A song just gets to you. You find yourself humming it as you drive or make the coffee. “Say Something I’m giving up on you” by A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera has taken over my brain.
It is not just the great melody or even the poignant emotion – it is the sad despair that grabs me.
It is that, as a couple therapist and trainer I have heard some version of this message a thousand times and seen, the silent partner, caught between the risk of opening up and the risk of shutting a loved one out, close down and choose lonely isolation. They think they are deciding for protection but in fact, they are stepping into a prison of their own making.
Therapists and researchers have focused on the dangers of conflict in relationships for years. But we know now that it is emotional disconnection that fuels chronic conflict and that stonewalling –refusing to respond to your lover- is poison for your love relationship and a good predictor of divorce.
Distancing partners always have cast iron reasons for their withdrawal. Andy says, “Anything I do will make it worse, and I am drowning already so …..” Mary says, “I don’t know what to do, so I just freeze up and wait for the fight to stop.” Kim comments, “Nothing I do works. I will never please her. I feel hopeless and helpless so I say….nothing.” They shut down out of a sense of helplessness and pain. But they do not get the impact this has on their partner.
Researchers who study how love works didn’t get it either until a few years ago when they started to understand that romantic love is an attachment bond, just like the primal bond between mother and infant. In this bond the need for emotional connection is absolute. In an attachment relationship almost ANY response is better than none. If I call and you do not respond, the connection between us does not exist and my brain, wired to code responsiveness from loved ones as a huge safety cue, goes into red alarm danger mode. Panic takes over. Usually this builds and morphs into anger and a tight recurring dance gets going that devours relationships called critical demand followed by defensive withdrawal. This painful dance does indeed, as in the song, trigger giving up on the relationship completely. We cannot continue to reach for one who turns away and shuts us out – the vulnerability is too hard to tolerate.
The partner who is reaching, demanding and upping the ante to get a response cannot SEE the silent person. It’s scary to depend on someone we can’t see. And they feel abandoned and unimportant. Ironically people mostly shut down because their lover has so MUCH impact on them, not because they don’t matter.
As part of emotionally focused therapy, the tried and tested, powerfully effective couple therapy I and my colleagues do, we help withdrawn partners find another solution to their feelings of rejection or helplessness besides turning to stone. We helps them come out of their shell and engage with their partner. We also help their partner share the isolation and desperation that stonewalling generates in them and their need for connection.
So someone like Andy learns to turn to his lady and say, “I do shut you out. I just get overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do or say. I don’t know how to calm you down or let you in. I get that I have failed here. That hurts. I don’t want to fail you.” As his lady bursts into tears, he looks very puzzled and I have to resist chanting the old adage that goes something like, “ In love, you don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be there.” As he learns that all he has to do is open the door and let her in, he finds his feet and takes down his wall so he and his love can reach for each other again.
Our research finds that this kind of response builds lasting bonds. Once we understand love and can turn away from the responses that destroy it, we can shape the love we long for.
The song is right – if our lover cannot turn and open up to us, we begin to give up and let go. There is nothing more painful than loving someone who cannot respond to you.
So next time you find yourself turning to stone, turn around and share what is there, just like Andy did.
It’s always always worth the risk.