Perhaps, you’ve read numerous books on marriage or attended couple’s workshops with your spouse or partner but still struggle to overcome your relationship conflict. You are not alone or abnormal. Although, there is a level of value in engaging in these activities, for the most part, they do not address the real issues, which lie much deeper.
When working with couples, I tell my clients repeatedly the true cause of your conflict and communication challenges lies underneath the neck, not above it. It’s all about the science of emotions and attachment. What ultimately derails us all as couples at times is primitive and evolutionary.
The Reasons Why
There are two main factors that get us so stuck. The first of these is patterns of attachment. As human beings and mammals, we have a neurological attachment system. On both a physical and psychological level, attachment is life and death. If you do not attend to me as an infant, I will die. Furthermore, as a child, if you don’t help me regulate my emotional energy, it will result in psychological decompensation and brain damage.
Ideally, I can reach for my caregiver for physical comfort and emotional support, they respond to me as needed, and I internalize each of these experiences into my implicit memory system, which forms the foundation for being able to regulate my emotions later in life and develops a belief I am worthy of being cared for and a basic trust in the goodness of others.
The Influence of Attachment Patterns
However, when this does not occur due to a caregivers inability to provide secure attachment, or worse abuse and neglect, the infant or child is left to cope with the attachment failures by developing defensive strategies. These coping mechanisms form the majority of the basis for our relational challenges later in life.
Let me give you a few examples. If a child had a parent who was critical or emotionally absent, they tend to give up on attachment. They detach and become a one person system who can soothe and amuse themselves. In adulthood, they tend to shut down and withdraw from conflict or experience difficulty in emotionally connecting on a deep level.
Insecure Attachment Styles
This is what is referred to as an avoidant attachment. In the case of inconsistent responding, such as having an addicted parent or one who is emotionally up and down, the child remains open to attachment but cannot trust it. As an adult they frequently fear being abandoned and are hyper vigilant to any sign of disconnection. This is what is referred to in therapy as an ambivalent attachment style.
Finally, when there is severe neglect or abuse, there is typically no behavioral way to cope for the child. They experience what is referred to as neurological dissociation. This is when the energy triggered becomes impossible to regulate and places the brain at risk for cellular damage, which results in the brain releasing internal opiates and splitting off the energy into an isolated memory network. When in conflict as an adult, the person is often erratic, volatile, or engages in compulsive behaviors, such as substance use, in an effort to regulate what is emotionally overwhelming. This is what is referred to as a disorganized attachment style.
Why Communication Strategies Don’t Work
These coping mechanisms and patterns of attachment are imprinted in the primitive parts of the brain that are survival focused. They cannot be shifted or overridden cognitively. This is why talking about the issues, using “I” statements, and reading relationships books do not ultimately work; these behaviors are wired in neurologically.
The second main issue is related to the first: lack of ability to regulate certain emotional states. Moreover, the inability to manage certain emotions tends to create a recurrent pattern of dissociation. This results in stored up emotional memories in our implicit memory system. This type of memory is stored in the same part of the brain that triggers our fight or flight response.
The Power of Implicit Memories
In addition, these types of memories are stored as a felt sense in the body; they do not come with images, thoughts, or words. You usually do not realize you are having them. The way they are stored does not allow the brain to differentiate time periods, people, or place. A present situation will trigger the feeling and then activate the unresolved memories that are stored as a similar feeling.
Emotions are chemical, electrical energy that carries information. When all these implicit memories are activated, they flood the body with energy and trigger our defensive responses, such as fight, flight, and freeze states. Furthermore, they initiate attachment pattern behaviors stored in this system from our early attachment experiences, even if they are no longer adaptive.
Lack of Emotional Skills and Language
Because they are associated with the survival parts of our primitive brain, they take priority over our rational thinking. This is how highly intelligent adults can throw tantrums like children. The reality is in those moments they are in their child or infant self, reacting just as they did during that time period.
Another cause of why relationships are so hard to sustain is due to the fact that most of us were not given the emotional skills and language to repair our disruptions and conflict. When you add up everything I have said this far it will either make you hopeless or compassionate. My desire when showing this to couples is help them develop a greater level of empathy for themselves and each other.
The Key is Neuroplasticity
The origins of what is getting all of us stuck was set in stone prior to ever meeting each other. Because of this, we then deepen and add to these wounds out of ignorance and pain. The solution lies in rewiring our brain and nervous system through a process known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change throughout the lifespan.
It requires two primary things: focused attention and a felt sense. When couples arrive at my office they want to give me all the details about their conflict and, typically, outline every aspect of their partner’s flaws, which they have become an expert in. I listen empathetically and then begin the difficult work of trying to get them to start tracking and observing their moment to moment experience in the office. The present moment is the only place where they can create neuroplasticity.
Switching to Process from Content
The biggest challenge is getting the focus off your partner and your thoughts and into your body and emotional experience. When this occurs we can rewire your past history and create a whole new future for yourself and your partner. Don’t be discouraged if you have read all the marriage books and attended previous therapies with no success. The problem is so many therapies are focused on strategies and education without the sufficient level of experience to create neuroplasticity.
Few can use the couple’s communication strategies they teach you when you are triggered and flooded. I know I can’t. Why would I advocate something to my clients I cannot do myself. It all comes down to emotions and attachment. One of the things I tell my clients early in the process is when they become conflicted to switch their focus from content to process. What I mean by this is change the focus from the issue you are talking about to what is happening between you.
Resources and Encouragement
If you were talking about a dispute with the children and start becoming conflicted, change the focus from the topic of the children to something like, “I’m starting to shut down,” or, “I’m begging to feel attacked.” If you start spinning into your conflict cycle and keep speaking about the issue, it will drive you deeper into conflict; when you’re in a hole stop digging.
A couple of resources to understand this process further are Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, and Stan Tatkin’s, Wired for Love. Dr. Johnson and Dr. Tatkin are two of the most renowned therapists in working with couples. If you are struggling with a recurrent conflict cycle in your relationship and can’t seem to find your way out, despite going to therapy or other attempted interventions, please feel free to call 561-468-6464 or contact me.
It is possible to break free from your current relationship struggles. Relationships can be extremely challenging but are also tremendously rich and rewarding. Remember, the majority of what is causing your stuckness is not even in your awareness. Have empathy and grace for your partner and yourself and get the help you need and deserve.