows a child to learn to stay calm without the dread of being smothered or alienated.Yet, how many of us are ideal parents or had ideal parents? If during anxious moments as an infant we were neglected or smothered with attention, we may develop anxiety in subsequent situations of too much separateness or too much togetherness. 

The perception of too much separateness can trigger feelings of being unsupported, unloved, and rejected.The perception of too much togetherness can activate feelings of being crowded, trapped, and controlled. Later in life, Distancers often avoid saying what they think in order to avoid escalating anxiety. Pursuers may then feel unresponded to and try to get a reaction to make connection, which will increase the stress for both of them.

This is how the PURSUER/DISTANCER dynamic can lead to hostility and argument. The person pushing for a response is often seeking connection. Focusing on the other person through argument provides at least some emotional contact, albeit negative. The Distancer, who likes his or her autonomy, will resist and become hostile to protect his or her separateness.

Preventing what we want 

Without realizing it, the Pursuer expresses enough desire for intimacy for both partners. Therefore, the Distancer doesn’t have to recognize his own desire for connection. If one person is doing all the pursuing, the other has the luxury to experience a need for space and independence. In fact, the 

Distancer may believe he’s fallen out of love, because there is not enough room for him to experience a sense of desire to be with his partner.Similarly, the Distancer creates enough distance for both partners, so that the Pursuer never gets a chance to recognize her own need for autonomy. 

Consequently, the Pursuer can disown her own desire for autonomy. Without some sense of being a separate, capable individual in her own right with her own interests, she feels an increasing need to be connected to her partner in order to feel worthwhile Like Yin and Yang, true intimacy and independence require each other. Making time for connection with others and practicing autonomy is important

Each partner needs to be able to be alone and to connect with others. If we become conscious of the necessity to satisfy both needs, we can seek a balance openly with less pain and frustration. The result is real autonomy, which allows for no-strings-attached intimacy. 

Solutions for the Pursuer

The Pursuer needs to draw back and put more energy into her own life and her own separate interests. Imagine that a couple has been caught in a cycle of emotional pursuit and distancing, which has escalated ever since the birth of their child as it often does. When John comes home from work and retreats to his computer, Eve generally reproaches him.

This time, however, she attempts to break out of the cycle, and says, “John, I want to apologize. I’ve been wanting you to provide me with something that I realize I need to provide for myself. Perhaps part of the problem is that you have your work, the kids, and me, while I have only you and the kids. I recognize that I need to do something about it.”

The next night she might ask John if he’d put the kids to bed two nights a week so she can go to yoga one night and see a movie with friends the other night. If John has too much work, she can call a babysitter to come in two nights a week.

Eve will soon realize that some independence and space of her own choosing will enrich her life. Dropping her polarized position of clinging to togetherness also allows John to feel enough separation that he may start to desire her again. 

Solutions for the Distancer

The Distancer has a sense of power in the relationship, because he has the choice of whether or not to submit to the Pursuer’s desire for connection. Yet, by holding such power and fostering fear and weakness in his partner, he loses the opportunity to have a more fulfilling relationship.If a Distancer needs space before talking about a subject, he can say “I just need some time to think. Let’s talk tonight after dinner.” 

The Distancer should then approach the Pursuer, rather than waiting for the Pursuer’s inevitable approach, so the Pursuer is not left hanging and wondering when and if there will ever be any connection. As counter-intuitive as it might feel, the Distancer needs to purposely schedule time for making emotional contact. 

I say “schedule” time, because if the Pursuer knows that there will be contact and when it will be, then it will be easier for him to back off pursuing. It may be awkward for the Distancer to seek emotional contact with someone who is always pushing for it. But the plan includes time for separateness.

Schedule time for intimacy and allow for shared meaning and rituals of connection

See what it’s like to turn the tables for one week. The fear that the other will continue to be smothering may be unfounded. Chasing (or pursuing), just for once, may actually quell the need for the spouse/wife/husband to continue pressuring or asking for attention. 

This may help to bring about balance in the relationship. If nothing else, it’ll be worth seeing the look of surprise on his/her face!

An Example

A woman felt suffocated by what she viewed as her husband’s neediness. She had been essentially running away from any contact with him. After some discussion, she decided to try initiating real contact with him during breakfast every morning, even though connecting with him was the last thing she felt like doing. 

She then discussed with him the idea of having the evenings free for herself to read, but to spend one evening with him going out to dinner and to have every breakfast with him.Within two days, the oppression she had been feeling lifted. Her husband hadn’t wanted to spend every minute with her. He had only pursued her so unrelentingly, because she gave nothing of herself to him. 

Once he knew they would be connected every day, even though it was relatively brief, he stopped pestering her. In addition, he felt better about himself and became more attractive to her, because he became more calm and confident. 

Over time, the necessity to schedule times diminished, as both partners became aware of their individual needs.Each individual needs to find their own balance between solitude and connection within themselves.The Pursuer will benefit by developing the ability to be content to be alone without allowing the desire to connect to become engulfing. 

The Distancer will benefit if the desire for solitude doesn’t escalate into abandonment of the partner.We can purposely dance the dance of togetherness by desiring the other from a place of fullness rather than need. 

If you’re the Pursuer, be the flame and not the moth. If you’re the Distancer, try exercising your own wings too.

We Are Responsible for Our Partner's Emotions

I realize that some people will completely disagree with me on this, and that’s OK. Please, hear me out.

Responsibility is a word made up of two words, the word “response” and the word “ability.” Responsibility is not what someone throws in your lap. Responsibility is not your job description or a paper you sign. Responsibility is a choice as I will explain.

Conflict is inevitable in relationships. We will all find ourselves in situations with our partners where we will disagree or argue. Each of us has our own set of abilities which are different from one another. What are yours? And given your abilities, you must ask, what will be your response with those abilities? Do you have the ability to listen? Do you have the ability to understand your partner’s perspective? Can you validate your partner’s feelings? If you do have these abilities, what will be your response? And will it be loving or unloving?

RESPONSIBILITY does NOT equal requirement or obligation.

I want to be clear about what I am NOT saying. You are not required to “take care of” or “fix” your partner’s feelings, drop what you’re doing and attend to him or her as if the room is on fire. You are not required to listen to name calling or hurtful language. You are not required to suppress or never ask for your needs to be met. You are not required to do something that goes against your values. Sometimes you have the ability to respond to your partner’s needs and being responsible for our partner’s feelings, doesn’t mean you must meet that need. You always retain control. You always maintain choice.

RESPONSIBILITY Options

Learn vs. lovingly disengage. We can, assuming we have the ability in the moment, listen with curiosity. Jon Gottman, long-time couple’s researcher, speaks about this as the “What’s this?” way of listening instead of the “What the hell is this?” way of listening.

"Cultivate curiosity in your relationship."

Dr. Ben Culhane

“What’s this?” is an activate mode of authentically feeling interest in learning about your partner, his or her feelings and needs. In this mode, our heart rate goes down, certain nerves activate that may raise our brows, lower our chin, tilt our head and immobile our body. Blood flow changes in the brain, increasing in areas of neural activation. We are learning. Think about the last time you witnessed a baby see something new and interesting. 

“What the hell is this?” mode is a defensive mode and defeating to authentic listening. In this mode, our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, our alarm system is activated, and we are either in or about to enter fight/flight mode. Blood moves away from out extremities and concentrates in our trunks in preparation for reaction. We are listening closely but for rebuttals to our partner’s words. We are in persuasion mode not learning mode. We are not fully present and will find it difficult to let compassion into our hearts, let alone learning into our minds. We are flooding. 

CONSIDER your responsibility to your partner’s feelings.

If, for example, your partner is sharing their anger or hurt or both, you can tune into your own feelings and physiology and gauge your ability to respond in a loving way. You can choose your response between learning or lovingly disengaging. If, in the face of your partner’s unloving behavior, you can maintain compassionate curiosity, then you might choose to be responsible for your partners feelings. Part of your ability rests in knowing how your partner would like you to respond in that moment. More on that later. 

If, on the other hand, you notice a “What the hell is this?” response within yourself, you are only half-listening to your partners words. The other half is attending to your rebuttal in your head, or the urge to interrupt and defend your intention or perspective. You may need to lovingly disengage if managing your own emotional discomfort is difficult. 

At a heart rate of around 100 beats/minute, adrenaline and cortisol enter our blood stream, our oxygen saturation degrades and our ability to respond in a loving way can be compromised. How you lovingly disengage is up to you. Consider how you might want your partner to disengage from you. A 20 to 30-minute break is recommended before returning to the conversation. This gives each partner an opportunity to self-soothe, allows each of your heart rates to return to resting and regain control of curiosity and loving behavior. 

WAYS that partners can help each other.

During a conversation, there are two roles, Speaker and Listener. Each has a responsibility to themselves and each other. The speaker can help the listener stay curious and in a physiological zone of understanding by respecting the suggestions below which create potential opportunity for the speaker to receive his or her need. The listener can do their part in helping the speaker by considering their role as well. 

Speaker role.

Blaming and criticism are quite difficult for most people to stand in the path of. Blaming and criticizing often begin with “You statements” and make it difficult for others to lovingly lean in and learn about what emotion is fueling his or her partner’s words. 

No one is a mind reader. Your partner must be able to state his or her feelings using “I statement” about a specific situation. A soft-start up might sound like, “I feel [name the emotion]. We often want to explain the reasons behind our negative emotions compared to our positive ones. Try to avoid this as sometimes can lead to “You statements” as in “I feel hurt because you’re never home...and you always go ... and you never think about.... I think you get the point here—try to avoid explaining why you feel the way do. You are feeling and therefore your feelings are valid.

That might look something like this: “I feel hurt about our conversation yesterday.

Then he or she states a need in positive vs. negative language. What might that that sound like? 

Negative need: You talked about yourself for the last 3 hours. (Sounds blaming and critical).

Positive need: I need you to ask me about what I’m doing. (Sounds like an opportunity to respond given your partner’s abilities). Your partner can say: “That’s true. Tell me about your day.”

If you struggle with coming up with a positive need, remember that behind every complaint there is a longing or need. What do you wish would happen? If you could wave a magic wand, what would you want to happen?”

Listener role.

Sherry Fleming, a licensed marriage and family therapist, calls this part “making LUV.” Listen. Understand. Validate. 

As the listener, and the person who has a responsibility for our partner’s emotions, we need to be willing to listen non-defensively, accept a “What’s this?” perspective. Then seek to understand your partner’s feelings. It can be helpful to summarize, to your partner’s satisfaction, what he or she just said. You can ask them after summarizing, “Did I miss anything?” We can all relate to wanting to feel heard.

It may be helpful to ask open ended questions before you validate your partner. For example, “Help me understand why this is so important to you?” Then, use language like, “It makes perfect sense that you feel ...” Side note: validation should be authentic not like dialogue between actors. If you need more help in understanding, perhaps you could ask, “Is there a story behind this need?” 

If more help is necessary, perhaps you might consider this: given his or her perspective and the way he or she sees the situation, is their emotional position valid? If yes, then let your partner hear that you “get it.”

Pushing Pause

We may not always have the ability to respond in a loving way as much as we may want to. There is no shame in needing to take a break during a conflict. It does not mean that there is “something wrong with you,” or that you are weak. Quite the opposite in fact. If you can say to your partner, “I need a time out,” or “Can we push pause?”—then you are being mindful and present. And that is a strength to be celebrated. 

It is helpful to add that the two of you will return to the conversation and specifically state the time frame. This can help your partner calm down because they know they are not being thrown away like some feather in the wind. 

Is Short Term Therapy for You? Ask Yourself These Seven Questions

“Time-limited therapy” or short-term therapy works well for specific concerns. So, how do you know if going on a short-term basis is going to enough to make that changes that you want to see? Would committing to a longer therapy schedule be more beneficial? Consider the questions below.

Seven Questions to inform your choice

1. What are my therapy objectives?

Short-term therapy might be best typically when you have one issue to specifically focus on. If understanding yourself or you past and how it has affected your present patterns, if there are several concerns you want to address, or if you’re unsure where to begin, then long-term therapy might be better suited to you.

2. How sure am I about trying therapy?

Looking into a more time-limited approach to therapy might work for you are apprehensive about whether therapy is for you. Short term commitment will give you a taste of the process to see how agreeable it is for you. If you’re seeking support, this is a good place to start. When you therapy has ended, and it seems that you still need support, you can look into pursuing something longer, perhaps even another series of short-term sessions.

3. How much work do I want to do in-between sessions?

Typically Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has some homework associated with it. Research results suggest that completion of these assignments tends to lead to more successful outcomes in therapy. Committing to these assignments can have a more positive effect on your therapy outcome. If you would rather just go to appointments and not be bothered with anything between sessions, a longer time commitment may be better for you.

"If the idea of long-term therapy is a struggle, keep in mind that time-limited support is better than no support."

Dr. Ben Culhane

4. How much time do I have to do therapy?

If your lifestyle allows you brief pockets of time before you are traveling, moving or vacationing, short-term therapy could be a sensible option for the time being. Something to consider is tele-therapy. Many therapists are able to continue sessions with you via web-based video conferencing regardless of your location.

5. What is my budget?

Budget or lack of insurance can be a factor. If you need support with an issue, short-term therapy can be better than no support at all. You might also consider ways to find a therapist that are more reasonably priced. Some community mental health centers accept new clients, and pricing is based on actual income. Be prepared to show tax-returns, however.

6. How long have I struggled with this issue?

Some psychological issues are better suited for longer term therapy. For example, if you suffer from an addiction or from abuse of some form or relationship distress, long-term therapy might be a better fit for you. To be clear, you may still see benefits from short term sessions if that is your preference. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) offers useful tools for people struggling with abusive pasts and unwanted ways of coping like addictions

7. Are my issues an integrated part of my personality?

It is most likely that a longer commitment in therapy is necessary of the issues you face are an integral part of your personality. Consider, for instance, if anxiety is something that you have always struggled with when interacting socially, or if you have tended to hop from one relationship to the next and find it difficult to be vulnerable with a romantic partner, these issues are more suggestive of core patterns and concerns that insist on continual work. These issues might suggest that some of your early attachment relationships have affected your personality in ways for which long-term therapy is clinically suggested and shown to be more effective.

OVERALL

Remember, when it comes to your therapy, you are in control. You are not confined to only one option. Keep in mind that regardless of the model you chose, finding the right therapist is key. If you select long-term therapy, there is nothing that says you must stay. Changing your mind is your prerogative; though, make certain that you aren’t perpetuating a pattern of running away from your success.

If the idea of long-term therapy is a struggle, keep in mind that time-limited support is better than no support. Consider a round of short-term therapy.

Remember, too, therapy is a process. It might surprise you. If you keep an open mind, you just might discover that short-term therapy helps you to learn things about yourself and that inspire you seek longer term therapy, or one more round of short-term therapy. Incidentally, you might discover that one round of short-term therapy was exactly what got yourself on track again.

Modern Relationship Status

It's complicated, today we have more choices in finding a partner than our parents did...

In today’s relationships we have much more freedom and choice than the generations before us. That freedom, however, has come at a price; we lose a sense of certainty in belonging and identity. Now, we turn to our romantic partners to help us with our sense of belonging, our aloneness, our need for continuity in connection. We still want many of the things relationships of the past provided: we want family life, companionship, economic support, and even social status. In addition to all these relationship values, we look to our partners and say, I want you to be my best friend, my most trusted confidant, plus my most passionate lover –all for the long haul – and the long haul keeps getting longer. 

To do all of this, to maintain this ideal is ambitious for our modern romantic relationships. And yet, this is what we want. This isn’t a relationship dilemma that we solve overnight, but you can learn to communicate your needs in a way that conveys ownership, not blame. You can, together, learn to create an atmosphere were sharing and asking for your deepest longings and needs with your partner feels less risky. You can learn to hear your partner’s protests for connection as less demanding and less critical. 

We have come to expect that our partners will help us overcome what is – most likely – one of the most amazing challenges of relationships today: collectively bringing together our fundamental sets of contradictory human needs of change and stability. On one hand we want our partner to satisfy our need for security, belonging, safety and predictability. And on the other hand, we want our partner to satisfy our need for adventure, novelty, mystery, and exploration.

"There are those of us who have come out of childhood needing more protection and safety whereas some of us have come out of childhood needing more space and autonomy.

Dr. Ben Culhane

You may notice in your relationship that there is likely one person who is more in touch with fearing the loss of their partner while the other is more in touch with being afraid of losing themselves. In other words, one more afraid of abandonment and one more afraid of suffocation. Reconciling these polar needs for safety and adventure has become one of the greatest challenges to navigate in relationships today—especially when your partner has a varying degree of need compared with your own. 

So, what is the answer? How do we get all that we want in our relationships and give our partners what they long for as well? Such a delicate balance. Sometimes it takes a skilled and neutral third party (like a therapist) to help each partner understand and communicate their yearnings and desires to their partner in a way that can not only be heard but also received and reciprocated. Other times it may take a collective of other couples who are struggling with the same communication issues to see and know that what they are feeling and longing for is normal, that you are not alone in your desire to feel important to another, to belong, to feel loved—in the way that you need to feel loved. 

Ask yourself, “How do you show up in your relationship? What are some of the things that you do to disconnect from others? When was the last time you searched out ways to learn to be a better partner, a better lover? These questions and others are the kind explored in couples therapy. 

Relationships Matter

When we are born, we rely on another person to meet our needs. And as we grow and develop new relationships, we learn that those whom we hold close have the ability to influence our sense of happiness, especially in romantic relationships.


Our partners impact us physiologically and emotionally. We have a need to form emotional connections with other human beings. This need for emotional connection with others is the most basic longing, the most basic motivator we have. When we can’t find a safe, loving way to stay connected with our partner, we end up moving further and further away from where we want to be, which is safe and connected. Instead we move into conflict and distance, wonder if we matter to our partner, feel insecure in being our most authentic self.

"When we don’t feel loved by our partner or feel that we don’t matter to them, we feel alone."

dr. Ben Culhane

Feeling cut off from our partner can throw us into a sense of panic. We can then send out emotional signals that often get distorted by our partners and seen as aggressive or angry. Often these distorted emotional signals then trigger defensiveness or a tendency to shut down. We fight. Or withdraw. When couples get caught up in these types of negative patterns, conflict escalates and distance increases; we get the opposite of what we wanted in the first place—to feel important to and appreciated by our partner, loved. Eventually we may wonder where the love and connection went.

If your relationship is important to you and you are considering counseling to repair the connection that has been damaged, then couples counseling may help the two of you to once again find security and safety in love.

If any of this is speaking to you, I invite you to call for a free, in-office consultation. You can tell me about your situation and I can answer any questions that you may have. It will also give you a chance to see if meeting with me is a good fit for you and your partner.