What Just Happened?

Posted on May 22, 2014


“Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.” Lennon/McCartney

“And I’m standing here, and you’re miles away, and I’m wondering why you left.”  John Waite

“I don’t understand what she needed.  I gave her everything; she threw it all away on nothing.”  Tom Petty

“Something inside has died that I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it.”  Carole King

Bridge seems to be a pastime that has fallen in popularity.  It seems to me that a large percentage of my parents’ generation played the game.  There are fewer in my generation, and fewer still in my kids’ generation.  Perhaps TV and computer games now trump card playing as recreation, but I don’t know.  For me, one of the joys of the game is the post mortem.  That is where after the hand you discuss how the bidding and play progressed and often what your thinking was as you played the hand.

There is a pop music staple wherein the singer (usually male) has somehow been denied the post mortem on the romantic relationship.  She left, and he is left to wonder what happened.  There is no denying that “Yesterday” is a pop masterpiece.  However, in my experience, situations where the woman disappears without a word of explanation are mostly the stuff of TV mysteries.  I don’t know too many people who have had that experience.  More often, she has been trying to communicate for some time her level of dissatisfaction with the relationship, but he hasn’t heard it.  Generally, when we do a post mortem on the relationship, it becomes fairly clear what happened.  It turns out not to be such a great mystery.

The following link is for an article by Dr. Kristin Davis that explores “when is a marriage past the point of no return?”  Go take a look, then come back and we’ll talk.   http://living.msn.com/love-relationships/when-is-a-marriage-past-the-point-of-no-return#tscptme

Let’s talk a little about attachment.  Throughout our lives, it is a basic human need to have someone to whom we matter, to whom we can turn in times of stress and distress for comfort, and who will be responsive to us and engage with us.  When we are children this is usually Mom and/or Dad.  When we get to be adults, this is usually a spouse or partner.

Mary Ainsworth (1970) conducted an experiment with toddlers called “The Strange Situation.”  Briefly, mom and child are sitting in a playroom.  Child is playing happily.  The experimenter comes in to talk to mom for a minute, then mom leaves the room.  Child notices mom gone and starts to cry.  Mom comes back and comforts the child.  This is a description of secure attachment.  We are distressed when our attachment figure is not available to us, and our normal response is to protest.  We seek comfort and restoration with that attachment figure after the distress.

One of the most common complaints that bring couples into therapy is “communication problems.”  Generally, I find that both partners are very articulate capable communicators.  What has really happened is that they have fallen into a negative cycle wherein their patterns of communication result in escalating arguments and feelings of being misunderstood, hurt, abandoned, and disconnected from one’s partner.  Underneath all of the conflict are some unmet needs for attachment that fuel the negative cycle.  Just as when the toddler noticed that mom was gone and protested, as adults the natural response to our partner not being emotionally available is protest.  The more the partner is seen as unresponsive to our needs, the louder the protest.

Whether it is with children or adults, the normal response to the person to whom we are attached being unavailable or unresponsive is protest.  If this unavailability continues, it eventually turns to despair, and finally, detachment.  When we feel disconnected from our partner, we protest the disconnection.  If that protest does not result in our needs getting met, we eventually come to a point of despairing that our needs will ever be met.  Finally, it is just too painful to be in despair and longing for connection so we detach.

A few comments regarding Davis’ article.  Generally, if you ask husbands and wives to rate the quality of their relationship on a 10 point scale, the husband will give a higher rating than the wife will.  Much of the time for men, if we aren’t fighting, everything must be okay.  Both genders have the same needs for attachment, but often what a man needs to have those needs met is pretty simple.  Additionally, when the negative cycles have really beset a relationship, it does become difficult to remember a time when things were good.

What about this idea of a “point of no return?”  It is true that it is difficult to come back from a state of detachment.  This is different than disconnection.  Both partners may feel disconnected but still long to have their needs met in the relationship.  Detachment is when your partner is no longer your attachment figure.  There is no longer a desire to connect or be comforted by that person.  Just because one partner has suggested divorce does not mean that you have reached that place of detachment.  This could in fact be the biggest attachment protest.  “Respond to me or I will leave.”  Detachment should also not be confused with one partner’s tendency to withdraw when conflict starts.  The withdrawing partner does so in a failed attempt to protect the relationship from escalating conflict.  Sadly, this often fuels the escalation of arguments.

My working assumption is that if both partners come into marriage counseling, both still have some desire to have things be better with their partner.  Detached partners are usually not interested in marital counseling.  Where is the point of no return?  When one partner no longer has interest in working on the relationship.  If you are both sitting here, there is still hope.