What Does it take to Change Difficult Relationship Dynamics?
Most couples come into Couples Therapy seeing the other person as the major problem and hoping Couples Therapy will help their partner to “see the light” and change. They each think, “I will be able to contribute to the growth of this relationship once my partner changes” or “I’ll change once they change”. We rarely see how our own behavior is contributing to the reflection we are receiving.
However, no positive change can occur if both people are in blame with their defenses up, believing that their own personal contribution to the relationship is dependent on the other’s behavior.
This attitude signifies fusion in the relationship - they do not actually function as separate, differentiated selves. They operate as a unit, unconsciously in reaction to one another and forming in reaction to each other’s behaviors.
One can get a sense for this by simply hearing the terms for some common fusion relationship dynamics such as: Hostile Dependent, Conflict Avoidant, Demand/Withdraw, Distancer/Pursuer, Competitive/Controlling, Active/Passive, Aggressive/Accommodating, & Disconnected parallel lives.
Taking Responsibility for Change
A key step in getting beyond any disempowering relationship dynamic and elevating the relationship is embarking on a path of Differentiation and Emotional Responsibility. This actually allows for more authentic intimacy.
It means for each partner to commit to becoming more self aware: self defining, and self revealing, showing up authentically, vulnerably, taking personal responsibility for their part in the relationship, attuning to self and other, keeping their focus on their own growth,
resisting reacting to the other and falling into blame and defense but instead relating with empathy and healthy boundaries, managing the anxiety that can arise when risking either greater intimacy or separateness.
(More on discerning growth goals after an interlude on staying motivated)
Staying Motivated to Practice Personal Responsibility on the Path of Transformation
Keeping your focus on your own personal growth goal instead of reacting to your partner (with various forms of defense such as: criticism, blame, contempt, conflict, distancing, stonewalling, placating, fawning, care-taking, etc)
can be a very difficult pattern to change but it is essential to making any kind of progress in healing relationship dynamics and creating a thriving relationship.
This is why it is important to have a strong motivation to do the work.
A great way to create that motivation is for each partner to connect to a dream or vision from deep within themselves; a dream of what will be possible to experience in the relationship - with this kind of growth. Cultivating the feeling and energy of this dream has the power to generate intrinsic motivation, dissolve inner resistances and empower the individual to change how they show up in the relationship.
Finding Your Growth Goal: A Closer look at the power of
Differentiation & Emotional Response-Ability
With honest Self reflection, communication, and sometimes the help of a therapist, each partner can discern what growth is needed on their part for the relationship to heal and thrive. This will usually have something to do with Differentiation which is essential for the emotional responsibility, emotional fluency, and healthy emotional intimacy necessary for a creating a healthy, growing, thriving relationship.
There are a few aspects of Differentiation.
The first starts with Self awareness around your own feelings, needs, thoughts, and desires. Curiosity and Compassion are important attitudes in the cultivation of Self awareness. They help us to see clearly, to look at difficult aspects of ourselves without getting swept away in self judgement. In a sense, this means attuning to our own feelings and needs ~ And the extent to which I am able to be present with myself and tune into my own feelings is the extent to which I am able to be present with you and attune to your feelings.
Without Self awareness, presence, and connection with Self, one cannot show up authentically and vulnerably with another - and vulnerability is the key for real Connection.
In a sense, Vulnerability is the next step in Differentiation; Bringing your own feelings, needs, thoughts, and desires into the relationship, and simultaneously, building capacity to support this in the other; to hold space for their feelings, needs, thoughts, and desires.
This often means learning to manage the anxiety that can come up around differences and showing up with authenticity and vulnerability, with real attunement. This means building capacity for feeling, especially vulnerable feelings, as well as capacity for difference and the unknown.
Capacity for Difference is Key to Sustaining Intimacy
Being different from one another and not knowing everything about one another are
essential aspects of what keeps relationships alive, healthy, and flourishing. People are
always changing and experiencing new things, so when we are open to difference and Compassionately Curious, getting to know our parter over and over again in new ways, the relationship can feel energized as the partners deepen connection, knowledge of one another and understanding.
Yet often people get stuck in disempowering cycles in relationship, unaware that part of the underlying problem has to do with difficulty tolerating differences or the other person's emotions. In these moments, often without realizing it, we can start to feel upset and angry because deep down it touches on unconscious insecurities about not being good enough, important, valued, worthy of Love… belonging, etc.
So emotions like anger, frustration, and annoyance come up as protection to defend us from the vulnerable feelings of hurt, fear, sadness, shame, aloneness, confusion, etc. - and when we are in that angry upset, the fight or flight hormones kick in, the thinking connecting frontal cortex (part of the brain) takes a back seat, and we say and do things from a defensive place. This usually has the opposite effect to what we want.
A State of Defense Can Create What We Fear
In a sense, we create what we fear because the reflection or response to our defense, hide, pretend, attack, and blame is very rarely the comforting intimate connection we really needed.
Taking personal responsibility for our own emotional upsets when we are triggered by
others can be a pathway to deeper healing as well as empowerment to choose how to respond rather than react, which is crucial for the healing and growth of relationships.
Understanding Triggers & their Healing Potential
Cultivating an attitude of Compassionate Curiosity is essential with the much needed skill of processing upsets and triggers.
A trigger, or instant flare up of emotional reactivity tends to happen when we are exposed to situations that either consciously or unconsciously remind us of difficult painful past experiences. Our nervous system is constantly scanning our environment for anything that
reminds us of the past pain so we can defend against being hurt again. In relationship, this tends to be connected to attachment wounds or difficulties we had growing up, either in our families or in social settings like school or religious communities.
Relational & Survival Instincts are Woven together
Since our need for connection and drive to survive are woven together in our nervous system, the times we felt hurt by others or disconnected from others because of lack of empathy or emotional attunement were sensed as a survival threat. So relational situations that remind us of these past hurts can trigger a “fight, flight, or freeze” response - we are instantly ready to fight and defend, flee if we don’t feel fighting will work, and freeze if that won’t work to keep us safe.
If Compassion and care aren’t offered enough to comfort us from whatever hardships we experienced as we were growing up, then we adapt by finding ways to defend against the perceived danger and emotional pain. This defense system has some different dimensions.
Unconscious Defense Behaviors
Some unconscious defense behaviors are ongoing and engrained so that they seem like part of our personality such as: attachment styles (Avoidant, Anxious/Ambivalent, and Disorganized) as well as behavior traits like: care-taking, controlling, withdrawing, aggression, self absorption, being the joker, and many more.
Anger is often a defense in reaction to a situation that touches on a raw spot (pain from
past experiences that we tend to want to avoid). Anger comes up to protect us from the vulnerable feelings and pain that lives underneath it. Unfortunately, acting out of anger rarely solves the issues that stimulate the pain and instead tends to add to the problem, both causing more hurt and re-enforcing the hurt feelings and disempowering beliefs that create disempowering cycles of relationship dynamics.
Bringing Compassionate Curiosity and Self Awareness into this is key to changing and healing the cycle both in the moment, practicing through the breath, containment and tolerance of big emotion, then resourcing and reflecting to gain inner clarity.
Resource & Reflect
Following an upset, resourcing and reflecting are key practices in reducing the potency of triggers over.
Resourcing yourself with calming breath, and connecting to Compassionate Curiosity, then following the trail down to the vulnerable feelings like sadness, aloneness, confusion, fear, grief, etc, bringing the loving comforting energy to this “wounded child” hurting part of yourself, identifying the disempowering beliefs that keep you stuck and reclaiming the Truth.
Transform Fear Based Beliefs with Compassion
For example, with a disempowering belief like “I’m not good enough to belong” or I’m not Worthy of Love”, you can remember the Truth that you are enough just as you are and you are worthy to receive Love just as you are. Then place your hands on your body where you feel emotional pain and practice breathing this Truth into your heart over and over again, focussing on really immersing in the feeling of it. With time and practice, you can come to recognize the trigger and shift it as it’s happening, move through these steps on the fly.
Inner Clarity & Emotional Responsibility ~
A Gateway to Freedom & Connection
Eventually the whole thing softens and you don’t feel the need to go into defense and blame. You can finally find clarity and learn to express your observations, feelings, needs, and requests without projecting blame or judgement.
It can be so empowering to take responsibility for your own emotions this way and it will transform your relationship in profound and beautiful ways.
The choice to take responsibility instead of putting it on the other person is each of ours. This is the Courageous work of the Peaceful Warrior.
If you’ve struggled with upsets, triggers, or disempowering relationship cycles, and you are curious about how to use triggers as a gateway for healing and want to go deeper,
Vince and I have created a 1 day in person event Transforming Through Triggers to share with you: step by step guidance for what to do when you feel triggered and reactive, along with practices for Shifting States, Clear Self Reflection, Self Healing, and tools for preparing for healthy communication.
For more info and to register go to: Transforming Through Triggers ~ A Day of Self Mastery & Relationship Transformation ~ Blossoming from the Mud of Relationship Upsets
We look forward to sharing this adventure of growth and healing with you!