We are relational beings. Our nervous system has a biological imperative to co-regulate itself in the presence of another which provides the feeling of safety. So relationships of course, in theory should feel like safe harbours or solid ground. And yet many experience less harbour and more the sensation of being in a sinking rowing boat, frantically paddling, bailing out water, and bobbing without a rudder in the backwash of a vast honking cruise liner. Frightening, unfathomable and difficult to stay afloat in,
So why do relationships so often feel unsafe or unstable? Why do we seem so poorly quipped to manage relationship dynamics? Why does it seem to hard to communicate within an intimate relationship?
Many of us find it difficult to tolerate our own emotions and also don’t know how to receive other’s. The relational field heightens fear because it’s so invested in and so we are at our most vulnerable. This becomes a catalyst for many of our unsuccessful emotional management strategies which often tend to move against, rather than towards, conscious connection. And since interpersonal dynamics are complex and co-created, the space in-between constantly shifts, rather than remaining established by the solid markers of two people who just want to love and be loved.
Many of us find the flux and waves of our internal emotional life difficult, wishing instead for a calm flat line of ‘constancy’. This of course is not the human experience, we are moving emotion. We may have developed a number of ways in which we avoid feeling our emotions and so our vulnerability; the source which we need to build authentic relationships from. Some of these management strategies we developed in our early years to manage the fear and confusion around our attachment relationships with care givers, and have served us well to survive. However as an adult they do not help us connect. Self-protection isn’t a primer for connection, it just keeps us safe.
We may attempt to drown out our inner world and disconnect from what we feel in our body through external activity: being busy, over-working and distraction: loud music, tv. Through numbing or state changing : addictions, self-medication. Through analysis (thinking about feelings trying to solve them rather than feeling them), blaming and judging others or people pleasing. This is how we relate to our own emotional world. selves. In an effort to protect ourselves from the scary world and people that provoke our emotional response, we hide parts of ourselves away. We manage this day in day out instead of accepting and allowing the messy feeling beasts we are; what we feel in our bodies. Tricky huh; before we even start a discourse with the object of our affection we have built layers of armouring over our authentic heart from the inside out and are not deeply connected to, or expressing our true being. And from here we try to connect to another and their emotional world and their relationship to it. From here we seek intimacy and we look to another to meet us, see us, hear us. We yearn to find that harbour whilst being the harbour master of a dry dock.
Within our relationships, we try and communicate our needs, have our needs met and express our feelings to a significant other who we hope will understand us. We will have a pattern of (losing) strategies we employ in relationships in an effort to do this. Common strategies used will be around wanting to be right or to argue we are right, marshalling evidence around our own perspective so that it is seen. We may try to solve problems by eradicating any differences in opinion. We may try to control the other person to get our needs met, try to get them to do something for us, or minimise them, which establishes a bullying or giving in position in the dynamic and may generate a kick back in the form of resentment and passive aggression. We may use retaliation to attempt to hurt the other person in the way in which we feel hurt, either explicitly or covertly, hoping they will understand what they did, potentially expressing anger through withholding or not giving, but with a ‘fuck you’ element. Here we may feel justified but are offending from a victim position. We may also in an attempt to make ourselves be understood, use ‘unbridled’ self expression, the classic recapitulation of our story about ‘them’; you always/never, bringing in prior history as evidence of ‘their pattern’, declaring your own sense making and what they should/need to do to resolve their issues. We may also ‘vent’ or overshare our own feelings and reflections without regard to the other’s boundary or capacity to receive in order to try and be heard. We try to generate our own wind, empower ourselves with motor, flares and oars as communication aids when we feel powerless.
When two people play out their strategies, the combination often creates a polarity of positions or stances which then leads to a further pattern or dance in the dynamic of interpersonal reactivity. When any of these behaviours to get our needs met fail, we tend to ultimately withdraw from the person we want to be close to, or close off ourselves, and so the relationship, from a place where we can’t be reached. We can become emotionally unavailable and walled off by our own hurt. Nearly all of our emotions will be expressed though behaviours we learnt or adapted as a child, rather than our functional healthy and balanced adult self. Many of our triggers come from that young place too, rather than the other person; we are responsible for our reactivity, not the other person.
We all ‘make up’ stories about others. Michael Neil says there are four people in every relationship and two of them don’t help. Each of us has arguments in our head with the ‘sock puppet’ version of the other in their head, when that person isn’t even there and the argument hasn’t even happened. We are creating conflict and difficulty in our own mind; as is the other person. So we bring into the shared relational space a reality and behaviour that makes sense to us in our own mind but is infact a projection of our own reality. We need to understand that so much of our experience unfolds in our own minds and thinking. “Everybody is doing the best they can given the thinking that looks real to them” (Syd Banks). What if the person you perceive as difficult isn’t, you just think they are and that thought is causing the difficulty? What if, like you, that person is merely living in a separate reality to you? The meeting place is to acknowledge there isn’t one reality, but two. To believe there is only yours and to take a position on that thought is the root of most conflict, of right or wrong, fault and blame. To try and argue the other’s down is to deny and control.
We may also have a number of strategies we employ once we realise our chosen one is not the ideal partner we once thought. We may galvanise ourselves around the project of managing this situation: either change them so they are more like our ideal version of who we want them to be, change ourselves so we can become their ideal version, look for other sources to met our needs outside the relationship, or give up on the relationship entirely as hopeless and ourselves as deserving or being able to manage a relationship.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks of how we can chose not to wound others through addressing our fears in the relational field by turning our fears into love. He outlines four principles. Offering our Christmas presence to another despite our own emotional turmoil: “Darling, I’m here for you”. Recognising our beloved and how much their presence to us matters: “Darling, I know you are there, and I am so happy.” Relieving suffering when we know our person is hurting and acknowledging their emotions: “Darling, I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.” And finally, reaching out to ask for help; our core vulnerability being the ability to reach out to the one that hurt us most: “Darling, I am suffering; please help.”
These four principles speak to remaining emotionally available to another in a scary, contested space which often leads to defence, attack and withdrawal. Our challenge is to stay open to the other’s emotional world whilst staying present to our own and to allow our avoidance and protection mechanisms to drop away. The capacity to know our own strategies, position and role in the dynamic, and to own our hurt can change our capacity to relate, connect and so be met. We can become the harbour.