Love & Sex
Couples who come for therapy are usually stuck with issues they are trying to resolve.
They are on guard, feeling that their entire relationship is threatened with the distance they are experiencing.
But I find that a number of them can solve their own problems if they find a self-help book that gives has sound advice, is easy to follow, and has useful exercises to practise the theory.
Hold Me Tight by Dr Sue Johnson is just such a book. She suggests that we should forget about learning how to argue better and stop analysing how our early childhoods have affected us.
"Grand romantic gestures or experiments with new sexual positions" are not going to help either, she says.
Instead, she focuses on the core issues of how we are emotionally attached and dependent on our partner, in much the same way as a child is dependent on a parent for nurturing, soothing and protection.
Here is an excerpt:
"The basic issue is that Sally just doesn't know anything about money" declares Jay. "She ...has a problem trusting me and just letting me manage it." Sally explodes "Yeah right! As usual the problem is me... We just went out and bought ...that car we don't need and can't afford. You just do what you want. My take on this never counts with you anyway. In fact I don't count with you, period!"
Nat and Carrie sit in stubborn silence until Carrie... sobs out how shocked and betrayed she feels about Nat's affair. Nat with an air of frustration ticks off his reasons for the affair. "I've told you again and again why it happened. I've come clean. And jeez it was two years ago. It's in the past! Isn't it about time you got over it and forgave me?" "You don't know the meaning of clean." shrieks Carrie. Then... a whisper "You don't care about me, about my hurt. You just want everything back the way it was." She ...weeps, he stares at the floor.
Asked what they think the problem is, each couple tries hard to work it out and offer solutions such as trying to share the power more, understanding personality types, improving communication skills - or hoping a sex therapist will address the hang-ups about being happy in the bedroom.
These explanations address just the tip of the iceberg. The crux of the problem is that these couples have become disconnected emotionally and they don't feel safe with each other. Most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.
The above partners are really asking each other "Can I count on you? Will you respond to me when I need you? Do I matter to you? Do you need me?" They are each trying to stir their partners' hearts, trying to draw them back in emotionally and re-establish a sense of safe connection.
Johnson reminds us that the fear of being alone and of being helpless will switch on an alarm that is built into our survival system. In response to insecurity, an alarm goes off in the part of the brain called the amygdala, or the Fear Central, as Joseph LeDoux of the Centre for Neural Science at New York University calls it.
Most of us experience some fear when we have disagreements or arguments with our partners. For those with secure bonds, these are shortlived and will settle as we are reassured.
Those who have weaker bonds, however, can be overwhelmed by this distancing. In our panic, we do one of two things: we become either demanding or clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves.
Regardless of what words we use, we really mean "Notice me. Be with me. I need you" or "I won't let you hurt me. I will chill out, try to stay in control".
These are unconscious responses, and they work, at least initially. But when couples resort to them more and more, the vicious spirals of insecurity only push them further and further away, with fewer safe interactions and each assuming the worst about the other.
Some of us minimise our longings to be emotionally close and focus instead on actions that give only limited expression to our needs, the most common one focusing on sex.
This focus will soothe us initially, but if the hurt remains unresolved, it can be hard for our lovers to respond in the same way.
Why don't we just hear these calls for comfort? Why not respond with caring? Johnson suggests that sometimes our own agendas get in the way, or that we don't know how to speak the language of attachment.
Often we don't give clear messages about what we need or how much we care. Nor do we always know our own needs.
Her Emotionally Focussed Therapy suggests you to see your relationship through the attachment lens. It's worth a try.
Christchurch therapist Helen Mounsey is part of the Sex Therapy NZ referral network team. Those seeking professional help with any sexual matter should contact www.sextherapy.co.nz
- © Fairfax NZ News
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