Whether working with an individual or couple, (or observing myself!) I frequently work with people stuck in their relationships. We want people to come near to us, to love us, to be close to us. “This should be easy” is an often refrain, paired with the belief that most everyone else obviously gets what they need. We often end up thinking “there must be something wrong with me”.
Here’s the sequence:
Sam longs for connection, but fears that Kate will find out that he is actually a failure, weak, and undesirable. So, when he sees that Kate is asking for space (like going for a walk or going out alone), he takes this as Kate wanting to get away from him. Instead of honoring her need for space, he pushes closer, driven by his fear of the worst. As he pushes closer, he asks for reassurance, communicating his fear and worry. Kate stifles her frustration, because she cares and is affected by Sam’s distress. So, she comes closer, not out of love, but out of obligation and compassion. However, this compassion has a bitter tone, because it feels compelled instead of chosen, forced instead of given. Sam feels reassured and his worries go away…for the moment.
Underneath, a sinister reality unfolds - Sam teaches his brain that the only way to soothe his fears is by compelling Kate with his painful emotion. As a result, when his brain catches the scent of this pattern again, it stirs up fear in preparation, starting the whole process over again. Kate’s need for space remains uncared for, and her frustration builds, eventually leading to angry demands for space, which serve to confirm Sam’s original fears, that she doesn’t really care for him. She discovered he is a failure, weak, and undesirable.
The sad reality - Sam’s inability to give space passively caused the result he so feared.
Striving for Good Enough.
This reminds me of the first time I cared for a plant. In my longing and desire to have a healthy, thriving plant, I let my fear of its death drive me to refuse it proper space. So, instead of watering the plant in a “good enough” fashion, I watered it daily. In several weeks, the leaves began to yellow. “It needs more water” I thought - so I watered it more. To my great sadness, I began to realize that I was killing the plant! I finally came to my senses and left it alone for longer stints. The plant survived, but would never be the same - a gangly, straggly shadow of its former self.
(Caveat - if your relationship is like the gangly plant I just mentioned - don’t expect things to go as smoothly as I’m about to describe! I’ll write in the future about how to recover from these entrenched patters - for now I want to speak of the goal).
Back to the original sequence:
Instead of pushing toward Kate in fear, Sam courageously stays put when Kate asks for space. He reminds himself that things are going to be okay, that Kate has returned before and he can trust her. He does NOT feel better while he waits - he wrestles with his fears of inadequacy and vulnerability. But now, something new can happen. He discovers, after the passage of time, that Kate returns to him OF HER OWN VOLITION - an expression of love free of passive coercion. Sam learns that he is loved by someone who chooses to love him. His fears are challenged by the cold, hard facts that he experiences. This results in subtle, slow brain structure changes. By facing his fears, he learns competence to manage them and that he is genuinely loved.
As with plants, we humans need time and consistent, “good enough” care to grow. This healthy sequence likely needs repeated hundreds of times over. Each time we subtly grow in our courage to face our fears, and we experience the truth about how the other person feels about us. Each time, those around us experience our willingness to allow them the space in ways they need it, inviting them to return to us in love.
“If we are in love, this should be easier, right?”
You may ask yourself this question after having another major fight. Even more maddening, the cause of it seemed so silly. You look back and wonder how something so ordinary could cause so much conflict and distance.
Here’s the familiar pattern. You bring up something that seems to you to be pretty simple - say you want to know why he forgot to pick up the eggs on the way home. You’re thinking “not a big deal”, if he did forget you’ll just have to rework your plan. He gets defensive: “I can’t remember everything! Cut me some slack - I work my tail off for this family.” Confused by his defensiveness, you push back. He picks up on this and becomes more angry. Tired of the unfair attacks, you bring up how frustrating it is that he’s so often forgetting things that matter to you. Chaos ensues - where it seems all of your past faults and hurts are resurrected from their graves, the rotting tombs that were never adequately grieved or cared for in the first place.
You consider giving up. If it’s this hard, can it really be love?
The quality of your relationship can feel like it teeters on a knife edge, so often falling towards pain and distancing. Here is a hopeful truth: you are not far off from turning the other way, towards closeness and comfort. The relationship turns on a very important moment, one steeped in your brain chemistry and past emotional experiences. You see it in the look he gives you, or in the way she says a certain word – the causes can be infinite. The result: you are no longer talking about a thing (finances, scheduling, toothpaste). Instead you hear “he doesn’t care about me.”
Here your brain shifts – out of your prefrontal cortex and into your amygdala. The shift happens rapidly. The purpose: avoid pain. Throughout life, we long for closeness, acceptance, and love. When receive something different, we experience pain and loss. Our brains capture these moments - the sounds, the sights, the facial expressions, the contexts – and then actively compares them to our present experiences. When there is a match, our brain instantly transitions to protect us. What instinctive actions protect us? Defensiveness, distancing, hyper-vigilance for threats: the very things that also happen to correspond with negative relationship outcomes. A brain/behavior system that acts to protect us from pain so often also serves to perpetuate our pain.
What are we to do?
First, on the surface you can act with understanding of your brain’s emotion processing. Watch for the early signs of emotion intensity. Make a plan with your partner or spouse to leave the conflict or situation. Not for good – that would be stonewalling (another disaster for relationships). No, leave to cool off: literally – cool your body temperature, slow down your breathing, and allow your brain to regain access to your prefrontal cortex. Think about what you feel and why you feel it, what you need from the other person, and what the other person may need from you. Only then, return and rejoin the conversation.
Second, you may have some personal work to do. Those past injuries that remain uncared for need attention. They keep coming back up in present conversations because they remain unresolved, unforgiven, and uncared for. Honesty and humility are helpful guides here. Take the time to take a real look at your own pain, why it is there, and how it impacts your relationship.
You may need some help with this, and so might your partner or spouse. Good couples therapy can help each of you learn to give and get what you need, to come to peace with each other, and to find ways to give empathy while also retaining your independence. At the heart of that work is a very important truth: you can show you care about what someone is feeling without agreeing with the reasons or causes for that feeling.
We don’t water a plant once, and then expect fruit the next day. No, we till the ground, pull the weeds, work the soil, care for the plant, give it time and space, give it no more or less than what it needs, and after much time and care it produces fruit. It is no surprise that psychology research has found that the most satisfied in relationships are those who have been together a long time. It takes a long time (and thus a lot of work) to create something good. So, let’s get to work – you and the person you love are worth it!
I am a licensed psychologist practicing in Denver, CO.