Tom and Cindy came into the office for marriage counseling due to the fact that according to Cindy her spouse wouldn’t open up to her with his feelings. According to Tom, talking about one’s feelings isn’t something he experienced while growing up with his three other siblings. In fact, life in his family was without much physical affection and more on instruction on task accomplishment. He learned quickly that in his family if he was responsible in his grades and in his sports activities that there would be a connection between him and his parents. Fast forward into adulthood, his wife Cindy struggles to have any meaningful conversation with him other than talk about the kids or what bill should be paid in the upcoming week. According to Cindy, Tom is a very responsible husband who prides himself on his job success and the lifestyle he is able to provide for his family. But as far as the two of them making time to have a conversation about feelings of his innermost thoughts with her somehow that part of Tom is nowhere to be found leaving Cindy feeling alone in her marriage.
This scenario is all too familiar in the dynamic of couples coming in for marriage counseling. Inevitably, one of the partners internalizes the stress and frustrations of life while the other is doing everything they can to get their partner to open up and speak to them. After a while the relationship begins to morph into a gradual emotional pulling away of two people becoming distant with one another out of frustration, anger, and bitterness. The focus begins to center on something peripheral such as physical intimacy, parenting, money-anything that the couple can latch on to-becomes the center of their dysfunctional attention. In some instances one of the partners tries reading self-help books, or reach out to a trusted friend for advice or comfort. Other times, a spouse may self-medicate with drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling-anything to try to escape from the pain of the present problem between them and their partner. In each of their coping strategies their behaviors are a deeper reflection and reminiscent of how they tried to cope with a stressful/frustrating event that took place when they were children growing up in their families of origin.
According to developmental research of children growing up between birth to about 12/13 years of age-how a child interacts with his parents when a stressful/anxious event occurs is largely dependent on whether the parents help their child process what is happening to them. The three common factors for a child to work through such an occurrence are: 1) Physical Touch-embracing/holding the child as he/she communicates what has happened to them; 2) Safety in communicating to the parents without being judged, stifled, interrupted, etc.; 3) Affirmation– that the topic of discussion is important to the parent just as it is to the child. The key here is that the environment where the child came from with stress or rupture is a confrontational atmosphere and he/she is needing to deposit that occurrence in the safe and loving environment of his/her parents. If there is a safe nurturing connection between the child and parents there is a neural pathway being developed that teaches the child how to process with words and feelings when stress occurs in their life. Therefore, by the time the child grows into an adult he/she is equipped with the proper communication tools for emotional intimacy. Sadly, many men interpret intimacy exclusively within a physical context. Research indicates that men require 2-3X more skin to skin contact for intimacy than a woman. Conversely, a woman interprets intimacy through communication and participation. In other words, the general or average amount of words a woman speaks per day is between 11-13,000 words as the verbal dynamic of communication gives her a sense of connectedness with others. Translated in a marriage and she is looking to use words to communicate. The problem is that according to research again, a man on average/generally speaks between 2-3,000 words daily-big difference between the genders! Women on the other hand are looking for the emotional intimacy through communication before the physical intimacy. What often plays a backdrop to this dichotomy of sexes and intimacy is that generally boys grow up in a culture of sports/domination of others/competition along with poor parental training when it comes to talking through life stresses using words and feelings. According to the Attachment theory, the early years of childhood produce two(2) types of memory: 1) Explicit-where the child is able to use descriptive words or pictures to communicate a story or a sequence of events; and, Implicit-where the individual experiences life through voice tones, feelings, and body sensations when responding to their parents and environment-good and bad experiences. This part of the brain does not require conscious processing for memory recall. The problem is that many adults do not recall being comforted after a time of emotional distress when they were significantly upset. With that emotional connection lacking, they learn to restrict emotions and minimize as adults whatever stress is occurring in their marriage and/or in their personal life. Not knowing about the implicit memory of their childhood imprisons the husband and/or the wife from being able to feel safe and to clearly communicate the emotions going on inside of them. The cultural expectation is that girls do the talking while boys are physical and play in competitive sports. Unfortunately, the little girl who was talking with her friends and the little boy hanging out with his sports friends both eventually grow up into adults, meet each other, but have little or no understanding in how to develop a meaningful relationship beyond physical intimacy. A marriage license is really a work permit-not one that goes to work on your partner but one that works on you making the changes!
Why Do Relational Problems Develop?
Present day hurts in a relationship often involve triggers. For example, a husband’s stressful encounter with his wife can be internalized throughout the day that makes him feel similar unpleasant feelings to what he felt with his parents as a child. These old feelings can ignite his current feelings to the extent that he reacts to his wife without seeing the connection to his past in the way he dealt with stress as a child. The encounter with his spouse focuses on the present to which he may escalate or withdraw. The way of his thinking takes him to a coping zone where the discomfort of stress(current) is replicated with how he managed those same feelings as a child(past). The problem is that of instead of engaging in discussing his thoughts and feelings he runs away, compartmentalizes, or escalates in anger. Therefore, in order to grow up developmentally and emotionally one must recognize that the life stress coping mechanisms developed from childhood are a cover-up or a mask in the uncomfortable territory of one’s feelings. Feelings that were once covered up from not experiencing safety, nurture, comfort, and support. The inability to communicate a wide range of emotions in socially acceptable ways results in the inability to negotiate, compromise, and sometimes delay gratification when conflict and life challenges present themselves.
The following are identifying points of insecure bonding:
- Inadequate modeling, teaching from parents where they were able to bond with other emotionally and physically while being able to give and receive comfort and love with an awareness of their own feelings and needs as well as the feelings and needs of others.
- Roles of defenses learned in childhood that protected the child then, but if maintained into adulthood, will hinder or stunt emotional connectedness in the present.
- Wrong priorities such as an over focus on sexual intimacy, children, money, etc. to the detriment of the marriage.
- Day to day as well as significant life stressors that can push emotional reactivity and/or withdraw to the forefront.
- Constant or chronic conflict without the healthy resolution of emotional connectedness with one’s spouse may produce resentment, bitterness, and anger.
The decision to address our defense mechanisms requires humility and vulnerability(showing the hurt and the pain) rather than to blame, criticize, or verbally attack. One of the best predictors of marital happiness and success is to begin to identify how stress is typically managed, self-awareness, and finally how to redesign/rethink how to repair when stress happens.
By Bob Good, M.A., Th.M., LPC-S, CART