I have a lot of people tell me they act a lot different around their partner than they do anyone else. Some of my clients are ashamed of the way they act around and towards their partner, they can’t quite make sense of it. They see is as irrational, immature, dysfunctional, cruel, I could go on and on about the way this behavior has been described by both partners. These behaviors could be yelling, name calling, stone walling, staying away from, being cold, having an attitude, ignoring, etc. There is one common denominator here, the energy behind it. It isn’t loving, caring, “you are so important to me” energy. My couples’ know that much. What they don’t understand is what exactly is behind this behavior. It seems so cruel and unloving, but they love their partner so why are they acting this way?
I am here to clarify what is actually behind this behavior that can seem very loving. It is fear! And a lot of it. Humans are tribal beings, we exists in groups and depend on these groups for survival. Americans have shrunk these groups down to just two people, you and your partner. This means your survival, as far as your brain is wired, is dependent on this one other person. So you can imagine, if this relationship feels threatened in any way what that is going to do to your brain, and what your brain is going to tell you to do about it. Animals, including humans, have three basic fear responses: fight, flight, and freeze.
Now, let’s put these basic fear responses back into those behaviors we talked about. If you are afraid you cannot depend on your partner to be there for you when it really matters, what might you do to fight against this? Maybe yell, protest, get angry, aggressive, debate, negotiate, slam doors, be pissy, name call, get critical, anything to fight against the belief that you can’t count on your partner. Well, as far as your brain is concerned, this makes perfect sense to act this way, you are fighting for the relationship because it is so important to you. Now we know your partner will notice these behaviors. What he or she will not know, is that you are doing these behaviors because he or she is so important to you.
So, let’s move to the flip side of this, say you are more likely to flee or freeze when you are afraid your partner is not going to be there for you. Let’s just say you hear your wife call you undependable, irresponsible, uncaring, or a failure. What else is your brain supposed to think other than, “I am not good enough for her”, “she is going to leave me because I keep letting her down”, “she has impossible standards that I cannot reach.” And let’s say when you feel this deep fear, your reaction is to freeze or go away from it (flee). The rational for this is, if you go away from her, you will stop making her so angry. Or, if you freeze, at least you won’t continue to make it worse. So, either way, you are trying to stop the message that you are going to lose her because you are inadequate.
The problem here is that all your partner sees is you ignoring her, abandoning her, leaving her, not caring about her fear, not caring about the relationship. Which unfortunately increases her fear that you are not going to be there for her when it really counts. The chances of her seeing your fear about losing this relationship are slim. Especially if she is stuck in her own fear of losing you. I know I am using a male partner example here, but it could go either way.
So, what are couples supposed to do if this is such a common patterns? The answer is so simple. Know what is really going on with you and talk about it. Can you imagine saying “you are so important to me and when I get the message you think I am not good enough for you, it freaks me out and I just want to get away from that feeling” Or, “when you go away from me when I am trying to talk about something that is important to me, it gives me the message that you are not going to be there for me in a way that really matters. I need to know I can count on you to be there for me.” This takes a lot of vulnerability and safety in the relationship. It is something you should sit down and talk about when you are not in a heated argument. So when the argument comes up, you already have some practice of talking in this way. The reason you are not like this with anyone else is because your partner is the most important person in the world to you, and no one else even comes close.
Robin Blair, LMFT
Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist