What Gets in the way of Relationship Repair?
One of the challenges for humans is when we perceive a threat or something painful happens we go into a stress response and lose our capacity to reason. Early developmental experience also plays an important role.
Perceiving a threat leads to a physiological response that is not in our conscious control. Within 30 seconds hundreds of hormones are rushing through our body removing blood from unnecessary parts (for instance the brain) to prepare muscles to fight or flee. We call this escalation because the typical outcome is lashing out, running away or shutting down. Then it takes at least two hours for our nervous system to bring everything back to neutral, providing there isn’t another stressor. No wonder we can get caught in cycles of avoidance and ineffective responses. When running away from lions or speeding trains, this threat response is helpful, but not so much so for intimate relationships.
When stressed, each partner in an interaction may have a different approach. Some lash out in what they consider self-defense because they feel attacked. Underlying this may be a fear that I am not accepted for who I am, that I am a failure in your eyes.
Others will shut down and withdraw. They also feel attacked but they are immobilized by the stress response. The more they are pursued the more they need to get away, which totally frustrates the other partner who feels such distress at the conflict that they want to immediately deal with the issue. Eventually the withdrawer may explode too – just get away from me, leave me alone… and so the argument goes round and round.
New brain research has discovered that in those moments of stress in an intimate relationship our mid-brain goes into attachment alarm, which is a fundamental survival response in all mammals.
We used to think that we grew out of attachment (parents to children and back). Now we know that all humans of whatever age or status need to feel connected to other humans in ways that are meaningful. Isolation is the worst thing we can do to humans and isolation (lack of connection) has been implicated in addiction, mental illness and criminality.
In our first primary relationship with our parents and families core attachment messages begin. If you are loved, nurtured and supported with appropriate boundaries you probably will have secure attachment. This makes it much easier as an adult to trust others and be trustworthy.
For many people though, family relationships were fraught with difficulty – no healthy limits, too high expectations, punishment for basic needs, inability to accommodate individual differences, abuse and/or witnessing violence - can lead to conflicted or insecure attachment. People from these situations already have an over or under active attachment alarm system which affects their responses to others. They view themselves and others through a lens of distrust of self or others: I am fundamentally flawed, I am not worthy, you are out to get me, you owe me and so on. For many children survival depended on escaping from or placating the people who could not provide the safety they needed.
To repair and maintain healthy relationships it helps to identify and address lived in-body experiences in create more effective responses to stress and integrate the key attachments needs of both partners into mutual understanding and daily interactions.