There is a powerful connection to our childhoods and how we form relationships with others in our adulthood. In a sense, in times of conflict, we really do resort to child-like behaviors in an attempt to regulate our emotions and get security from others.
When you find yourself struggling with understanding your partner, your children, or even yourself at times, there is a good possibility you may be functioning from an unprocessed emotion. This tends to trigger an immediate behavior (example: avoidance of conflict, anger, defensiveness, etc). These behaviors have been developed over the years and have become a sense of safety when we are feeling alone. These behaviors usually contradict what we are really feeling and they typically push the people we need safety from, away.
In an example scenario, let’s say you pick up your kids from school after a long day. You’re exhausted, they are full of energy, and your checklist of things to accomplish by 6pm seems endless. You finally get home, feed them a snack, and start preparing dinner, all while attempting to help the kids with their homework. With all that is on your plate, you find yourself getting frustrated with your kids for “not focusing” enough and for not taking this time seriously. The food on the stove is starting to boil over and you can feel your irritation start to do the same. Your partner gets home from work… tired and cranky. They plop themselves on the sofa with barely saying a word to you. You immediately become overloaded with frustration and explode. “Why can’t you ever help me? Can’t you see the kids aren’t listening to me? Why do you always come home in a bad mood? Don’t worry about dinner, either! I got it hunny! You never help with anything!” Your partner reacts defensively, then completely shuts down and becomes even more distant. The rest of the night oozes awkward tension until the next day when it seems to happen all over again. The situation is a lose-lose, leaving both of you with unmet needs and deeper fears being left unsaid and unprocessed.
What can you do?
1. Re-establish expectations (especially if they come within) and become aware of what you really need, why you need it, and how you ask for it.
Take a moment to look inside yourself and ask, “what’s really going on for me?” Referring back to the example scenario, inside, you may be really struggling with your own insecurities and may not have even realized there is more to your blow up(s) than just being overwhelmed. Maybe you feel expected to have the house cleaned, dinner prepared, and the kids’ homework done by the time your partner gets home and when you don’t get acknowledged, you feel completely un-seen, taken-advantaged of, and feel less of an equal in your relationship. (The catch… maybe your partner doesn’t expect those things from you, and maybe you are giving them the message that you don’t need any help).
2. Examine your beliefs on love. How do you show it? How do you expect to receive it?
We often don’t realize that our partners may have a completely different definition of “how to show love” and when they do not show it the way we do, all other attempts are either misread, unseen, or undervalued. We then develop beliefs about our relationship that fuels our fears, (i.e. “he didn’t call me during his lunch break, he obviously doesn’t care about me”).
In this example, maybe you start to realize that by cleaning the house, making dinner, and helping kids with homework by the time your partner gets home, is your way of showing your love for them… So when you partner comes home and doesn’t acknowledge you or your efforts, it’s taken extremely personal and it feels very hurtful.
3. Become aware of your relationship’s dance.
For example, when you feel as though the love you have put out there isn’t received, you feel completely insecure and terribly alone. This triggers a panic inside of you that isn’t easy to control or effectively express, so you may explode with criticism and demands because you are flooded with fear and emotion. When you default to nagging behavior, it unfortunately, pushes your partner further and further away.
On the flip side, maybe your partner gets triggered by your explosion and becomes panicked themselves with insecurity. Their own thoughts start to also reinforce their fears (“will I ever do anything right? I can never live up to my partner’s expectations. I’m a failure,”) and they also become too overwhelmed to process through it. They may feel completely rejected and useless, and they react by shutting down and distancing themselves from you. This behavior is their default and is a way to protect themselves. When they shut you out, you feel even more alone and when you nag, they feel even more attacked, so the cycle continues.
We call this the “dance” within your relationship that may cause rigid patterns and reinforce unmet needs.
How do you fix this?
Become aware of your relationship’s dance to see the missed opportunities to connect with your partner.
Although it takes a lot of time and safety, it is possible to re-create the dance so both of you are listening to the same music. It is helpful to start recognizing and becoming attuned to your own emotional processes and behavior, and start recognizing the incongruence with how you behave in these moments and how you are really feeling.
When you begin to understand your own inconsistency with your behavior and feelings, you may start to understand your partner may be experiencing the same thing. We often weren’t given a language to discuss our emotions and needs, and we tend to expect our partners to know how to respond to us at all times.
By examining your dance, you may start to gain empathy for your partner and this may open a door for you to connect, instead of arguing. You may be able to explain your experience with humility and honesty, versus demand they already know. This is the bulk of building and strengthening vulnerability, (which isn’t usually something we have learned how to effectively do).