Tom’s partner Amy, who like Tom is in her early 30s, has been thinking for a number of years about a career change. While she does well in the creative industry as a graphic designer and consistently gets good feedback from clients, she wonders about changing career and retraining in some aspect of wellbeing such as massage or medical herbalism. Tom, a banker, believes Amy would be good at whatever she puts her hand to, but gets frustrated by her lack of action. He wants her to “just do it!” He has even researched potential study options for her. Finally, after another discussion about what she should do, he issues an ultimatum: either do something about it, or stop talking about it. Amy feels misunderstood, isolated and vows to herself to only confide in her girlfriends in the future. Tom feels angry at his suggestions being minimised and frustrated that yet again their communication has failed. What is going wrong and what can they do to fix it?
In today’s Western world we are generally taught we can do anything. We just need self-confidence and the drive to succeed. We believe in individual achievement – work hard, educate yourself and you’ll get your financial reward. Many of us are schooled to place high value on independence and the freedom that being one’s own person can bring. This carries over into advice on personal relationships. We are told to “love yourself first and others will love you”. Depending on anyone is often seen as a weakness.
While this perspective has high cultural face value, the psychological literature is increasingly showing that this isn’t the whole truth. In fact, this viewpoint is likely to be leading to our record number of prescriptions of anxiety and depression. Our culture is all about developing self-sufficiency, but what if that leads to loneliness and disconnection?
A fascinating 2007 study titled “The dependency paradox in close relationships,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that young successful career women who were securely attached to a partner were more confident, took more risks, explored opportunities and reached their career goals faster when they had someone to depend on. In her book Love Sense: The revolutionary new science of human relationships (2013) Dr Sue Johnson makes the point that people blossom when they feel loved; they are happier and, ironically, more independent and successful.
But hold on – this flies in the face of everything we think we know about normal healthy adult development, doesn’t it?
Well, no. Sixty years ago the predominant view was that if you held and cuddled children and were open and responsive to them, you would create dependent, anxious, impaired adults. We now know from extensive research that the opposite is true. Responsive, empathetic connections create more stable adults who do better on every measure than those raised in less responsive environments. Attachment is the psychological term for the bond between children and their significant caregivers. Secure attachment is where the child feels loved and safe because their needs are attended to, while insecure attachment is where the child feels vulnerable because expressing their needs is not responded to effectively. In the last 20-30 years, the psychological literature has started applying research on bonding between parents and children to adult relationships, and found that the same applies. We do much better as humans when we have someone to positively answer the question: Are you there for me? Can I count on you? The most effective couples therapy in the world today is known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which was developed by Dr Sue Johnson. It has a 75 per cent success rate at moving couples from distress to recovery and 90 per cent of couples show significant improvement in their relationships. In EFT, couples learn how to turn toward each other, open up, tune in to each other, be responsive – in short, create emotional safety. They become securely attached. The good news is that this attachment can be developed within a couple relationship even if one or both of the partners are insecurely attached (they don’t trust each other, they don’t have emotional safety within the relationship) to start with.
So the first take-home message is that having a strong connection we can depend on in our close relationships is healthy. But it goes even further.
Having a secure bond with another adult makes us resilient to stress. Studies of married couples have shown that the presence of one’s partner can turn off the effect of threat and danger. In a 2006 study in the journal Psychological Science, partners were told they would experience a shock to their ankles when they saw an “X” on the screen when in a brain scanner. When holding the hand of a stranger or when in the scanner with nobody around, their brains reacted to the imminent threat by lighting up the “danger” zones in the brain. But when holding the hand of their partners, their brain’s alarm system was much less active. Strikingly, the level of threat in the brain differed according to marriage quality, with those in happy satisfying marriages more soothed by their partner.
The fear and pain of an electric shock was substantially less when holding a loved one’s hand. If we extrapolate this to real-world situations, having a supportive other there makes all the difference when faced with anything from job loss to illness to the myriad changes we are likely to face.
If having a secure bond can cushion us from strains and shocks, it follows that criticism from our partners hurts more than other criticism. In fact, it shows up in our brains as indistinguishable from actual physical pain. Your nervous system gets worked up and freaks out when you are criticised or rejected by a loved one.
Back to Tom and Amy: When Tom issues the ultimatum, Amy’s fear of rejection and abandonment is activated. This is very difficult for humans to handle. In such moments we see our partner as the enemy, and we have no emotional balance. Tom and Amy have been drawn into a negative cycle – Amy has asked for time to talk her career issues through, Tom has responded with what help he can; so far so good. But when Tom gets frustrated (at what he sees as Amy’s rejection of his “fix it” stance), he has demanded she “take action or leave.” Amy has taken it as criticism and so is withdrawn in response.
If we could see inside their brains at this point, we would see the pain they are both experiencing is lighting up as if it were physical pain – they are both hurting. In spite of Tom’s intentions to be supportive, he minimises the doubt and worry Amy is clearly experiencing. If she hasn’t “just done it” it will be because strong emotions are getting in the way that she needs to have understood and processed. What can they do? Successful couples realise they are scaring each other in these conversations; they slow down, tune in, help each other and soothe each other.
How can we support our partners through major life changes?
Firstly we need to acknowledge that who we are to them matters. We are their safe haven; they can go out and explore the world and take risks if they feel like they will be taken care of on their return.
To be able to fully support your loved one during a change, they need to feel their relationship with you is a safe emotional space. Your message to each other is, “I know if I need you, you’re there.” In conversations with your loved one, try and convey understanding and acceptance through words and actions. What you say and the tone in which you say it is important.
Really get to know their emotional reactions. It might be helpful to remember that when they get angry or frustrated, it is a cover for softer emotions (anxiety, sadness, helplessness) and gives a clue to what they really care about. The questions “Why do you always work late? Why can’t you come home earlier?” may be a plea to spend more time with you. You can’t and don’t need to read their minds, but understand that anger and criticism are unsophisticated ways of trying to draw you closer.
In line with not criticising, you can hold yourself up to a new standard: does what I’m about to say to my partner create emotional safety for them, or does it tear them down? Consider the examples: “I don’t know why we even got married”, “You’re so inconsiderate/lazy/selfish”, ”If you don’t start _________, we’re finished.” These kinds of comments leave you with an insecure, hurting partner who doesn’t trust you.
Notice the small ways your partner keeps you in mind. Let them know you love them and appreciate them, and when talking to others, keep the relationship safe by what you say about them.
In the case of Tom and Amy, what might a repair conversation look like after learning skills of empathy and turning towards each other? Amy might say, “We’re getting into one of our spirals. I was just trying to reach for you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings. It’s hard for me to talk to you about my career; you’ll think I’m needy. I get scared because I say to myself you know what you want and I don’t. Am I really the person you want? I’m not as smart as you, I don’t work as fast as you. I need you to reassure me that you’ll be here even though I struggle with this.
Tom might respond: “I feel like I can’t fix this. My suggestions aren’t the right ones for you. I hate not being able to help you.” They might come to a place where when Amy wants to talk this through, Tom steps out of fix-it mode, and focuses on giving her the message that he cares about how she feels. He says “I know it must be hard for you feeling this way. You must be thinking that this stuck feeling is going to last a long time. You truly value helping people and want to get the area of study just right. Things matter to you. I want you to know that I am always here for you.”
Conflict between couples is about the pain of loss of connection and a desire to connect. As Sue Johnson writes in Love Sense, “Humans need emotional connection like we need oxygen.” The good news is that we can learn to shape our most important relationships so we can be there for each other.