Handling Conflict (Part 2 – Co-regulation)

Posted on November 8, 2019


This is the script from the second of three College of Marriage session on Handling Conflict.  The videos of the lecture portion on still being edited.  I will post the links once they are available.

Welcome to The College of Marriage, Session 5.  This is the second of three sessions on handling conflict.  Today we are going to talk about what therapists call co-regulation.

Today, we want to look at handling conflict through an emotionally focused therapy attachment lens.

I would like to start by giving some background on attachment theory because it applies here.  The Strange Situation.  There was an experiment conducted by Mary Ainsworth back in the 1960’s.  A mother and her toddler would be a room together with the experimenter.  Mom and the experimenter would be talking together while the child plays on the floor.  Then mom gets up and leaves the room.  Most toddlers will start to cry.  They may go to the door and try to get it open to find mom.  Then mom comes back and the toddler wants to be picked up and comforted.

This is normal secure attachment.  When the attachment figure (mom) is not available, the normal response is protest.  When mom returns, the child seeks comfort from mom.

Another experiment was conducted with moms and infants that is called The Still Face.  The experiment was pretty simple.  Mom was instructed to just keep her expression blank in front of the infant.  What happens is that the infant will start trying to do things to get mom’s attention.  When that doesn’t work, the infant becomes distressed and starts crying.  This, too, is normal attachment protest.  When our attachment figure is unresponsive, it is distressing to us.

Before we go on, we are going to insert a 3 minute video that will show you the blank face experiment and attachment in action.

When an attachment figure is unresponsive or unavailable, the normal response is protest.  If over time our attachment figure continues to be unresponsive, the next response is despair.  If there continues to be no responsiveness to attachment protest, the child eventually detaches.  This makes sense.  As we discussed in the first session, human beings are made for relationship with each other.  Isolation creates tremendous psychological pain.  Eventually, the only way to cope with the pain is to detach.

This does not go away when we become adults.  It just looks a little different.  When our attachment figure (usually our spouse) is unresponsive, the normal response is protest.  If this becomes the norm for too long, the result is despair, and then eventually, detachment.

When a couple comes in for therapy, the level of the couple’s distress is not a problem.  Highly distressed couples can do some beautiful work in a comparatively short amount of time.  What is scary is when one of the partners has completely emotionally detached.  Then we are in the danger zone.

Now we are going to talk about The Negative Cycle that couples get into.  In EFT, the first stage is identifying and working on the negative cycle in which the couple is stuck.  There is a dance that the two of you do when you are not getting along.  This is not dissimilar to the Pain Cycle we looked at last week, but focuses more on unmet attachment needs.

Pull out your “Negative Cycle” form, and let’s look at it together.

  • At the top are the behaviors.  When you two aren’t getting along, you each have things you do.  The most common negative cycle that we see has one partner who pursues and one partner who withdraws.  Both pursuers and withdrawers do what they do to try to protect the relationship.  Pursuers pursue because having us disconnected is too painful.  For a serious pursuer, any response out of your partner is better than none.  Withdrawers withdraw because it feels really unsafe when you are mad at me.  If I can just go to ground long enough, this will blow over and we will be okay.  If I engage, it will escalate, and that will be worse for me.  A serious withdrawer may stop responding or leave the premises.  Essentially, “you can drop all of the bombs you want, I am not coming out.”
  • The next level is about the story you tell yourself about what is going on.  Some examples might be “You don’t care about me.  My needs don’t matter to you.  You just want to hurt me.  You are just mean.  You just want to pick a fight.  You really want out of the relationship.”
  • Reactive Emotions. This is almost always the anger and frustration that gets expressed.  This is often about the depth of each partner’s understanding of their own experience.  I know it makes me mad, but there is usually some more core emotional experience going on here.
  • Core Emotions. Now we get down below the waterline.  Our assumption is that the anger and frustration is a reactive response.  There is something more core happening here.
    • As we talk about this, let me first talk about Men and emotions. In male culture, we have 2 socially acceptable emotions.  1) I feel good and am therefore, happy.  2) I feel bad and I’m angry.  We are not good at identifying fear, sadness, hurt, or loneliness in ourselves.  We have those emotions, but we learned we weren’t supposed to so we learned to push them down.  If it feels bad, I’m mad.
    • In male culture, we are also continually challenged with, “Are you good enough? Do you have what it takes?”  No matter how successful we are, there is still a part of us that fears that the answer to that question is “no.”  If in our closest relationship, we feel that we are being told that we don’t have what it takes, we don’t show you the fear and pain.  We don’t know how to identify those.  We show you the anger.
    • Consequently, you may need to really reflect on what is happening for you when we are in a fight. I know I am angry? But might I also be lonely, or afraid, or hurt.
  • At the bottom of this pain cycle are our Attachment needs. These are those deeper needs for connection that we all have.  We all need to feel loved and valued.  We need to feel safe and secure.  We need appreciation, to feel successful, to feel good enough, to feel respected.

This brings us around to the couple exercise.  The reason this matters is that when we aren’t getting along, it feels like your partner is the problem in the relationship.  Your partner starts to look like the enemy.  Your partner is not the enemy.  You and your relationship have a common enemy in the negative cycle.  So, As a couple, work through your negative cycle.  The top of this is probably the easiest.  We recognize what we each do when we aren’t getting along.  It gets a little tougher as we go deeper.  It may take some comparing experiences.  As you are doing this, try to make it a team effort.  Go ahead and pause the video and take some time with that.

Now let’s compare the Pain cycle vs. Negative cycle.  How is this week different from last week?

  • Last week was about self-regulation. You were recognizing that what you were doing was a coping strategy for the pain you were feeling.  You were reclaiming your truth to allow yourself to self-soothe well enough to respond differently, that is, more productively.
  • This week is about co-regulation. This is about
    • Recognizing the negative cycle as the enemy of the relationship.
    • Turning to your partner for the care comfort and support that you need.
    • Experiencing your partner as “safe” and wanting to meet your needs.
  • What does it mean to experience your partner as safe?
    • I can be vulnerable with you.
    • I can show you those core emotions and attachment needs and you will treat them as legitimate and important.
    • You won’t use my vulnerability against me later.
  • In Emotionally Focused Therapy, there is an entire phase of therapy where we work on softening the pursuer and reengaging the withdrawer. We help both express their needs for connection, to feel loved and value, safe and protected, appreciated and respected.  When you can turn to your partner, express that deeper need, and have your partner respond with empathy, caring, and compassion, there is real healing to the relationship.

Let’s talk about Homework for this week: First, do you see yourself as more of a pursuer or a withdrawer?  Talk about this together.  Does your partner agree?  Your first reaction may not be accurate.  When I first heard these descriptions myself, I immediately thought of myself as a pursuer.  I regularly pursue for connection with my wife.  I later recognized that In another close relationship, I found myself withdrawing when the other person was upset.  It felt really big and unsafe.  When things feel unsafe,  my nature is actually to be more of a withdrawer, but since I experience my wife as safe, it doesn’t play out for me that way in my marriage.  Second piece of homework, When you don’t connect or when you become angry, note what is happening for you.  After the fact, consider if there was a core emotion underneath your anger.  What was it you needed from your partner?  If you can, in a time of non-conflict, discuss this with your partner.

That’s going to wrap us up for this session.  Next week, we will work on some skills for managing conflict resolution.