It was not long after Cynthia and Karl arrived for their Marriage Intensive that their dysfunctional relationship became apparent. As they sat on the couch, their body language screamed, ‘Trouble.’
Cynthia sat at one end of the couch, leaning toward Karl. Animated and anxious, she reached for Karl who, on the other hand, sat at the other end of the couch, leaning away from Cynthia.
Married for four years, both had been married previously and now came to the Marriage Recovery Center hoping to save their failing relationship.
“We’ve been fighting nearly non-stop for the past six months,” Cynthia said, clearly agitated. Karl sat motionless. “You’ve got your work cut out for you,” she continued. “We need a miracle. I can’t live like this anymore.”
Karl, a tall, stoutly built man, still sat stoically. Cynthia, slender and fashionably dressed, continued to talk anxiously. We watched their interaction as Cynthia shifted back and forth between addressing us and addressing Karl.
“We can’t live like this,” she said, her tone becoming sharp and accusatory. “I want you to talk to me and you withdraw or curse at me. I want your time and attention, and you busy yourself with work. I must have more or I’m going to die.”
Still Karl sat motionless.
“What’s going on with you, Karl?” I asked. “I can’t tell if you’re with Cynthia or somewhat checked out.”
“Oh, I’m not checked out,” he said, now showing a bit of frustration. “But, when she comes at me the way she does, I’m just holding my breath hoping that things don’t go south.”
Cynthia rolled her eyes and let out a huge sigh.
“See what I mean,” he said. “I have to watch what I say or she will go ballistic. Not to say that I’m not also capable of going ballistic, because I am. But that’s how it is with us. That’s why we are here.”
As I continued to spend time with Karl and Cynthia, clearly they were trapped in a pattern of behavior and feelings that has to do with attachment—anxious attachment.
Growing out of the work of John Bowlby and others, professionals believe there are three primary modes of attachment:
1. Secure Attachment—where a person feels secure that their parent or adult mate will be available, responsive and helpful.
2. Anxious Resistive Attachment---where the person is uncertain if their parent or mate will be available.
3. Anxious Avoidant Attachment—where the person has no confidence that their parent or mate will be there to meet their needs. In fact, they come to expect rejection.
In the early stages of our work, we explored Cynthia’s history, replete with early rejection and abandonment. Not only had she experienced rejection as a child, but the early years as an adult had been quite unsatisfactory as well.
Karl had also experienced a great deal of rejection. While Cynthia learned to deal with her rejection by anxiously seeking connection and angrily withdrawing when her needs weren’t met, Karl had become accustomed to retreating quickly and soundly. He had perfected the art of clamming up, withdrawing and insulating himself from Cynthia’s demands for connection. Clearly her pushing and his withdrawing had led them into a combative, anxiety-driven relationship.
Together we worked on changing their patterns and moving into a healthier way of connecting. It included the following steps:
1. Agree together to end their destructive dance.
Karl and Cynthia agreed that, largely stemming from early life patterns, they had developed some unhealthy patterns of anxiously seeking reassurances, criticizing and withdrawing. Both had developed a strong, agitated Protective Self that covered feelings of insecurity, abandonment and rejection. However, attacking and withdrawing would not help their healing.
2. Agreeing our mate needs our help to heal.
Both agreed that they could be instrumental in helping their mate heal from early childhood trauma and abandonment. Recognizing their wounds, claiming them and determining to end trying to force their mate to fix them, would not work. However, their mate, through gentle encouragement, affection and trust, could help them heal.
3. End criticism and anxious attacking.
Anxiously striving to make their mate behave the way they wanted them to behave would not work. Gentle encouragement and helping each other feel secure could work. Both wanted to help their mate. Both wanted to show love and tenderness, and given encouragement and kindness, would be more inclined to offer those qualities to their mate.
4. Recognize when each is slipping back into anxious attacking.
Instead of attacking as a way to get more love and attention, Karl and Cynthia dedicated themselves to recognize when the other was feeling either abandoned or overwhelmed, and to cue each other to act different. Both were dedicated to gently confront the other and bring them into healthy connection.
5. Reassure the other that they are emotionally available.
They agreed to repeatedly use the phrase, “I’m here for you. What do you need?” They reminded each other that they would not always be able to meet their mate’s needs, but with understanding and kindness, would be far more available then if faced with criticism and accusations.
Solomon might have been speaking about connections in relationships when he said, “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed. The heart of him who seeks understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” (Proverbs 15:13-14)
Karl and Cynthia left the Marriage Recovery Center emotionally connected. While their marriage isn’t perfect, they moved from anxious attachment, criticism and angry withdrawing to gentle correction, kindness and loving reassurances. They know how to ask for what they need and know their mate is ready and willing to give it.
Consider the quality of attachment in your marriage. Are you anxiously attached or securely attached? Do you have the confidence that your mate hears you and is available to meet your emotional needs?
For more advice and encouragement on this topic from Dr. Hawkins, check out this related video on YouTube.
Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at email@example.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.