It’s Not About Biting Your Tongue

Posted on August 23, 2012


In an earlier post, I had cited research that identified the factors that are most predictive of success in marital therapy.  As with all therapy, the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client is the best predictor of success.  An emotionally safe and secure relationship is inherently healing whatever the context.  For marital therapy, the other factors that predict success are 1) the wife’s belief that the husband still loves her, and 2) the husband’s ability to handle his wife’s negative affect.  These two factors go hand in hand.  The better the husband is able to stay present and hear his wife’s distress, the more she believes he still loves her.  I hear from many clients (married couples and individual clients alike) that one of the great stressors they experience is a sense of isolation and disconnection.  Isolation is inherently traumatizing (even deadly) to human beings.  We are designed for relationship, and we do very poorly without it.  From cradle to grave, the empathic presence of another person to whom we are attached is the air we breathe.

Consequently, it is not surprising that in attachment relationships (e.g. husband-wife, parent-child) any response is better than none at all (as Susan Johnson has often observed).  Parents note that children will go to any length to gain the parent’s attention.  Children will endure reprimands and punishment to gain the attention of their attachment figure at moments when they are not feeling secure.  Any response is better than none.  The acting out is a protest of the perceived unavailability of the attachment figure (i.e. the parent).  When we become adults, we do not outgrow the need for secure attachment.  When we feel secure that our partner is there for us, will be emotionally available, will provide comfort and support for life’s stresses, then we can boldly face that which life throws at us.  When we don’t feel secure in that relationship, we protest.  What this most commonly looks like in a marriage is a negative cycle in which one partner pursues and the other withdraws.  This is essentially a failed attempt to get one’s needs met, but it makes sense in the context of attachment.  When the pursuing partner is experiencing a lack of connection and support from the withdrawing partner, the pursuer protests the disconnection.  Usually this comes across as anger.  The withdrawing partner finds this flood of anger overwhelming and withdraws to try to keep the argument from escalating.  This only further fuels the cycle.  The protests of the pursuer become louder, more aggressive (anything to get a response).  The withdrawer may even physically withdraw by leaving the room.  The cycle leaves both feeling disconnected, hurt, sad, and lonely.  The pursuer perceives, “You are not there for me.”  The withdrawer perceives, “You are not safe.”  In about two thirds of the marriages that experience this pattern, it is the wife who pursues and the husband who withdraws.  Hence, the balm to heal this wound is the husband’s ability to stay present and empathic when the wife expresses negative emotions.  When he can do this, her experience is, “He still loves me.”

I shared this with the husband of a couple who experience this pattern in their relationship.  He was able to connect with the idea that his wife’s pursuit was a protest of the disconnection she felt when he would walk away during an argument.  Grasping the concept, he said, “so I need to just bite my tongue.”  The answer is that it is not about biting one’s tongue.  It is not about enduring verbal abuse either.  It is about staying emotionally present.  It is about being able to enter your partner’s experience and understand what is happening for her in that moment.

Of course this is easier said (or written) than done.  It is not an easy thing to enter into another’s experience when one is feeling attacked by the other.  Years of relationship history in which this pattern has become firmly entrenched make it difficult to root out.  Learning to defeat the negative cycle together may require the support of a therapist.  However, here is an experiment you can try at home.  If your tendency is to withdraw (if you are the husband, two thirds of the time this is you), practice entering into your partner’s experience.  When your wife tells you a story, try to reflect what she was feeling when that happened.  Was she happy, surprised, sad, angry, frustrated, hurt, lonely, afraid?  Whatever you think it was, reflect it back.  “It sounds like that was frustrating.”  “You must have been really hurt.”  If you get it wrong, she will tell you.  Being wrong is not a problem.  Being emotionally unavailable is problematic.  The exercise is about learning to empathize.  The message is, “I get you.  I am here for you.  You are not alone.”

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).