Emotion Focused Therapy is a type of couples therapy that reflects on how our need for emotional security impacts our behaviors within relationships. It's a perspective that is also useful in thinking about why we may get caught up in vicious fights in other types of relationships as well, such as with relatives and friends. For the sake of simplicity, I'll use the term "partner" in this post, but know that these relational patterns can be true within any emotionally important relationship.
We are social animals born with a drive to receive comfort and security when we feel afraid. As babies we cry, we reach out, we do whatever we need to be taken care of. As adults, we are those same social animals. We need to feel heard and secure within our important relationships - especially during moments of vulnerability.
When our partners are generally responsive, we feel secure and confident that we can lean on them and also stand tall on our own. However, if our partners are only intermittently emotionally available, we may learn to become louder, more insistent and demanding to be heard. And, if our partners feels truly unavailable - then we shut down. The yearning to be cared for is still there, but we pull in and tell ourselves that we don't really need them.
Even if our partners are actually quite responsive, previous relationships may have set an expectation that we will have intensify our cries for help or shut ourselves down for self-protection.
Image you are talking with someone you love, again this could be, a family member, a friend, a romantic partner. Something comes up in the conversation that causes you to feel unsettled. You were not invited to an event, a positive statement is made about someone who feels like a threat to your relationship, or your were expressing a vulnerability and it went unheard.
Without even realizing it, you may have an alarm that is triggered that says that you are not secure, this relationship is not safe. Up go your unconscious defenses against the pain of rejection, the fear of being unheard when you are vulnerable. Maybe your defense is to shut down, maybe it is to become more insistent about being heard, or maybe it is to become aggressive to cover up your vulnerability.
You move from responding to the actual issue - feeling rejected or unheard - to protecting yourself at all costs because the pain you feel is so powerful. It hits that need we all have had since birth to feel secure within a relationship that can help us get through this hard, at times dangerous, world.
Now you are behaving in a way that does not help with the problem and causes your partner to feel their own alarm bell going off. They feel rejected or unheard, so their defensive maneuvers come online. The two of you enter a complicated matrix of behaviors that push each other further and further away.
Perhaps it is your partner who initially had their alarm go off. You may be in the midst of a seemingly normal conversation and all of a sudden they seem to be pushing or pulling in a way that makes no sense, but makes you feel insecure within your relationship. Naturally, your alarm goes off and you start your own defensive maneuvers.
This is a very natural occurrence. The need to feel secure within relationships is so powerful. It can very easily overcome reason or the best of intentions to be a good partner.
The only way out of this sticky mess is to see the pattern you are stuck in - the ways in which you or your partner are pushing and pulling at the other. If you can see the pattern, if you can address it together, then you can start to become allies against it.
You two can acknowledge your defenses, take a step back from them, and reengage with each other on an authentic level. You can bring back the care and trust needed to talk about the harder underlying problems. From there you can provide each other with the tenderness and comfort that is so important within relationships.
Reach out if you'd like to talk more about the defensive patterns you find yourself stuck in and how to move forward.