Portrait Of A Marriage. (Yes, It’s Mine.)

 In Wisdom + Wellness

This article was originally published on my website carmenspagnola.com.

As is often the case for therapists and healing practitioners, we specialize in subject areas with which we have personal experience. We attract clients that are going through similar journeys as ourselves.

So I have a cluster of clients who are in fantastic relationships, yet still come to the brink of collapse with some regularity.

The following is by no means representative of most marriages or even many. But for the ones for whom it rings true, reading this may feel like breaking surface after being trapped under water.

Because this is a portrait of my own marriage, which is your standard white heteronormative model, it is written from a she/he perspective. But since the dynamics I’m describing are more of a continuum than a condition, and because they are situational and relational, the information is useful for anyone who seeks to have any kind of relationship. Even if this doesn’t describe you, it will describe someone close to you.

She is:

  • independent
  • strong
  • driven
  • ambitious
  • presents “yang” energy
  • has been called intimidating
  • gets stuff done
  • holds it together
  • is financially independent or entrepreneurial or the main breadwinner
  • craves more space and freedom
  • has less sex drive than she used to
  • feels her efforts to please him sexually are taken for granted
  • feels unheard
  • feels overburdened with emotional demands
  • is exhausted by her partner’s “neediness”
  • thinks it doesn’t matter what she does, he is never sated and she’ll never be enough
  • feels like a failure when he expresses unhappiness

He is:

  • supportive
  • sensitive
  • nurturing
  • devoted
  • presents “yin” energy or a balance of yin and yang
  • isn’t threatened by strong women and is proud of his wife’s accomplishments
  • is less identified with his career than his partner is
  • may be somewhat adrift with his life direction at the moment
  • craves more attention from her
  • is the higher desire partner
  • feels his efforts to support her are taken for granted
  • feels unvalued
  • feels unloved and emotionally unmet
  • feels despairing about his partner’s unavailability and disconnection
  • thinks it doesn’t matter what he does, she is never satisfied with him
  • feels undesirable and scared he isn’t good enough for her

Their arguments always seem to circle back to mis-matched sex drives even though they both know there’s more to their conflict than just sex and intimacy.

They fight about how they fight, how they communicate, how they misinterpret each other.

They have tried:

They’ve done all the tricks to decrease/increase libido (sex only once a week for four months, sex every day for four months, gazing into each other’s eyes for X amount of time, light touch only, tantric sex, etc, etc, etc)

But some of their seeking has led to some critical insights, particularly about how their Abandonment Wounds show up in their relationships, and how it informs their Attachment Style.

Through their research, they’ve come to understand that he has an anxious attachment style and she has an avoidant attachment style.

{I want to interject a side-note here: this is a long article and the next several sections may be review for many readers. My husband, Ruben, thinks I’m burying the lead, but I feel it makes more sense if I go in this methodical order. But if you’re already well-read about attachment styles and trauma response, you may want to hop right down to the heading that says “Let’s start with this: needs are part of being fully human” by clicking here.}

Attachment Styles In A Nutshell

There are three main attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and secure. About half the population is a secure attachment style, roughly a quarter of us are avoidant and the remainder are anxious.

A fourth style, “disorganized”, is supposedly somewhat rare. With a disorganized style, you can feel like you are running both anxious and avoidant tendencies simultaneously (because that’s exactly what’s happening).

In his book, Wired For Love, Stan Tatkin states that only about 3% of the population truly expresses as a disorganized style. I guess because I do therapeutic work, I cross paths with more folks running a disorganized attachment style than most, but I think that a decade from now, we’ll talk about attachment very differently. I don’t think we’ll diagnose ourselves or others with a style but rather talk about working with an avoidant, anxious, or disorganized element. Because attachment style is both emotional and physiological, it is not a fixed state. So sometimes it can get confusing and disorganized, for all of us.

It’s important to recognize that attachment styles are more like a continuum than a condition. They are situational and relational, meaning that you can adopt an avoidant style with your mother and yet be anxious with your partner. Or you might mostly be secure, but wind up in a confusing or abusive relationship and slip into a pocket of disorganized attachment.

Attachment style is relative to the relationship you’re in, it can change over time, and is a perfectly normal, natural and human adaptation, not a character flaw.

Ideally, we’d all be secure attachers, each of us with equal capacities for the essentials of well-being:

  • to be in touch with our body and feelings
  • to be in comfortable connection with others
  • to be able to attune to our needs and the emotional states of others
  • to recognize our need for and be able to seek out nurturance
  • to comfortably enjoy interdependence
  • to set appropriate boundaries
  • to give voice to our truth
  • to live open-heartedly
  • to integrate love and sexuality

But a whole bunch of us can’t do all of that, not so easily anyway.

Sometimes the reasons for our lack of capacity are rooted in the shortcomings and traumas of our caregivers during our early years. It’s that prolonged experience of chronic or multiple incidents of adverse childhood experiences, what psychologists sometimes call either Complex Trauma or Developmental Trauma.

Other times, there are initial sensitizing events – shock traumas – that cause tectonic shifts in how trusting and safe we feel in the world.

Whether through developmental or shock trauma, people with anxious or avoidant attachment styles have had experiences that made them feel unsafe and insecure within intimate relationships. Sometimes it’s been with parents, but it can also have occurred with friends or romantic relationships. Regardless, those adverse experiences have helped shape their attachment style and adaptive strategies.

Anxious attachers crave a deep and vulnerable intimacy with their partner, can be preoccupied or even consumed by their relationship, and often worry about whether their partner really loves them. They like a “high contact” relationship that includes regular physical, verbal, written, and/or tangible gestures of connection and reassurance. They spend a lot of time feeling that their relationship could fail at any minute.

Avoidant attachers crave independence and freedom, can be dismissive and withholding in relationships, and (consciously or unconsciously) erect barriers to closeness with their partners. They find “high contact” relationships draining and a threat to their autonomy. Because they don’t equate sex with intimacy, their “mixed signals” can be confusing for anxious attachers.

Secure attachers feel comfortable and solid in partnership; they’re not afraid of intimacy or mutuality in relationships. Being responsive to their partner’s needs is not a struggle for them. They can set healthy boundaries. They don’t take their partner’s reactions personally.

There tends to be more avoidant people in the dating pool because – quelle surprise! – we don’t attach easily. (Have mercy on all the poor anxious attachers trying to find love with all of us avoidant douchebags ghosting them.)

When it comes to marriage, we avoidant types can be idealists and highly demanding so it takes a very special kind of person to pin us down. Generally speaking, two avoidant types will not last together. We don’t bond easily so there just isn’t enough glue to keep us together.

The most promising matches for avoidant or anxious attachers are with someone who has a secure attachment style.

Secure attachers are not highly vigilant in relationships; they expect and trust that their partners value and love them, and are able to calmly move through conflict without catastrophizing or holding on to the past. They are good at modelling how to be relaxed in relationships.

The qualities required to make other humans feels safe in relationships – that of being responsive, attuned and available – come naturally to secure attachers.

I think it’s important to be conservative and recognize there is a danger in labelling our partner by their attachment style. It can feel erasing and dehumanizing to be told, “You spend your life avoidant”, as though that’s all we are about. For other people it can feel affirming to discover that your natural way of being is a legitimate “thing” with a name and research and literature.

Attachment styles can be thought of as either “traits” or “states”.

Yes, we have attachment styles (also called traits), but labelling each other by them implies they are static, monolithic and fixed. They are not. If we take a pro-relationship stance, and choose to see ourselves and our partner as evolving creatures doing the best they can in the moment, then we can cut them some slack for being in an avoidant or anxious state during a blow up.

Yes, we all have fairly enduring habits and tendencies in terms of how we relate to important people in our lives. But they are not rigid and immoveable. They are less like the bones of our personality and more like our musculature. They are tough to change because the habits of thought, speech, mannerism, and behaviour shaped by our attachment traits are deeply imprinted on our psyche and body.

But some researchers think of attachment styles more as states that can change, sometimes dramatically, from relationship to relationship. With a parent you may be more avoidant, and with your partner you may be more anxious. You might be a generally secure person but have strong feelings of fear and anxiety in an argument with your partner.

For the sake of clarity in this article, I’ll be using terms like “the avoidant partner” or “anxious attachers”, but I find it more helpful (and it often feels more hopeful) for most of my clients if I frame attachment styles as states. In my own marriage, we use these terms as shorthand while understanding that we are more than our attachment style assessment results, our styles have evolved to be more secure over time, and it’s totally normal to enter states of anxiety or avoidance when intimacy issues re-surface.

When you are just starting to enter the terrain of this conversation with your partner, though, remember that it’s important not to generalize. (That will come up again late in this article.)

The Exhilarating Highs And The Terrifying Lows

When an avoidant and an anxious attacher come together, it can be…uh…fraught.

A roller coaster.

A recipe for disaster.

A case of chronic conflict.

Blissful union to train wreck argument in under a minute. Violent arguing with draining, damaging efforts at “communication” at all hours of the day and night. Emotional recovery for the next nine days. Further scarring over the wounds.

Anxious and avoidant attachers hook up all the time, though, because their wounds feed each other and affirm their existing worldview.

They may bring out the worst in each other but their malfunctioning dynamic confirms what they’ve long suspected about themselves; their deep-seated fears of unworthiness, which often originate in childhood and may have been compounded in other relationships, are perceived as the reason they can’t find a stable relationship.

Statistically, it is less common to have an avoidant wife + anxious husband combination. 

Generally speaking, in western hetero-patriarchal culture, women are conditioned to be anxious attachers and men are conditioned to be avoidant attachers.

But attachment style isn’t entirely rooted early childhood development or conditioning or trauma, it’s also at least partially epigenetic. It’s also at least partially shaped by our history of relationships in adulthood. I would argue that it’s also at least partially caused by living in a traumatizing patriarchal culture.

In other words, we are programmed and conditioned to be this way and it’s not something that can just be turned off like a light switch. It’s not easy to pivot, even when we know our behaviour is making both of us miserable.

I happen to work with a lot of strong women and sensitive men.

More precisely, I happen to work with a lot of women who’ve survived both developmental and shock trauma, are regularly re-traumatized by living under patriarchy, and have developed a fortified stance in order to survive and protect themselves from constant threat to their very existence.

I also work with a lot of men who’ve survived developmental trauma, are regularly re-traumatized by living under patriarchy, and have learned to sacrifice themselves at any cost in order to survive and maintain some kind of connection – no matter how meagre – with other humans.

Their experiences within the anxious-avoidant trap in “reversed” roles from assumed social norms are not as commonly reflected back to them in the relationship literature and research. It can be demoralizing and frustrating for everyone.

All of this can seem like an impossible situation to reconcile.

But does it have to be?

I don’t believe so.

All of the literature says that anxious and avoidant attachers should steer clear of each other and avoid the drama in the first place. But what if you’re already in it and don’t feel ready to give up? Or don’t feel you can throw in the towel yet because of having young children together, for instance? Or maybe you have separated but have children and still must to work together to co-parent?

What if you’re just stuck with each other?

I believe – no, I know – that in many circumstances the anxious-avoidant dynamic can evolve to a more secure dynamic.

I know that with compassion and a top-down/bottom-up approach, we can work together to support aliveness, fulfillment and connection in our relationships, no matter our attachment dynamic.

Top-down, bottom-up.

To understand how to evolve an attachment style, we need to understand trauma and the distress cycle.

Top-down refers to the messages sent from our brain to our body when we perceive a threat. These messages impact our emotions and ability to feel sensation.

Top-down relates to perception, memory, motivation, and attention.

Our thoughts and judgements, our identifications and awareness, all affect the nervous system’s capacity for self-regulation when the sense of threat appears.

Bottom-up refers to the unconscious, involuntary regulation in the nervous system and how it impacts our cognition. Disregulation in our nervous system affects our emotions and thoughts making some threats appear larger than they really are, amplifying the alarm bells in our mind.

Bottom-up is about the felt sense, connection with the body, instinctive impressions mediated through the brain stem as they move upwards from the body to the limbic and cortical areas of the brain.

Attunement means to focus caring intent on the body, mind, spirit and emotional needs of ourselves or another. When a threat is perceived, either through misattunement, neglect, or conflict, information travels from the body to the brain and from the brain to the body sending distress signals.

When misattunement continues, despair sets in. This creates a disconnection from the original need and a focus now on the emotional distress that comes from judgements and perceptions about whythe misattunement is happening.

This is where beliefs form about our worthiness and our lovableness.

As the misattunement and distress persist, we begin to lose our capacity to self-regulate. We adapt to scarcity and begin to identify with longing but not having. Our identifications during these times of distress help shape our adaptive coping strategies.

We might develop a shame-based adaptive style where we feel shame at existing, like we are a burden and don’t belong. Anxious attachers will often feel needy, unfulfilled, undeserving, used, hurt, rejected or unloved.

Or we might develop a pride-based adaptive style where we feel pride in being a loner, in not needing others and in not being emotional. Avoidant attachers often feel strong and in control and that if they don’t look out for themselves, no one will. They take pride in being self-reliant and independent, can be intolerant of flaws or mistakes (in themselves and others), fortified by a mask of “having it all together”, and like to ensure that they reject first.

Our adaptive style helps shape our identifications; we can come to identify with aspects of our trauma response as core to our personality, such as being a caregiver/rescuer or being the strong, silent type.

Each time there is misattunement in a relationship, it can reinforce the judgements and identifications already being triggered in our brains and bodies. It’s a vicious cycle.

The top-down, bottom-up distress cycle is a continuous loop of information which, I think, is why it’s accurate to describe really bad arguments as being sucked into a vortex of trauma.

When we perceive a threat and our brain initiates the fight-flight-freeze or the tend-and-befriend instinct (top-down), it’s a bit like our body goes into shock. Our respiratory and circulation systems constrict and focus their energy on keeping the heart and vital organs alive. All of the non-essential systems pretty much start shutting down (bottom-up).

This is why a normally eloquent and articulate person can become mute in an argument. They freeze. Their mind is wiped blank. It might appear they are withholding or withdrawing, but in fact, their systems are literally shutting down. There’s nothing in there to withold. Nothing is happening inside (that they can consciously perceive, anyway).

We’ll come back to specific top-down, bottom-up therapeutic approaches later. Let’s keep filling in the picture of what is actually happening in our attachment dynamic so we can interrupt the patterns of behaviour that keep us stuck.

(If you don’t know what your attachment style is, you can find quizzes in the books Attached and Wired For Love, but I highly recommend you take Dr.Chris Fraley’s more lengthy assessment. It is trackable over time so you can see how your attachment style is evolving: http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl )

Protest Behaviour and Deactivating Strategies

In our anxious-avoidant dynamic, both people have developed strategies to cope with relationship conflict. Protest behaviour is the way we signal to our partner that our needs aren’t being met. Deactivating strategies are how we keep our partner at arm’s length.

The anxious partner will make excessive attempts to reestablish contact like incessant calling or texting, or just dragging out arguments and rehashing conversations for hours and hours.

Stereotypically, within our patriarchy, if the anxious partner is female, she is often “approved” by society for playing her a “feminine” role. It’s expected that she will want to communicate – endlessly and in detail – about how she feels about what he’s done.

If the anxious partner is male, though, he is vilified by society. His wife might despise this “shameful” aspect of his personality and view it as a personality flaw, a failure to perform masculinity.

Which totally sucks.

The avoidant partner will withdraw, literally and figuratively. They may make themselves physically unavailable by leaving the room or turning their phone off. Or they may simply remove all emotional affect from their voice and sit expressionless, checked out, making vague statements and going through the motions of communication, subtly refusing to give their partner the satisfaction of the feeling of true engagement.

Again, stereotypically, within our patriarchy if the avoidant partner is male, he is venerated as a man of strength, dignity, and a commendable stoicism. His nagging wife is the albatross around his neck, the butt of sitcom jokes, and he is considered long-suffering in his tolerance of her drama.

If the avoidant partner is female, though, she is mistrusted and resented by society. She is a bitch. Her husband may see her as the primary cause of his emasculation.

Which is such bullshit.

Both partners may act hostile during conflict. This could be expressed as eye-rolling, sarcasm, mocking voices, shouting, throwing things, or even escalate to physical violence.

Both partners may threaten to leave or push the right buttons to drive the other to partner to do so, leaving themselves blameless of this particular offence. In our house we call this “pulling the rip cord”. Making a rip cord statement is saying the thing that you know is going to drive the other person so insane they will want to parachute out of the relationship, like a drag chute on a race car. Which will prove – a-HA! – what you’ve known all along, that you couldn’t trust them to never give up or leave.

Both partners may engage in keeping score. Both styles are prone to punishing the other, overtly or covertly, for not meeting their needs in the way they would like. This could mean waiting to return a phone call or text, waiting for the other to initiate reconciliation because “it’s their turn”, or acting aloof and distant even after making up.

And both partners may consciously or unconsciously manipulate and emotionally fuck with their partner in other ways like making them jealous, making them wait, or excluding them from activities but always with “legitimate” excuses.

Avoidant partners (and sometimes anxious partners who wish to punish their spouse), might use deactivating strategies like not saying “I love you” in return, focussing on their partner’s imperfections or comparing them to prior relationships, keeping secrets or leaving things “up in the air”, avoiding physical closeness or pulling away right after things start going well.

All of these behaviours are typical when our trauma and our attachment system get the best of us.

It’s crucial to understand that anxious attachers are particularly susceptible to getting trapped in the vortex of a chronically activated distress cycle, whereas avoidants’ attachment system will usually regulate if they are left alone.

The brains of anxiously attached people react more strongly to thoughts of loss and under-recruit support from regions of the brain that would normally down-regulate the negative cycle. It’s physiologically more difficult for anxiously attached people – and people in anxious states – to interrupt the cycle.

What’s more, if we scale the attachment system challenges up to the cultural level, here’s part of what every hetero couple is up against:

Patriarchy says that men want sex and women want intimacy.

Patriarchy says that men who aren’t entirely self-reliant, emotionally contained, and independent are weak. Worse than that, they are cuckolds and girly-men.

Patriarchy says that women who aren’t emotionally nurturing, sexually available, and connection-oriented are bitches. Worse than that, they’re dykes and gold-diggers.

A major challenge in this anxious-avoidant scenario is parsing out what is patriarchy and what is just being in a relationship.

Let me restate that: it’s hard to figure out what we should be fighting to change about the world and what we should be fighting to change about our marriage.

In our case, Ruben and I had to unpack so. many. things. about abandonment, trauma, attachment, and a culture of patriarchy and colonialism, just to arrive at a place from which to begin moving forward in our marriage.

You are not defective because you can’t find grace and ease in your relationship or within yourself in relation to others. It’s just super hard. It’s neurobiological. You’re fighting against extremely powerful inner, outer, cultural, and systemic forces that actively undermine your impulse to find security within yourself and with each other.

It takes practice. And tenacity. And a willingness to feel everything at all the scales.

And, for me anyway, the nurturance of a deep sense of Fuck.You. towards systemic oppression that reinforced the worst parts of me and the intergenerational trauma that taught me to hurt the ones I love.

It has helped our marriage to “turn sideways into the light”, as the poem goes, and stand shoulder to shoulder, appealing to grace and fighting for the common good. More often now than before, we fight together to reclaim the space within our marriage that patriarchy occupies and that stifles our ability to grow.

It’s fortunate that some of the things that attracted us to each other in the first place, like appreciation for research and critical analysis, a sense of compassionate social responsibility, and a great capacity to hold space for complexity, have come in pretty handy in this situation. The work we’ve done together directly impacts my clients and means they don’t have to synthesize thousands of pages of literature, hundreds of hours of audio and video, and days in workshops.

So, here we are, two super smart people with a love for each other that is dizzying.

Yet we’ve been where you are, and often still find ourselves there.

But less often, and for less time, and in less damaging ways than before.

We’ve been working on it, specifically through the abandonment/attachment lens, since about 2014.

This might be a good rule of thumb to introduce here: research shows that about 25% of the population can shift to a more secure attachment style over the course of about four years. It doesn’t say whether this naturally happens or whether it takes Herculean efforts, but perhaps this is a useful rule of thumb to help gauge whether the relationship is salvageable.

If you’re in an anxious-avoidant dynamic right now, you need help right now. You don’t have time to consider how internalized modes of oppression are playing out in your marriage.

Here are some top line items that can provide quite a lot of relief and a basic framework, for now. You’ll probably want to get some therapeutic help either for yourself or for both of you in order to move through the places of impasse in your relationship.

Let’s start with this: needs are part of being fully human.

Avoidant attachers have shut down so much normal, healthy neurobiological functioning that their brains literally can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

It’s really easy to perceive and recommend that an avoidant attacher simply meet the need for connection with an anxious attacher in order to de-escalate a situation and get back into the “resiliency zone”.

But avoidant attachers don’t relate to needs.

They don’t have a healthy understanding of what needs even are, much less recognize needs as something that everybody has, are normal, natural, and required to fulfill our humanness.

As children, they learned to act as if they were getting what they needed even though they weren’t.

Remember that avoidant attachers have had a lifetime of practice turning off all of the biological systems that would give them the capacity to connect in a triggering situation, even if they wanted to. Instead, they’ve learned to adopt a mask of okay-ness.

After years of wearing the Mask of Okay, they’ve become quite adept at managing triggering situations without any awareness at all that their brain and body are systematically shutting down.

I remember discovering this at a Non-Violent Communication workshop for couples called Speak To My Like You Love Me with a phenomenal human, Rachelle Lamb.

Under each feeling or emotion is an unmet need, she said. Carmen, when you feel angry at Ruben about this, what need is not being met for you?

I scanned a page in front of me that listed an inventory of “universal needs”.

Nothing registered. I was completely blank.

No sadness or longing or inspiration or even recognition.

None of the words resonated for me. It was like they meant nothing to me. The only one that sounded kind of nice to me was the word, “space”.

Not only that, a lot of them embarrassed me. What kind of person would identify with a statement as feeble as, I have a need for companionship?

Honestly, I felt revulsion at the notion of having needs, never mind declaring them.

Because here’s the thing: when your default is that your needs will never be met, eventually it’s just a hassle to have them.

If you’re a strong, competent, avoidant female, having needs just adds one more thing to your to-do list of things to manage. You’re probably already having to manage everyone else’s needs so the thought of having your own is supremely irritating and a waste of time.

How about this? you might think. How about everyone just handle their own fucking needs?

Even if there had been a need I could identify as logically reasonable for me to have, I’d never have admitted to it. Because what if it was used against me sometime?

If I told my husband I felt a need for inclusion, then he would know. And then he might fake wanting to include me in things. Or he might exclude me from things to get back at me for something.

Maybe he’d weaponize that knowledge and wield it over me somehow. Can you hear the depth of mistrust there?

It’s fucked up, right?

But it comes from experience. In that case, not from experiences I’d had with my husband specifically, but much earlier in my life. And it was so stressful at that time that my brain and my body started to adapt in order to survive in that environment.

So…not fucked up at all, actually. Borne out to be very valid fears, actually. A rather effective survival strategy, in fact.

Just not very useful when trying to create a secure couple bubble with my partner.

It’s not a very pro-relationship stance to assume that you need to constantly protect yourself from possible harm inflicted by your primary love relationship.

Fortifying oneself against having normal, healthy, natural human needs cuts us off from our humanity and from the sweetness of interdependence; it closes off the potential for a restful sense of security within relationship.

What avoidant attachers need to understand is that needs are like eating. 

We might think, “I don’t really have a need for companionship. With the right person, it might be my preference. But I’d be fine without it.”

Yes, we would be fine not eating for a full day. We wouldn’t die. It might be our preference to eat, but we’d be fine for a day without food.

However, not eating for a day is the first step to starvation. One day leads to the next, a little less fine, a little less fine, until one day, you die.

It took me a long time to even relate to the concept of having needs, and longer to identify which ones were unmet in my marriage, even longer to feel entitled to my needs, and much longer before I could trust that they might be met by my husband.

It also took a long time before I could accept my husband’s needs without resenting them.

And longer before I could come to terms with the idea that I might perhaps somehow oh I don’t know be responsible for meeting my husband’s needs.

From the perspective of an avoidant woman, after years of not being able to rely on primary relationships to put her needs before theirs at key moments, whilst living in a world that continuously subsumes and negates her needs, needs become energy drains and liabilities.

Not to mention the problematics of reinforcing the patriarchal notion that women exist to meet the needs of men and have a duty to do so.

That’s bullshit and not something I was prepared to consider.

But I needed to remind myself that although my husband sometimes perpetuates patriarchy, he is not patriarchy.

It wasn’t fair to be angry at him personally all the time.

It was cruel to withhold connection from him when I was in fact wanting to withdraw myself from patriarchy at large.

And no, it wasn’t fair that I had to teach him how not to perpetuate patriarchy but there aren’t many places for him to turn, so here we are.

This is where Nora Samaran’s excellent article, The Opposite Of Rape Culture Is Nurturance Culture was a real turning point for us as a couple.

As an anxious attacher, my husband is patriarchally oppressed in his own way. Who aside from our therapist could he talk to about his feelings and fear of abandonment?

There’s a narrow range of acceptable emotions for men in western society. They’re allowed to fall somewhere on a spectrum between angry – horny – triumphant.

In patriarchal culture, male feelings = fragility = feminine = must be destroyed.

And of course, I had spent so much time emasculating my husband, belittling his needs, diminishing them, mocking them, assessing them, ranking them against my own, judging them, ignoring them, and using them as weapons against him, that it wasn’t easy for us to just go, “Oh, Carmen had it all wrong. Oops! Let’s just start over.”

Anxious attachers can feel tremendous shame, partly because their spouse shames or gaslights them, partly because of an inherent sense of less-than or not-enough-ness exacerbated by the verbal and non-verbal cues the avoidant partner sends to create distance.

For an anxiously attached man, there is a palpable desire to connect but generally only one locus of fulfillment of that desire: his wife. She becomes his entire world of connection.

Whereas she can go out into the world and regularly exchange hugs, kisses, emotional disclosure and empathy – even sometimes within relatively “light” relationships with female colleagues, or damn even strangers – the most he can hope for is a handshake at work and from friends a hug with an assertive smack on the back while they’re at it.

Words of comfort, encouragement, compassion and support are readily available to most women, avoidant or not, even in the supposedly disconnecting online world of social media. Men, however, are extremely lucky to find a safe space, in real life or online, in which to say, “I feel rejected and sad.”

Both anxious and avoidant attachers have good reasons to associate having needs with being used or manipulated or perceived weak or defective.

So, compassion, people. We could all use a little more of it. This is hard stuff.

All of the attachment styles are natural, common, and understandable.

She is avoidant because he’s clawing at her. Makes sense, right?

He is anxious because she’s ghosting him emotionally. Makes sense.

They are each perceiving reality correctly, but their responses are born of trauma, and therefore make everything worse and even harder than it could be.

Certain relationships can bring out the best in us and others the worst. We can have a generally secure relationship with colleagues and family while in an anxious-avoidant dynamic with our partner. Relationships are complex and so are people.

If you’re reading this, cut yourself some slack. You’re trying. You’re doing the best you can right now and with practice you’ll do even better.

Your marriage can have good days and bad days and your attachment style can shift and evolve. There are skills of self-regulation, pattern interruption, and effective fighting, that can be learned and that help reduce the hyper vigilance of your attachment system.

Both partners are in need of some serious nervous system regulation, first.

Just like the anxious attacher, in a triggering situation the avoidant partner’s amygdala gets a whiff of threat, their hypothalamus sends the signal to the adrenals and pituitary to unleash the stress chemicals to the body, the dorsal motor vagal complex constricts the breath and blood flow and the heart starts to beat more rapidly.

For me as an avoidant attacher, it’s complete system failure. I call it “going into the concrete box.”

In these moments, something more than just “tuning out” is happening to me.

All at once, thought disappears.

I suddenly can’t stop yawning. I feel so heavy, like I’m walking through water or all my energy has drained away like a leaky bucket. I feel really cold and often start shivering. He asks me a question and I can’t formulate a full thought much less a reasonable or coherent sentence. Sometimes I can’t even really understand what he’s saying and I get angry at him for “making me feel stupid” with his tone or the length of time he’s talking at me.

I have literally fallen asleep in the middle of an argument while Ruben was talking to me. This is called hypoarousal, when the body slows down as it anticipates a period of deprivation.

Hypoarousal erects impenetrable walls around me.

Good luck trying to meet your partner’s need when you’re stuck in a concrete box.

For Ruben, his anxiety ratchets up quickly and leads to catastrophizing within minutes if not seconds. His thoughts whiz like a tornado in his head, questioning whether this signals the end of our relationship, whether he needs to find a place to sleep tonight, and mentally he winds up moving home with his parents before I have even managed to string a few words together. He says he can feel the pressure build up in the back of his head like it’s going to explode. His torso is tense and tight and all he wants is resolution, now. He wants to know, Is this the end???

Hyperarousal, the heightened state of anxiety caused by a sense of impending threat, tosses him around like a rag doll.

Stop.

Breathe.

Let’s walk through this.

There are things that couples in an anxious-avoidant dynamic can do to reduce the intensity of the pendulum swing between connection and catastrophe.

Breathe.

Deliberate breathing slows the attachment system down a bit and helps to down-cycle the distress response.

Peter Levine’s work with Somatic Experiencing uses several simple breath strategies. A simple count of 4 on the in-breath and count of 4 on the out-breath, for about three or four cycles of breath, can be enough to interrupt the series of psychobiological processes about to be unleashed.

When I’m in the concrete box, it’s the only one I can remember. Anxious attachers may find that long in-breaths increase the sense of panic and stimulate shallow chest breathing. Just find a favourite breathwork technique that works for you, there are a million. Start practicing it when you’re not in crisis so it’s easier to remember next time you’re about to walk headfirst into an argument.

Contain.

Stay in your body and track yourself. What I mean is, self-regulation can only occur if you are noticing what is happening in your body.

Start by simply touching the part of your body that feels most activated, that is most obvious to you. You might name any emotion you’re aware of that seems associate with the sensation you feel. For instance, if your heart is beating really fast, you might put your palm over your chest and say quietly, “Yeah, that’s panic.”

Sometimes naming a feeling can reduce the sensation just a little bit, enough for you to process the next piece of information. It’s like your body is screaming at you and once you say, I hear you, both verbally and through touch, it doesn’t have to yell so loudly.

If you don’t feel as though you are in your body at all, you can hug yourself with one hand under your left armpit, and the left arm squeezing the upper part of your right arm. Continue to breathe deliberately. You might affirm to yourself, “This is just what’s happening right now in my body.” This can help you locate yourself again, bringing you back into sense awareness of your body.

Slow down.

It can be really difficult to reach for awareness of your needs when you are in a state of hypo- or hyperarousal. Sometimes it helps to do a four-breath request.

It goes like this:

Say only one word per breath. (You can do this out loud or in your head.)

In-breath: “I”

Out-breath: “want/need/request”

In-breath: “some”

Out-breath: … wait for it… “___________”

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you just let a word surface?

You aren’t committed to this, you’re just trying it on.

This method of slowing down helps us remember that our state is not fixed and that perhaps we can shift or de-escalate the situation. It’s easier to do that if we can just get to the bottom of the issue and uncover our actual, true needs a little quicker.

BONUS: Divert.

Diversion may feel erasing for the anxious attacher, but if your dynamic can manage it, you may want to incorporate some distraction into the conversation as a way to discharge excess energy.

Research has shown that avoidant attachers are often better at expressing emotion and empathizing when they are distracted by an activity. This explains why I can go blank when my husband asks me point blank to tell him why I love him.

I’m an articulate person, sometimes even eloquent, but when asked directly to name qualities about him that I love, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure and put on the spot. It’s like my mind is a freshly washed chalkboard, it’s a clean slate and nothing new can stick.

Diversion tactics while talking things over might include repetitive or familiar tasks like folding laundry, making supper, doing the dishes or maybe even going for a drive (but not in stressful traffic!)

If the anxious attacher can comfortably self-soothe for long enough, it can sometimes help the avoidant attacher to do an activity while they think things over. It should be something short and time-bound, with an agreed upon commitment to return to the conversation at a specific time. I like to take a shower and wash my hair. That’s about the amount of time that Ruben can wait and I try not to push it too far beyond that. (This is a massive improvement over a couple of years ago when I’d regularly storm out of an argument, lock myself in the bathroom, and he would bang on the door or yell at me through it. #relationshipfail)

Couples’ therapy can go either way; some people find it puts them on the spot, some people find it’s nice to have a third person to referee.

As an avoidant attacher, I like going to couples’ therapy if I can talk to our counsellor with Ruben beside me, out of my line of sight. At times when I feel like Ruben isn’t hearing me, it’s easier for me to show Ruben what’s going on for me rather than tell him directly.

From the start of our relationship, I was very open with Ruben about my history of two sexual assaults and a date rape at ages 14, 16, and 23, respectively. He had always been sensitive, supportive and understanding. But when my trauma response would come up within our marriage, it seemed to me as though he forgot about it all. To Ruben, I always seemed to “together”, so self-assured, so clear and vocal about my preferences and boundaries that I didn’t appear fearful or traumatized.

When I told our counsellor, Sarah, in detail about each of my sexual assaults and how they’ve impacted me, it was like I was able to speak to Ruben though a surrogate. It created a bit of distance that enabled me to feel more free, and raw, and emotionally present, knowing that Sarah would take care of his needs. I knew he’d be devastated at hearing my pain and I just didn’t have it in me to comfort him while I was talking about being violated. I also knew he needed to be cared for while hearing these shattering stories.

When you’re not in total shit-hitting-the-fan mode but still not quite functional, what then?

How do we move to de-escalate when protest behaviour is in play?

We’re talking here about the times when you are not in the throes of a trauma response and are able to access self-awareness, able to self-regulate, and feel motivated enough to maintain connection.

Be available.

Simple. That means don’t leave the room while your partner’s talking, don’t curtail conversation with “fine”, don’t leave them hanging waiting for you to return their call, don’t leave the house with no notice and no return time, don’t be late without calling.

If you need to, agree ahead of time if a pre-written text like, “In a mtg. Call U right bk <3” is acceptable if your partner likes to be able to reach you during the day.

Find out what “being available” means to your partner and commit to a way to meet that need as consistently as possible.

And, let’s be honest: if you have avoidant tendencies, there’s a high likelihood that you also have some asshole tendencies like at times being self-absorbed and self-justifying. (There, I said it.)

Notice when you’re being an asshole in your mind, blaming your partner for not knowing that you need your space right now. If you notice you’re withdrawing, breathe. Self-regulate a bit, then communicate with them.

For instance, after you’ve self-regulated, tell your partner that although you do appreciate that they want to support your writing, you’d prefer not to be interrupted when you’re typing, even if it’s to be offered a cup of tea or a kiss on the head. Decide together how often you should take a writing break during which you can re-connect and what re-connection would feel good for each of you. It probably won’t match, but together you can find a middle ground instead of drifting apart into two opposing camps.

Give space.

If you’re the anxious partner, work hard on your self-soothing skills so you can be comfortable when your partner requests (or takes) space. Ruben found Jon Kabat-Zinn’s meditations along with his book, Full Catastrophe Living, to be helpful. I like Somatic Experiencing techniques, many of which are described in Peter Levine’s book, Waking The Tiger.

Learning to give your partner space is probably the major work required of the anxiously attached person, and the avoidant partner will need to recognize that the skill of self-regulation is built just like muscles or musical ability. Practice is required and you don’t usually notice a difference overnight. Celebrate the small successes.

Patriarchy makes it difficult for women to want space without guilt. We are told that not only do we not have a right to our bodies, we can’t trust our body’s signals anyway. (Are we sure we need space? Maybe we just need some chocolate or some wine.)

When an avoidant woman says she needs space, please for the love of all things holy, give it to her. Give it to her without questioning whether it’s really what she needs or whether it’s good for her since, After all, she’s avoidant and connection is a part of being fully human. Don’t fucking do that. Space is also a natural, normal human need.

Every minute beyond the request during which the anxious attacher is expanding upon, clarifying, re-stating, adding to, or in any other way continuing to communicate about this topic to the avoidant attacher, is an erosion of trust.

You are proving to her that you don’t really value her needs as equal to your own. She just told you what she needed and here you are, still talking, still denying her need.

If the avoidant attacher doesn’t say something to the effect of, “I hear what you’re saying, it makes sense to me, it’s important to me and valid, and I promise to remain engaged after a short break for nervous system regulation,” then they run the risk of exacerbating the anxious attacher’s distress. This could even be a power play or at the very least, a form of withholding.

Space needs to be both given and taken respectfully and with compassion.

Take responsibility for your partner’s sense of security.

Back to you avoidant partner: yes, you are responsible for this!

You’ve agreed to be in an intimate relationship with another human being. Therefore, by the very nature of being a mammal that only survived infancy by the grace of someone meeting your basic needs (and hopefully more), by only learning how to love because someone (hopefully) loved you, your brain and physiology have evolved towards interdependence, so you yes you are responsible for holding up your end of this bargain. That’s just how humans are made. Learning this is how you become fully human.

Babies don’t come out walking and talking and finding food, so everything in our biology is geared towards survival within a group, even if our group is loosely associated. That basic wiring never changes.

Biologically speaking, our partners regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, and even breathing. We are dependent on them. It’s just a fact. We are not separate from each other, so their well-being is our work.

And regardless of whether you are avoidant or anxious, just because you’ve experienced trauma that makes it difficult for you to feel securely connected doesn’t mean you’ve transcended the need nor does it absolve you from the obligation to provide a healthy, secure environment for your partner.

Your trauma doesn’t give you license to traumatize someone else.

True partnership means you are each responsible for the other’s sense of security.

Careful here: I don’t mean you are to blame for each other’s sense of security or lack of it. I mean you have a duty of care to each other’s sense of security within the relationship.

So your needs must take into account your partner’s well-being, as well.

Flip The Switch + Reduce Response Time.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that you aren’t arguing with your partner, you’re arguing with their wound.

Imagine they are the age at which you suspect their wound was inflicted.

That’s who you’re arguing with.

Would you really expect a six year old to self-soothe and stop being so “needy” of attention?

Would you hold out and make an eight year old demonstrate deep remorse for slighting you before you speak to them again?

Would you really expect an engaged, emotionally deep, two-hour dialogue from a twelve year old who’s frozen with fear about possibly losing you, who’s worried that their desire for reassurance is “immature”?

If you can hold the image of your partner as a child, you’ll have a better chance of flipping your empathy switch mid-argument.

If you can reduce your response time, (meaning the amount of time between the the distress cycle trigger and meeting the need), you lower the risk of being harmed, doing harm, and damaging your relationship.

None of us can ever un-become the five, ten, fifteen, or twenty year old we once were – they each live within our muscles and bones and cellular memory. They are the gatekeepers to our wounds and are present in every argument where there is a threat to our sense of safety, security, identity or self-worth.

Each partner has to decide they want to do better and then compassionately communicate their needs to the other and explicitly reinforce their desire to meet the need of the other:

“I hear what you’re saying and your feelings are important to me.”

“That’s really hard to hear because that wasn’t my intention. But I understand you can’t experience my intentions, only my impact, and the feelings you’re having right now.”

“It makes sense to me that you’re feeling that way.”

“I need a couple minutes here because I’m also in my feelings right now, but I want you to know that I do want to meet your need for ______ . I just have to find my way back to a less agitated state first.”

If you can’t avoid the blow up, then at least fight honourably.

If you only remember three things from this article, pray let them be these.

This is how to fight with harm-reduction in mind.

1) Don’t generalize. Meet the need.

Guess what? Telling your partner that they’re “a terrible communicator” is terrible communication.

When you’re fighting, be specific. Speak from the “I”. Use feeling words.

“When you don’t call to say you’ll be late, I feel…”

“When you say, I’m not cut out for marriage, I feel…”

“When you forgot to run the errand I asked, I felt…”

If you’re extrapolating from this situation to cast the Light Of Truth on other similar scenarios in your relationship, you’re in trouble.

If you’re starting sentences with the word “You”, you’re in trouble.

If you’re saying things like “always” and “never”, you’re in trouble.

Back up. Breathe. Contain. Slow down.

Remind your partner (and yourself) that their needs do matter by asking questions, trying to stay open to the possibility that there might be a misunderstanding here (ya think?), and being willing to at least consider how you might make them feel more secure in this moment.

2) Don’t bring up the past. Meet the need.

If you spend time trying to reconstruct other points in time, in other contexts and under different circumstances, and waste energy attempting to illustrate how they are relevant to this situation, you won’t have any inner resources available to you with which to attend to what is happening now.

The past isn’t fixable. It can’t be undone.

Give up the grudge. Be pro-relationship: put “we” before “me”. Let go and be here with your partner, now.

Communicate to your partner, I want to relieve your distress, even if I’m the one distressing you. I am here with you now and there’s no other thing more important to me than working this out with you.

3) Don’t debate. Meet the need.

What’s the best way to extend an argument into hours or even days? I’ll give you one magic phrase!

“That’s not what I said.”

Well, it doesn’t fucking matter, does it, my friend? Because now it’s four fucking a.m. and you’ve got to wake the kid up in two hours and get them ready for school and you haven’t even finished the presentation you were supposed to polish off last night that you’re scheduled to deliver in the morning meeting at work because you’ve been at each other’s throats circling the wild country of each of your abandonment wounds all. night. long.

So STFU That’s not what I said.

Focus on the needs. Yours and theirs.

If you want, later on you can debate who did what, said what, started what, neglected what. Now is not the time.

In an intimacy-based argument, once the distress cycle has been triggered there literally is not the cognitive capacity available to even perceive much less remember things accurately.

If you’re having a bread-and-butter argument about whether to order Chinese food or pizza, by all means, break out the PowerPoint if you really feel passionately about the issue. Feel free to take all the time you want to get your point across.

But if you’re having an intimacy-based argument which is triggering habitual responses based in trauma, the details really, honestly, won’t make a difference. Neither of you, from a biological standpoint, are able to be rational right now.

Focus on the needs.

Remember that the avoidant partner may be unaware of their needs and may need time or space to identify and articulate them. You may need to lay this conversation down temporarily. Again, it’s just biology.

Take this opportunity to practice some self-regulation. Try to access the space within you wherein resides your capacity to give a shit about your partner’s wellbeing even though they’re wrong and you’re right. Even though you’re fucking exhausted. Even though you’re not sure this is worthwhile anymore.

Find that tiny little place within you where you do care about their needs and do what you can to fulfill their need for security.

Ultimately, in order for an avoidant-anxious match to survive, I believe two things have to happen pretty much simultaneously:

1A) The anxious partner has to learn how to self-regulate while the avoidant partner is taking space to process.

1B) The avoidant partner has to recognize that they are the ones who hold the power to pivot the relationship to a more secure place.

Both partners have to want to evolve themselves towards a secure attachment style.

The avoidant partner has to commit to growing her self-awareness and summon the will to intervene on behalf of the relationship when she notices she’s withdrawing. She has to find the wherewithal to stop her pattern of isolating. She must learn how to both give and receive nurturance. She has to accept that needs are human and without them, she is not quite fully whole.

The anxious partner has to commit to developing self-soothing capacities while he gives his partner more space to feel safe and heard and that her needs are respected. He has to summon the patience to wait and quell the urge towards protest behaviour. He must also recognize that she can’t be his only outlet for nurturance and security in his life. He must learn to be both vulnerable and nurturing with other men, too.

Attachment style is programmed but, thankfully, it’s plastic.

We can change our attachment style and become more secure.

If the anxious-avoidant couple wish to remain together but don’t both address their abandonment wounds and work towards developing a more secure attachment style, then one partner will have to make a unilateral compromise on having their needs met and cross their fingers that they can live out their days in that arrangement.

Best of luck with that.

Although most people will start with self-help books, I highly recommend you find a therapeutic practitioner who understands the complex ecosystem of abandonment, attachment, trauma, and oppression, and takes a critical approach to the impact of patriarchal culture on relationships.

Quite frankly, I find a lot of the the self-help books I’ve read to be quite problematic in their assumptions and normalization of patriarchal culture – the role of patriarchy is never even mentioned!

It took me and Ruben six years of effort (and thousands of dollars) before realizing that no therapist had ever mentioned that patriarchy might be putting stress on our relationship.

I hope this article is a helpful start towards orienting away from each other as the source of your problems and placing at least some measure of blame on the culture itself. If you do that, you may find some shared consolation in the grief that comes after…after you realize how much hurt you’ve been causing because you’ve been hurt because the culture is hurtful.

And there is much grief in feeling like a failure, which I feel pretty much every time we argue.

But I’m coming to a place of solace within our shared grief. I know Ruben hurts as much as I do for the exact same reasons.

Grief is a form of praise. Grief says, “I care about this person, this relationship, and it has been lost or hurt or violated and my heart is breaking. I love it that much.”

So sometimes, when I feel like a failure because we are fighting, I can stop the fighting by allowing myself to just slip into grief. Ruben understands that grief is a form of love.

Sometimes the quickest way to stop our feud and get back to our love is to slip beneath the still surface of the well of grief.

When we do that, together, it feels easier to accept that this was just the best we could do this time. It doesn’t mean that everything is lost. Just this time, this was the best we could do.

Ruben is not the type of person who spends too much time thinking about optimizing health or wellbeing. When he has aches and pains or changes in his metabolism, he doesn’t book in with the doctor or naturopath, he doesn’t increase his omega 3 fat intake or look into paleo diets.

Instead, he says to himself, “This is just what my body is doing right now.”

There’s a kind of loving acceptance of what is.

Lately, when I am in that rare, bright moment of being able to flip the switch and respond to Ruben’s needs in the heat of an argument, I’ve started saying,

“This is just what we’re doing right now.”

I’ve used his words, so when he hears me say them, his mind and his body know what they mean at the deepest level.

I don’t have to say very much more to help soothe him, because he instinctively knows that this is what acceptance feels like.

“This is sucky, but it’s just what we’re doing right now.”

I’ve also started to move closer to him and touch him or sit in his lap as soon as I notice that I’ve reach a point of calmness, because I know that’s what he needs. I try to notice earlier in my process when I am able to give him more lifeline.

And sometimes the end point of these conversations is just to look at each other sadly.

No miracles of transcendence. But no careening head first into the pit of despair, either.

Just good-hearted acceptance of doing the best you can and this is what it is right now.

We accept that marriage isn’t just hard, it’s unfair. There are huge swaths of injustice that go both ways. But we still love each other.

We witness each other’s grief and rage and fear and wounds.

We learn how to feel those things without projecting them onto each other.

We remember that our need for each other is a vital part of being fully human.

This is what we’re doing right now.

Now What?

Join Carmen Spagnola and Ruben Anderson for Ritual + Practice for the Urban Homestead on Cortes Island, September 28 – October 3, 2018

Comments
  • Jeff L
    Reply

    I’ve read about half of this so far. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been through many similar experiences. I found EFT particularly helpful in my own marriage. I look forward to reading the rest. Cheers!

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