I recently stumbled across a new blog called Infinite Daze where the author poignantly writes about her daily struggles with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). In a recent post titled Should I Stay or Should I Go Now, she has this to say about her marriage:
“I had a revelation today. During my son’s graduation ceremony at his high school, my husband came up to me and squatted down next to my wheelchair to share a story with me. Without thinking I ran my hand over his hair and down his arm. I’m still in love with this guy. He can be very nice. He can be very sweet. I married him because of this. This is why I find his behavior so baffling. I’ve known this guy just shy of 25 years. That is a long time. The meanness, the temper tantrums, the spitefulness is all new. I’ve never seen this in him before. Living with someone for 25 years means this isn’t behavior that has been hidden away. It is brand spanking new. It is why I’ve been blindsided with it. I so didn’t see this coming. It also makes the whole idea of divorce so messy. If he was always nasty this would be a no-brainer. I would up and leave in a heartbeat. But he swings hot and cold. One day he is super nice to me; takes good care of me and even gives me hugs. The next day he is slamming doors and telling me he wants out. I am so very confused.”
Ever feel like you’re living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Your partner is warm, loving and compassionate one moment and angry, silent or indifferent the next. What’s up with that? You’ve most likely rubbed your partner’s “raw spot.”
We all struggle with vulnerable feelings in love whether we want to admit it or not. It’s inevitable that we will hurt each other with careless words or selfish actions. While these occasions sting, the pain is often fleeting and we get over it quickly. But according to Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, almost all of us have at least one hypersensitivity – a raw spot in our emotional skin– that is tender to the touch, easily rubbed, and deeply painful. When this spot gets rubbed often enough, it can bleed all over our relationship.
For those of us in chronic marriages, this hypersensitivity can emerge seemingly out of nowhere at the onset of our illness when the need for support from our partner is particularly intense, but it doesn’t come. When our need for attachment and connection is repeatedly neglected, ignored or dismissed, it results in two potential raw spots: feeling emotionally deprived or deserted/abandoned.
I know my raw spot rather well. When I hear a tone of impatience in my husband’s voice (chronic illness-related or not), I get angry and defensive. It sends me back to days when my father would dismiss me as not being important or worthy enough of his time. My father’s impatience was his way of disconnecting from the relationship. This experience made me hypersensitive – impatience signals emotional abandonment to me.
Many of us have no idea what our own raw spots are, let alone our partners’. We simply get caught up in the same old vicious cycle of petty squabbles and conflicts when in actuality they are symptoms of a raw and tender spot on our emotional skin.
So how do you identify your raw spot?
Think about a time in your marriage when you got suddenly thrown off balance, when a small response or lack of response suddenly seemed to change your sense of safety or connection with your spouse, or when you got totally caught up in reacting in a way that you knew would spiral you into your usual dysfunctional pattern of relating. Maybe you are aware of a moment when you found yourself reacting very angrily or numbing out.
Let’s unpack this incident:
- What was happening in the relationship? What was the trigger that created a sense of emotional disconnection for you? What was your general feeling in the split second before you reacted and got mad or numb? What did your spouse specifically do or say that sparked this response?
- As you think of a moment when your own raw spot is rubbed, what happens to your body? You might feel spacey, detached, hot, breathless, tight in the chest, very small, empty, shaky, tearful, cold, on fire.
- What does your brain decide about the meaning of all this? What do you say to yourself when this happens?
- What did you do then? How do you move into action?
- See if you can tie in all these elements together by filling in the blanks below:
In this incident, the trigger for my raw feeling was _________. On the surface, I probably showed _____________. But deep down, I just felt (pick one of the basic negative emotions, sadness, anger, shame, fear). What I longed for was ___________. The main message I got about our bond, about me or my love was _________________.
Here are some common scenarios:
You experience a flare-up and it’s worse than usual. You are really struggling and looking for support and empathy from your husband. He begins to suggest ways you can get your flare-up under control. You hear his suggestions as him lecturing you. In your head you say to yourself, “He’s judging me. He’s not with me in this. I have to do this all on my own. My need for support doesn’t matter. This is scary”. What happens next? You start yelling and tell him he’s a jerk and you don’t need his help anyway.
Or how about this scenario?
Your husband asks you to watch a movie with him on the couch after dinner. Your head is pounding from a migraine and you tell him you’re tired and going to bed. The next morning you ask him if a certain outfit looks good on you. He says “it’s OK but since when does my opinion really make a difference here? Wear what you want. What I want is irrelevant.” Still stuck in feelings of rejection from the previous night, his sadness over lack of connection with you force him into withdrawal and giving you the silent treatment.
In both scenarios, rage and withdrawal mask the emotions that are central in vulnerability: sadness, shame, and most of all, fear.
If you find yourself continually stuck in an unhealthy pattern of relating with your spouse, you can bet it is being sparked by attempts to deal with the pain of a sore spot, or more likely, sore spots in both of you. And unfortunately, your raw spots almost inevitably rub against your spouse’s. Rub one in your spouse, and his or her reaction often irritates one in you.
What’s the dead giveaway that tells you your raw spot or your spouse’s raw spot has been hit?
First, there is a sudden and radical shift in the emotional tone of the conversation. You and your spouse were joking just a minute ago, but now one of you is upset or angry, or, conversely, aloof and cold. You are thrown off balance. It’s as if the rules changed and no one told you.
Second, your spouse’s reaction to a perceived offense seems way out of proportion.
These signs are all about attachment needs and fears popping up. They are all about our deepest and most powerful emotions suddenly taking over. We get set to move in a particular way, toward, away from, or against our spouse. This readiness to act is wired into every emotion. Anger tells us to approach and fight. Shame tells us to withdraw and hide. Fear tells us to flee or freeze, or in real extremes to turn back and attack back. Sadness tells us to grieve and let go.
All this happens in a nanosecond.
Stopping these destructive patterns depends not only on identifying and stopping our unhealthy ways of relating but also on finding and soothing our raw spots and helping our spouse to do the same.
Here’s how you do just that:
- Stop the Game – one or both of you has to say “Can we stop this? This is the place we always go. We get trapped here and we end up totally exhausted and defeated.”
- Claim Your Own Moves – together come up with a short summary of your moves. e.g. you lose it while your spouse pretends not to be affected; you get louder and threaten; your spouse sees you as impossible and withdraws.
- Claim Your Own Feelings – talk about your own feelings rather than focusing on your spouse and blaming everything on him/her.
- Own How You Shape Your Partner’s Feelings – Recognize how your usual way of dealing with your emotions pulls your spouse off balance and turns on deeper attachment fears.
- Ask About Your Partner’s Deeper Emotions – Look at the big picture and slow down a little. Begin to be curious about your spouse’s softer, underlying emotions, rather than just listening to your own hurts and fears and assuming the worst about your spouse.
- Share Your Own Deeper, Softer Emotions – Although voicing your deepest emotions, especially fears around not being connected or attached to your spouse, may be the most difficult step for you, it is also the most rewarding. Let your spouse see what’s really at stake when you argue.
- Stand Together – Take the above steps and forge a renewed and true partnership. You now have a common ground and cause. You no longer see each other as enemies but allies. You can take control of escalating negative conversations that feed your insecurities and face those insecurities together.
Content for this article has been adapted from the book Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.
© Copyright 2011 by Helena Madsen, MA, therapist in Gilberts, Illinois. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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