How to Isolation-Proof Your Relationship

How to Isolation-Proof Your Relationship

He’s driving you crazy. You want to show him the door. She is getting at you to clean out the garage, and you just want to sit and have a beer – but there’s nowhere to hide.

Life in isolation with your nearest and dearest isn’t turning out so great. You are used to your own space. You are used to running errands, grabbing a coffee with friends, and seeing your partner for a short episode on Netflix at the end of the day. And now they are under your heels, and in your hair, all day, every day! And you can’t escape.

It’s no surprise that there has been a rapid increase in marital distress and relationship conflict during this, pandemic. Couples who were getting along so-so, are now going head-to-head in rage, and couples who were already struggling are googling marriage therapists – even lawyers. It isn’t easy doing social-isolation, and house-arrest, with your long-term partner.

All couples have their own patterns of interacting with one another. It’s been described as a dance; with one partner stepping forward, and the other partner stepping back, one partner stepping back, and another stepping forward. By far the most common pattern, or dance, couples engage in is known as the “pursuer-distancer.”

It goes a little like this:
Wife, “You always leave the dishes in the sink?”
Husband, “You only see the things I don’t do, you don’t see all the things I do.”

That’s a gentle version. It might go on, to be more like this:
Wife, “You are such a slob, you are just like your father!” (name-calling, and comparison to his family).
The husband turns on his wife and tells her she’s a, “lying bitch.”

There are a million variations to this, depending on the details of the situation and the particulars of the couple. But the basic pattern remains the same – one partner, often the wife, but not always, goes looking for connection and ends up attacking their partner, and the other partner, often the husband, runs away from the relationship and ends up defending or attacking back, or in some cases shutting down and walking away. The more the attacking partner attacks, the more the defending partner defends. The more the defending partner defends, the more the attacking partner attacks.

It’s not one way, it is circular. It does not start with the attacker, any more than it starts with the defender. Think of the time you woke up and were just mad, and you told your partner you were mad. Best guess, you were not mad because his head was on your pillow, though you might say that, you were mad because he’s not taken your feelings into consideration for the past year, and every time you try to tell him how you feel he dismisses you and goes out with his friends. 

The cycle can be described clockwise, and anti-clockwise. The more he doesn’t listen, shouts back, walks out the door, and leaves her, the more she will chase after him, demand a response, and continue nagging and harassing him to get him to listen.

Cycles go on in every relationship – every relationship. Whether we are aware of them or not.

In young love, we see through rose-tinted-glasses and float on chemically-induced euphoria. We haven’t had time to develop the patterns of interaction that will mark our relationships later.

In those good-old-couples, who have been married from puberty, to well-past-retirement, the cycle may be gentle, they may read each other’s minds, and be there for their partner, before their partner even knows they need them.

But most of us are neither very young, or very old, and most of our relationships are not-so-new, and yet, not-quite-so-old. Most of us fall somewhere in-between new-love, and old-love. We are in a period of working out what it means to live together. During this time the cycles are well established, they may be peaceful at times, but they are often tense, energetic, and traumatic.

With social-distancing and forced house-arrest with our nearest and dearest, it should come as no surprise, that relationships within the immediate family, and particularly between spouses, have been increasingly difficult. Whether you are the pursuer, tending to attack and criticize your partner, or the distancer, tending to counter-attack, defend or run, you will find that your tolerance level is low, your irritability high, and your ability to defuse, deescalate and walk away, has all but disappeared.

Unfortunately, simply understanding your cycle won’t necessarily help you. The cycle I have described above is a brief overview of one part of the most common cycle. Your own cycle may look different. You may shift between pursuer and distancer, you may completely shut down, and close yourself off in your room, you may leave the house for hours or days at a time – I encourage all couples, who recognize something of a pattern in their relationship, to look for an excellent therapist, to help them.

The complexity and variation in the cycle isn’t the only reason that knowing your cycle doesn’t necessarily mean that you can stop the cycle.

Cycles are habitual and compulsive, and for a large part out of your control. Your partner triggers you, and you trigger your partner, and this all happens largely out of conscious awareness. I describe the cycle to my clients, as a ‘Newton’s Cradle.’ We’ve all seen these devices when one silver ball at the end is lifted and released, it strikes the stationary ball, transmitting a force through the stationary balls that push the last ball upward. 

One of you is the silver ball falling on the line of silver balls (attack). Your partner is the silver ball, at the other end of the line of silver balls, that gets pushed up into the air the other side (defend). When the ball that has been pushed into the air comes back down the ball that started the interaction is again pushed back into the air. Neither of you has much control over this interaction, in the same way, that the silver balls, cannot resist the force of ball that pushes them into the air again. This is happening to you, not by you.

Here’s what you need to know, that may go some way to help you:

1. Remember Who the Enemy Is

The enemy is not your partner, and your partner’s enemy is not you. Your enemy is the cycle. The cycle has you by the neck and is swinging you back and forth, it is setting you up against your partner, and your partner against you.

When you see the cycle starting, or catch yourself in the cycle, remember: “He is not the problem. I am not the problem. The cycle is the problem. We are both in this together and our common enemy is the cycle.”

2.  Understand Emotions 101

We, as men and women, are complex. It has been said that “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” but the truth is we are all highly complex. We don’t say what we want to say, and we don’t hear what our partner wants us to hear. When he angrily tells you that he can’t put the kids to bed tonight, what he may be saying is, “I won’t do it the right way, and then you’ll think less of me’. When she says, ‘you never do the dishes,’ what she may be saying is, ‘I need you, I’m not sure you really love me.”

Emotions are not always what they seem. We have all learned different ways to regulate our emotions, express our emotions, and respond to emotion. We carry those emotional-habits into our marriages. If you grew up in a house where it was not okay to cry, that is going to impact how far you feel able to be vulnerable with your partner. If your dad or mom, was frequently angry, you will have learned that shouting, name calling and throwing things, was one way to express your painful emotions.

We all have wounded-bits inside us that hurt when someone touches them. Like the dragon Smaug (The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings), we all have a soft place, that hurts when you poke it, and, most if not all of us, find it very difficult to talk about those painful-bits. Like Smaug, flying across the sky above Lake Town, we twist and turn so that no one can see the part of us that we have learned, the hard way is best kept to ourselves. We’ve worked out very early on in life to hide it, disown it, and cover it up. We’ve tricked ourselves, as well as everyone else, into thinking it doesn’t exist.

When your partner forgets your anniversary, or comes home late from the office, or lays into you for leaving your socks on the floor in the living room, they probably poke your underbelly and trigger painful feelings. But, old habits die hard, those painful feelings remain just out of vision, and even if you have an inkling what they are, you sure as hell aren’t going to tell your partner about them.

Some emotions are just so much easier to express. Anger is one of those. It is so much easier to be angry than it is to admit fear or shame. Anger is a strong, forward-moving emotion, it is accusatory, and because it is accusatory it frees us up to focus on others, such as our partner, and not ourselves. We can look at our partner and recall all the ways they have wronged us, and not have to look at what we may have done to hurt them.   

Anger consists of a range of different emotions, that include agitated, irritated, frustrated, or annoyance. It doesn’t necessarily look like full-force-rage, shouting and name-calling.  It may look more like underhanded comments, criticisms, disapproval, or disdain.   

When the negative cycle with our partners is activated, and life is difficult and tempers short, what I commonly see, is an angry attack, followed by an angry defense. Each partner’s underbelly is being poked, and each partner is twisting and turning to hide their pain, and responding in an angry attack/defense.   

They poke you, calling you a name, and dismissing you with an angry turn of their head. You poke them, mumbling complaints under your breath, and huffing, as you move away.

You are both comfortable to some degree expressing your angry frustration, and annoyance. You are both fluent in the language of rage. It may look like a clenched draw and furrowed brows, it may look like tight fists and straight mouth. It may sound like the proverbial dripping tap, or it may sound like silence.

Neither of you is fluent in the language of pain, and anguish. Neither of you are comfortable with rolling over, and exposing your soft underbelly, in telling your partner how much it hurts, how vulnerable you feel, and perhaps what happened in the past which means that you have this softer hurting part inside you.

What I see in my office with couples is fire, meets fire. 

When we are attacked, most of us move to defend. Think dark night, rain, no one around, you walk under an overpass and someone jumps on you – of course, you move to defend yourself. When we struggle to express ourselves in the language of our softer emotions and respond with anger, however, the anger is expressed, our partner will almost certainly respond with defense, with they shout back, go silent, or walk out the door.

All negative cycles are dominated by what are called secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the soft underbelly. Secondary emotions, are the dragon’s flames, shooting out from the dragon’s mouth, nose, and seeping out from between their dense scales.

The focus in emotionally focused couples therapy is to teach couples to speak the language of the softer emotions and to respond to their partner’s soft underbelly.

3.  Recognize Your Own Cycle

In couples’ therapy, one of the first things an emotionally focused couples’ therapist will do is help you to understand your unique negative cycle. This is hard to do on your own, but you could give it a go. It is not about fixing anything, it isn’t even about deescalating at this point, that comes next, it is about simply understanding how you guys interact. Is there someone who pushes forward and wants more? Is there someone who pulls away? What happens when the one pushing forward keeps pushing? Does the one pulling away eventually snap? How does it end?

Understanding your unhealthy way of interacting with your partner is the first step toward changing that interaction. When you both have a rough idea of what is going on between you, you can begin to notice it when it happens. You will still find yourselves caught up in the cycle and fighting with one another, but when it happens you can begin to say, ‘hey it’s happening again. This is that cycle, that the therapist talked about’. Recognizing what is happening, even if you can’t stop it, will help to slow the cycle down, and turn down the volume on the fighting.

4. Turn the Volume Down on the Secondary Emotions

Recognizing the cycle when it happens gives you a chance to slow it down, and to turn down the volume on the angry emotions. It is as if you guys are in the boxing ring, you’ve put your gloves on, and you’re doing that bouncing-air-boxing thing, they do – when you look up and see the referee pointing at your feet and telling you your shoelaces have come loose. I’m not sure that would ever happen. The point is that you are all set up to fight, you may have even thrown a few punches when it hits you, this is us back in the ring, starting the good-old-negative-cycle again. I’m attacking, he’s defending. I know that before too long, I’m going to lose it, bawl my eyes out, and go and hide in the spare bedroom for 24 hours.

Knowing what is going on, bringing it to your conscious awareness, enables you to slow it down, to make different choices about how you are going to interact. Now, I must tell you that it is still very difficult to change this cycle. You are still living out of a well-defined habitual entrenched pattern of interacting that is largely outside the scope of your own awareness and control.

5. Turn Up the Volume of the Primary Emotions

If the language of primary and secondary emotions is unfamiliar, think, dragon: fire is anger and all the feelings that come in say the red zone (secondary emotions), and soft belly is sadness, fear, shame, and all the feelings that come with inner emotional pain and anguish (primary emotions). (NB Anger isn’t always a secondary emotion. For more information see

Once you can recognize your cycle, and recognize how your secondary emotions show up in the relationship. You can begin to turn the volume down on the secondary emotions, turn the volume up on the primary emotions.

Our primary emotions are highly complex, individualized, and intricately related to our personality and our personal stories. They are part of the most vulnerable parts of our being. In terms of big picture, these softer emotions are either related to your need for attachment, for feeling securely attached to your partner, or your need to feel good about yourself, and know that your partner esteems you.

We all have a deep need to be accepted, cherished, and loved. We all have a deep need to know that our partner has our back, is there for us through thick and thin, and that we can fall back on them like kids fall into the sponge filled pits of foam. We need to know that our partner is there to catch us, hold us, and tell us that everything is going to be okay. We all need that. For some of us, we feel those needs mostly acutely in our need to feel attached to our partner, and for others of us, we feel those needs most acutely in our need to feel good about ourselves. This is the classic attachment and identity issues that psychologists refer to.

Fast trackback to the softer emotions, our underbelly, and you’ll find that your primary emotions are directly related to your core vulnerabilities, to those primal needs to be attached, and to be esteemed. Remember Emotions 101, you feel the pain of being alone, scared, and hurt, but you bypass those painful feelings that are so hard to experience and express and erupt in anger. It is no wonder you and your partner don’t understand one another! Both of you, are feeling one thing, and expressing another. This isn’t about words that are said, though they count, this is about emotions, and feelings, expressed in tone of voice, roll of the eyes, the jut of the jaw, and the turning away. We ‘hear’ the emotion, far more clearly, than we hear the words that are spoken.

For a long time, therapists have thought they could teach couples how to communicate, and that if only couples could learn some simple communication skills they would be able to get along. So many couples tell me that they ‘don’t know how to communicate,’ ‘that they need someone to teach them how to communicate’. The trouble is, it is, and isn’t, about learning to communicate. It is about communicating, in that we need to learn how to communicate the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to our partners, but it isn’t about communicating, in that it is not about the act of speaking, about active listening, or repeating what our partners tell us. It isn’t about the words! It is all about emotions. The breakdown in the relationship is at the emotional level, not at the cognitive level of needing to understand one another. Often, I will tell my clients that they are actually excellent communicators, they negotiate their professional lives with ease, and confidence. It isn’t about their communications skills, it is about their ability to experience and express their emotions. The breakdown in the communication is at the emotional level, not the cognitive level.

Turning up the volume on your primary emotions means slowing the negative cycle down, and getting in touch with what is really going on for you. It means pressing pause, when you are shouting, or being shouted at. It means waving the white flag, asking for a time out, walking away, breathing slowly in and out, before turning your focus inside, to your body, and asking yourself what is happening there. What is going on below the annoyance, and retaliatory defensive anger? This isn’t easy. You will do well to find a competent therapist to help you with this, but you can have a go. Ask yourself; what about this situation is making me sad, am I scared of something happening, how does this make me feel about my relationship, how does this make me feel about myself?

For many of us, the softer feelings are about feeling scared that our partner will walk away, and leave us, or feeling scared that we aren’t good enough, we’re not a good enough lover, breadwinner, or life-partner.

6. Show Your Partner Your Soft Underbelly

You have an idea what your soft underbelly looks, and feels like. You recognize that what you feel inside, and what you say, don’t measure up. You understand that your partner might be confused, and misunderstand what you say, because what you are saying, and the emotions you are expressing, are so different from what you are actually feeling. It comes as no surprise that they are having trouble responding to you in the way you need. And now, you know that you want to show them your underbelly. You may be nervous, or scared, but you are ready to roll over and expose your softer vulnerabilities.

But how? The crazy thing is that although this sounds so easy, it isn’t. There will be lots of you reading this who will be thinking, ‘I did this already, and my partner didn’t get it’. I often speak to clients about the softer feelings in session, they tell me about the pain, the sadness and their fears that their partner doesn’t love them anymore. I’ll ask them to turn to their partner and tell their partner about those softer feelings, and it’s amazing what happens. The person will turn to their partner, and the emotions shift in a moment. They go from sad, to angry, and although they may use the word sad in the sentence, what they will communicate to their partner is a barely veiled attack. The difficulty is that even when we think we are telling our partner about the softer feelings, we all too easily go on the attack.

So how do we talk about our pain if it is really that difficult? First, dig deep into your pain, feel the pain, focus on the pain you are feeling, focus on you, and talk about you, and your pain. Second, keep it short, just a few words – the more you say the more you are going to go to explain why it is your partner’s fault you feel that way, and end up attacking them. Just tell them, ‘I feel sad, as if I’m not really good enough’, or ‘I feel scared you are going to leave me.’ Third, shut up. Don’t keep talking. Say your few words and stop. Fourth, listen to your body. Our bodies do betray us. Our bodies will communicate how we truly feel deep down, even if we think we feel a different way. If your body is angry you will find your body jutting forward, your chin raised and clenched, your hands make fists, and your eyes are looking straight on. If you start to speak, and your body is angry, your words will also be angry – despite saying you are sad. Sadness, fear, shame, and many other similar emotions look different to anger, they tend to come with a crumbling of the body, a lowered gaze, a temerity that isn’t seen in anger. If your body is angry, press the pause button and go back to the first step. Fifth, if this is difficult, try writing down the few words you want to say, sit down close to your partner, and give them the words to read. I often encourage clients to use touch or non-verbal ways to communicate, as our words so often take us to our heads, rather than our hearts. Hold a hand, touch a leg, sit close enough to feel your partner’s body next to yours.

7. Listen to the Softer Emotions Your Partner is Showing You

We’ve talked about our negative cycles, we have set out the negative cycle as the real enemy, and discussed how we can shift from angry secondary emotions to softer primary emotions. I’ve encouraged you to be vulnerable with your partner, to roll over and show them your softer underbelly. But what if our partner doesn’t do the same, what if they stick a poker in our belly, and twist it till we scream?

These are good questions. If you recall the discussion about being attacked under a bridge at night, and not be surprised if you find yourself attacking back to defend yourself, the same is true here. Your partner is walking under the bridge in the dark, and usually, you jump on him guns blazing and knock him to the ground, but now, when you roll over and show them your soft underbelly, it is more like your partner is walking under the bridge and he hears a small sound. He takes out his cell and turns the torch on to look around and see where the sound is coming from and finds a pile of soft small bodies, wrapped in an old jersey. Does he kick them to the curb, or walk away?  No! He bends down and scoops the tiny mewing kittens up, tucks them inside his overcoat and carries them safely home.

If are attacked, we will almost invariably attack back. If we are able to reveal our innermost pain, it becomes so much easier for our partner to turn toward us, reach out to us, and hold us.

Old cycles die hard. And old habits can run rampant. It may take time and you may need the help of a professional therapist to help you, but there is hope. There is always hope, that you can turn this around. That you can begin to change the cycle, that you can begin to show up in your relationships, and respond with compassion and kindness to your partner’s vulnerable underbelly.

NB. If you are in a relationship that is not safe, if your partner is chronically verbally, emotionally or physically abusive. This is not for you. If that is you I encourage you to seek professional help to address what is going on in your relationship. What is discussed in this article does not apply to your particular situation?

Conclusion

I have had the pleasure of listening to Professor Les Greenberg speak on many occasions. He is brilliant, and an excellent communicator. On one occasion I recall him talking about dating apps and the many variables that dating apps have for sorting out who you would get on with. Les made the comment, that none of those variables really matter. It doesn’t really matter whether you like Sushi and they don’t. Or that you like beach holidays, and they prefer skiing. What really matters in a relationship aren’t the peripheries of what you do, and don’t, like, instead it is all about whether you and your partner can both show up in the relationship. Showing up is all about being emotionally present in a relationship. It is all about being emotionally vulnerable, of being raw, and real, and genuine. Most of us don’t show up in our relationships, we react, and respond on the surface of our emotions. We don’t say what we feel or show how we feel.

Intimacy in a relationship happens when we disclose ourselves to another person. It happens when we share our deepest fears, disappointments, and pains. It takes place when we can open up ourselves to our partners, and let them see us for who we are. And it happens, when our partner can respond in kind. It happens when we can both be vulnerable, and when we can both respond to that vulnerability with compassion.

During this time of isolation, when you find yourself caught up in a negative cycle of criticizing and complaining, and/or find yourself shouting back, or turning your back and walking out, stop for a moment, and ask yourself, is this really what I want, is this truly how I feel, how can I start making the cycle the enemy and not my partner, and how can we turn the volume down on the heated angry emotions in the cycle, and instead start showing up and sharing our deepest rawest underbelly, trusting that our partner can sit with it, comfort us, and be there with us in our vulnerability.

5. Tips to Isolation-Proof your Relationship

1. Take Time Out

Go for a drive and listen to music, get away from the craziness of the home in whatever way possible, drive, walk, run – restrictions permitting.

2. Remind Yourself This is Temporary

Yes, isolation is still here, and yes it feels like the new normal, but it won’t last forever. It will come to an end, and your relationship will readjust back to its old-norm.

3. Give Your Partner the Benefit of the Doubt

Assume the best. Assume that he fell asleep on the couch because he was tired, not that he drank too much, or didn’t want to come and find you in bed. Assume that your partner is doing their best. Cut each other slack; give each other the benefit of the doubt.

4. Focus on the Good Times

Take a moment to put your arms around them. Remind them that you love them and that you’re in this together. Take a few moments to connect, to love and to cherish, the one you chose.

5. Keep Short Accounts

Don’t wait for small annoyances to turn in to big rages. Address the small misunderstandings and frustrations as they come up. Keep short accounts with one another.

 

NB. If you are in a relationship that is not safe, if your partner is chronically verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive. This is not for you. If that is you I encourage you to seek professional help to address what is going on in your relationship.

FN. Prof. Les Greenberg articulates these in his original understanding of EFT couples therapy, while Dr. Sue Johnson has chosen to focus exclusively on attachment, rather than identity.

Emotion Focused Therapy Clinic – York University

International Society for Emotion Focused Therapy 

Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy: The Dynamics of Emotion, Love, and Power

Les Greenberg, Ph.D.

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