How do we make love, not war? All couples are in each other’s care…whether they know it or not. Unfortunately, couples often struggle with this basic principle of creating a happy relationship. Why? What is going on?
Andy and Dot
Let’s take an example. Dot and Andy are moving in together. They are both successful in their own lives, and both scarred from past relationships. When Dot and Andy first met, they both knew they had met that special someone. They fell in love and were excited to be with each other.
But then something happened to change that. Dot and Andy decided to move in together. All of a sudden, they are fighting. They are confused. Their partner’s faults seem huge. They wonder how they could not have seen these qualities in their partner before. Andy thinks Dot is controlling and selfish. Dot thinks Andy is out of touch and misconstruing what is happening between them. They both feel as if they are not being considered or seen for who they really are. After all, each knows he or she is a good person. How could this nightmare be happening?
Dot has recently been divorced and felt completely taken advantage of by her ex during the divorce process. She has been wounded. Andy has had some very difficult relationships in the past. Both of them have experienced a lot of relational trauma in their histories. So undoubtedly, they are both terrified of this new commitment they have made to each other. This new stressor of making a bigger commitment to each other has changed their dynamics. Instead of thinking they found “the one,” they wonder if the relationship is going to make it. They no longer know how to make love, not war.
The self protective brain
What happens when a person is terrified? They become self-protective. Rather than making sure the relationship is secure and safe, they focus on their personal safety as an individual. They see what is wrong instead of what is right.
Our brains are wired for survival. Our survival wiring comes to the forefront and tells us what is going on is unsafe, what our partner is doing is dangerous and not okay, and our relationship is not okay.
Without help, this is when a relationship may break up, with one or the other partner running for the hills. The relationship becomes disposable instead of worth working on. And so each partner has yet another traumatic relationship experience. When they enter their next relationship, as conflict arises, they have even more suspicion and fear come up, more relational trauma to unpack.
When conflict arises, couples also fall into their default positions. Andy takes space, triggering a feeling of abandonment in Dot. And Dot tries to get Andy to talk out what is going on, triggering a sense of being overwhelmed and not being seen by Dot. They go to war. What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours, and the relationship falls by the wayside. The couple is no longer caring for each other. They don’t yet know how to make love, not war.
Safety can degrade in little ways. Imagine there is only one piece of chocolate cake left, and you want it? Your partner comes into the kitchen and wants it too. Do you split it in half? Or does one of you decide it is yours? While this may seem like a non-issue, a minuscule situation like this can trigger all kinds of feelings in a struggling partnership. Because the individual need for that piece of cake becomes more important than the relationship and its needs.
Luckily, Dot and Andy are in therapy with a skilled and talented therapist who recognizes what is going on. She helps them see each other and begin to take care of each other again. Instead of Dot being called selfish and controlling, Andy begins to see that Dot is scared and trying to create safety for herself. And Dot sees how terrified Andy is and that he doesn’t know how to manage that feeling. With this understanding, they can begin to see the other person not as dangerous but as someone who needs their attention and care. They shift from acrimony to empathy. They again make love, not war.
The Couple Bubble
Another thing that can create a feeling of not being safe in a relationship is when relatives or in-laws or someone else becomes more important than the relationship. You cannot be taking care of your partner if someone else’s needs are more important than your partner’s needs. To be in each other’s care, you need to put a protected space around you and your partner. This is called the “The Couple Bubble,” by Stan Tatkin, the developer of PACT—A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy.
This is a skill and practice my husband and I have brought into our relationship over the years. It is such a lovely feeling to know that someone has your back and vice versa. We know we are a team and make each other a priority. We are able to talk through misunderstandings. Each of us feels emotionally safe and secure with each other. Being in each other’s care is a foundational piece of a great relationship.
Do you feel your partner can care for you in this way?
Can you care for your partner in this way?
What can you do to bring this practice into your own relationship?
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