Negative Experiences of the Past can Affect Your Relationship
Being alone sucks. Waking up next to someone who you once fell in love with, but for whom you barely connect to, and feel “miles apart from,” is worse. Do you ever look at your partner and wonder, “Do you actually see me?” Or, how about: “If you actually really knew me…the real me, you’d never want to be in a relationship with me”? If so, then you’re not alone.
I am a Registered Clinical Counsellor in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. I work with individuals and couples from a Trauma-Informed, Emotionally-Focused, and Existential perspective, and utilize a remarkable healing modality called, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). In short, I help clients get the healing they want by first helping them get the healing they need.
Having vulnerabilities, fear and shame
But I don’t want to talk about how I’m an expert in relationship communication, or what I’ve learned through my various specialized trainings. I am writing this article because, like you, I am human. As a human, I have vulnerabilities, fear, and oftentimes I feel shame because of them.
I experience a deep pain when I feel “truly alone;” I hate feeling ugly, or disgusting; and I absolutely cannot stand feeling like a “prisoner.” I’m sure you have similar “dislikes” as me. Please allow me a few minutes to take you through an aspect of my personal journey (thus far), to help illuminate why we’re in the same “love boat.” Afterwards, I will help to illuminate why you and your partner(s) may be doing just enough to fend off loneliness, but not enough to be truly intimate.
My own experience
When I was a kid, and all through my youth, I would stand in front of my mirror, naked, and say to myself: “I am ugly. I am fat. I am disgusting. Nobody can ever love this.” The pain I felt in those moments was truly unbearable. I was not simply angry with my physical body, I was angry with the fact that I was alive and had this body. The emotions were about my very existence. Why wasn’t I the “pretty boy” or the “sports jock with the great body”? I would stare at my body, crying, and I’d beat myself…that’s right. I would literally hit myself…over and over…until the pain I felt in my body was enough to distract me from the emotional pain of my existence. I made my body the scapegoat for my horrible luck with girls at school, my sense of deep loneliness, and my inferiority complex.
Having negative feelings about yourself & the world
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was generating deep attachment trauma and forming some very nasty negative beliefs about myself and the world. These negative beliefs influenced how I viewed the world, and my relationship to it—or to other people.
I believed that: “I was ugly, fat, disgusting, and that nobody could ever love me.”
In essence, I told myself that I was worthless. Because of that, I went on to try and overcome this belief by overcompensating and searching for the wrong things. I exercised really hard and got into great shape, dated lots of women throughout college, and had the belief that: “If I could get my partner to accept me, then that must mean that I’m acceptable.” There was a problem with this belief because I went from partner to partner to partner…to try and get the acceptance that I craved. I never truly found it. Not until I began to seriously be responsible for my life in this world—for how I viewed myself.
Ok, so what does all this have to do with you?
Well, I’ll tell you. I have yet to meet a client (or anyone for that matter) who has had a “perfect childhood.” Sure, not everybody has experienced an obviously “abusive” upbringing. But everyone has experienced some form of trauma (big or small) that leaves a lasting impression on their psyche. When you get two (or more) partners together who have their own experiences with trauma, you get a delicate situation—one that can (and often does) generate a vicious cycle of relationship turmoil. One partner is triggered by the other, perceiving a signal that their safety in the world (but really the relationship) is in danger. The way this is communicated to the other partner generally isn’t the best (unless the couple has had lots of practice through counselling and personal development), and ends up triggering the other partner. The result is a cycle of triggering each other’s attachment wounds and “inner-baggage.” How often does this happen? ALL THE TIME.
The cost of not knowing the cycle which you and your partner engage in, and how to avoid it, is a hefty one: diminished intimacy, stumped personal development, and deep loneliness (the kind where you feel that your partner is miles away from you, even as you kiss them good night before you fall asleep).
We all need something from our partner(s)
The problem is most of us are too afraid to go inward, towards the really scary stuff that makes us uncomfortable…and then share that with someone else (let alone the person who is closest to us). Most of us struggle with trusting that our partner is “safe enough” to be vulnerable with—a struggle that is reinforced because of poor translation of our individual needs. Most people know intuitively what their relationship (attachment) needs are, but have not developed the communication tools to express them clearly with their partner, and moreover, have difficulty in asking for what they need from their partner. This all requires that a “sacred space” is developed within the relationship in order to foster safety with vulnerability.
Unfortunately, what tends to happen with many couples is that safety is created without vulnerability—this is your “garden variety comfort” that exists in most relationships—a space where it is just comfortable enough not to leave, but not safe enough that real intimacy is ever reached. Thus the result is the feeling of “being alone” even though you’re “together.”
Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy Theory
In order to explain further, I’ll need to give you a brief synopsis of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy Theory, or EFTCT (based in Attachment Theory by John Bowlby). EFTCT was created by Dr. Sue Johnson, and is a theory which is useful in explaining why you have such a great reaction when you feel that your bond with your partner is “threatened.”
As human beings, we survived and evolved because of our brains. Clearly, we have never had sharp teeth or claws. We couldn’t run all that fast, we never had camouflaged skin or fur, and we could not really protect ourselves from predators—unless we formed tribes, and used our brains to survive. We’re here, so clearly our ancestors’ strategy worked. Our evolution was dependent upon the attachment bond created between infant and mother (and other caregivers). If this bond didn’t exist, we wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, our ability to survive depended not simply upon the initial bond with caregivers, but on the continued bond with our tribe—to be exiled or alone in the world would mean almost certain death.
To put it bluntly: attachment to others is a basic need for survival.
Fast-forward to today. So what does all this mean? It means that as humans we are hardwired to crave the security inherent in the bond with our close attachment figures (parents, spouse, siblings, friends, etc.). And since the bond with your partner or spouse is so important, any perceived threat to this bond is usually interpreted by the individual as incredibly painful (and possibly even traumatic). In other words: when one partner experiences the bond as threatened, they respond in survival-like fashion, with the coping methods they have acquired thus far—in the interest of protecting themselves (and the bond).
Below is an example to put all this in context.
Meet: John and Brenda (fictional characters).
John tends to withdraw and become silent as Brenda gets louder and more frantic. Because of Brenda’s upbringing and earlier life experiences, she values feeling connected and close with her partner (most feminine personalities do actually). In order for Brenda to feel “safe in the world” she needs to know that John is engaged with her and totally present. When she is upset, she needs John to come closer and to hold her. When Brenda sees John pull away and withdraw, she becomes frantic, scared, and feels alone (Brenda perceives the safety in her bond with John as “threatened”).
However, when Brenda becomes frantic and scared, she also gets louder and tends to respond to John’s silence with some very choice words (such as “What are you? Stupid? Can’t you do anything right?”). To Brenda, any response from John is better than no response! But for John (and because of the various life experiences he’s had), Brenda’s loud and striking comments stir up feelings of deep insecurities. He’s too afraid to be vulnerable with Brenda because he interprets her striking comments and loud volume as unsafe—clear evidence (to him) that he is not “good enough.” Furthermore, the mere fact that he feels “unsafe” and “stupid” makes John question his “manhood.” Unfortunately, while what he needs from his wife is to feel nurtured and empowered, he has learned to protect his feelings of insecurity by withdrawing and controlling his emotions on his own.
The couple has not understood that Brenda’s insecurity with their relationship’s bond triggered John’s insecurities with himself. His pulling away, made Brenda push even harder to get a response from him. And you guessed it: the more she pushed and pursued, the more silent he became, and the more he pulled away, the harder she pushed and pursued…and the cycle goes on and on…and on…and on…
The “push-pull cycle”
Now, this couple is a fictional couple indeed, but the “push-pull cycle” is probably the most common cycle that I’ve seen. There are other relationship cycles out there, such as the “withdraw-withdraw,” and the “pursue-pursue,” and the ever complicated “flip-flop” (a term I’ve affectionately coined for cycles where seemingly out of nowhere, the partners “flip-flop” to the opposite style of confrontation).
You may ask an important question: Why does the couple stay together if they trigger each other in this way?
It certainly is a valid question, and one that is answered by referring to that whole “survival instinct” thing I brought up earlier. The attachment bond to each other is so important that each partner will put up with the occasional (and sometimes very frequent) conflict cycle in exchange for the security of being in a relationship with the other, and not feeling completely alone in the world.
Most relationship confrontations are due to one partner (Partner A) triggering the coping strategy (survival) response of the other (Partner B). In turn this action results in a response from the other (Partner B), which triggers a further survival response from the other partner (Partner A). This is how “the cycle” works.
I always tell my clients that 99% of the time there is “no bad guy”, the culprit of the relationship conflict is “the cycle.” Find “the cycle” and you find out how to communicate with your partner and navigate those treachery waters. Create the “sacred space” and you begin to develop the nesting grounds for safety and vulnerability—the prerequisites for real intimacy.
Being alone sucks. But being alone in your relationship is even worse. Thanks for sharing your space with me. I wish you greater awareness, intimacy, and love in your relationship with yourself and your partner.
Please share this article if it resonated with you, and feel free to leave me a comment and tell me about your thoughts! I’d love to connect if you would like more help with identifying your own “relationship cycle,” or to receive information on how my products and services can help you, please connect with me via email.
Share this article on
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.