One thing we learn in childhood is how to create ways to feel safe and protect ourselves. As children, we are living in the land of giants and even if we have loving parents, there is still the occasion where a parent is towering over us with a red face. Sheepishly running away, cowering in a bedroom closet with an economy-size bag of chips, waiting for the storm to subside are behaviors that may be the ideal strategy for the situation. It keeps you safe long enough for the parent to realize they were out of control.
As an adult, protections may take another form. Reactionary behaviors—nasty, hurtful remarks or zingers that go straight to the heart, or withdrawing and retreating, are not protections. They assist in creating the very thing you think you are protecting yourself against: heartache, loneliness, rejection, conflict. In an adult relationship, you may not feel strong enough to endure one more tedious argument and consciously or unconsciously find a way to retreat. If it’s an out-of-control argument, that may still be a wise choice. However, if it’s a conflict loop that keeps recurring and your partner is not out of control, but is merely frustrated, withdrawing may reinforce the loop.
What habitual behaviors do you use to avoid pain or escape anger? What are you asking for that your partner is unwilling to give? And what is on the other side of this argument – what is your partner not getting that they need to feel heard, understood, respected, loved and safe enough to open up? Understand that both partners have a part in every conflict loop. Think about it: you can’t sustain a Come Close, Go Away loop unless one partner pushes and the other pulls. But at the core of every destructive behavioral pattern is a deep desire to be loved, appreciated, heard and understood.
In the heat of the moment, however, the last thing people want to do is take responsibility for their role. No one wants to stop and say, “Gee, let me step back and take ownership for my part.” It’s difficult to accept responsibility, and normal to avoid it. But it can become a major problem when couples become like dogs with a bone, rabidly insisting that their problems are—solely and completely—the other person’s fault. He doesn’t listen. She’s clingy and needy. It’s all her fault. It’s all his problem. Looking at your part in the matter is a crucial part of the process.
Muster up the courage to understand your role and your partner’s in order for the two of you to make the necessary changes that will breathe new life into your relationship.