When Joe and Ellen married 12 years ago, they were passionate about each other and aware that their future relationship might lack things other couples took for granted — financial stability, for example, or home ownership. Children? Maybe.
But as much as passion fueled their love, it also fueled their conflicts.
Disagreements often started with a perceived slight. More often than not their small, seemingly meaningless arguments would escalate into full-blown fights. About finances. Or chores. Or, after their baby was born, the absence of meaningful conversation, and sex.
Ten years into their marriage, their once playful passion teetered on the brink of anger. Ellen felt lost; Joe withdrew. Their love story seemed over.
There’s a surprisingly beautiful term used by couple’s therapist Fiachra ‘Figs’ O’Sullivan to describe the infinity pattern that encircles lovers like Joe and Ellen as they go round and round, struggling to make their relationship better while only making things worse.
He calls it a dance.
This dance, as terrible and beautiful as it sounds, inevitably unfolds when two people are in love, he says. It’s unavoidable.
There’s a fine line between dancing, and dancing well.
“A dance is an interaction where each person moves in a certain way, and pulls the other person to move in a certain way,” says Sue Johnson, PsyD, founder of the field known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).
“The more I push you and poke you to respond, the more you move away. The more you move away, I push you and poke you. And so you see me as someone who pokes. So even when I start to look vaguely upset with you, you move away,” Johnson explains.
The key, Figs says, is how you dance your way back home. In other words, how you navigate the emotional conflict to find yourself, once again, in a safe and bonded relationship with your partner.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to the dance.
1. You have to step onto the dance floor fully present in the moment. But you can’t pretend the past didn’t happen.
According to Figs, regardless of whether you’re fighting about money, sex or chores, the argument nearly always boils down to one core issue: a perceived threat to the emotional bond between you and your partner.
Why do we feel threatened? More often than not, we’re reacting to vulnerabilities that were forged much earlier in life.
“We are born interdependent and we will die interdependent, so of course we feel vulnerable when our significant other — the one we are in interdependence with — seems to no longer be available to us in the ways our organism recognizes as evidence of a secure emotional bond,” Figs says.
In everyday life, though, each of us is bound to encounter situations that trigger intense reactions to these deep-seated vulnerabilities.
Figs knows a thing or two about that. Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, where his father spent most of his time at the pub, major personal milestones and everyday heartaches passed seemingly unnoticed by his father. Figs felt invisible to his father, who neglected the family to pursue his “ongoing, committed love affair with alcohol.” And while his mother was an ever-present heroic figure in his life, her grief over her husband’s absence weighed heavily on Figs’ heart.
“In some ways, it’s the biggest betrayal of my life to grow up in a family where my mother was so heartbroken, so abandoned, and in so much pain,” he recalls. “All I ever wanted to do was make her happy.”
He explains, “Little kids don’t get that it’s nothing to do with them that their parents don’t get along; it’s nothing to do with them that mom is so sad; it’s nothing to do with them that dad doesn’t come home and stays at the pub. Kids don’t think like that. I didn’t think like that. As a little kid, I thought if I were enough, my mum wouldn’t have to be so sad. If I were enough, my dad would come home.”
And so, in some ways, his journey to the small studio office above the Inner Sunset’s bustling Irving Street has emerged from a single desire: to heal those wounds of the little boy who just wants to be enough.
Couples often struggle to see their partner’s wounds through the shroud of anger and pain that inspires them to enter therapy. To remedy this problem, Figs turns to the healing power of empathy.
Not all empathy is equal, says Stan Tatkin, PsyD, assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.
But the deepest and most powerful form of empathy is the kind that we feel somatically. “As you describe your pain, I feel it in my body. That’s an ability that many people don’t really have, because it requires such complex processes in the brain.” “This is why it is often advisable to sit with an empathic, trained professional to help guide you and your partner towards creating greater understanding and empathy for one another,” says Figs.
Everywhere he goes, Figs says, he seems to encounter other wounded children walking around in adult bodies — little boys and little girls who have grown up but continue to yearn for acceptance. “All of us have developed and honed our strategies to protect the little one inside, to hide him or her from others and often from ourselves,” Figs says.
By approaching these children and their grown-up personas with relentless empathy, their hurt and anger and fear are distilled to two simple questions: “Are you there for me? And am I enough for you?”
2. In order to truly dance together, you have to break down your fears.
As an offhand comment evolves into a bitter brawl, partners begin to see each other in a different light. The gentle wife seems to morph into a cruel and judgmental critic. The rational husband transforms into a cold, unreasonable minimizer.
“When you’re in a fight with your partner, what do they look like to you? Angry, selfish, avoidant, aggressive? We begin to see our partners change before our very eyes. We no longer feel safe, emotionally. Maybe we begin to withdraw, or maybe we feel angry, disappointed or aggressive.” Figs says.
Instead of realizing that our partner’s inner child is hurting, we react by criticizing all the things our partner is doing wrong, or simply withdrawing, numbing out or shutting down. To break out of this impasse, couples must become aware that they’re caught in what Figs calls the “painful dance of disconnection” — and understand that it takes two to tango.
“By seeing it as a systemic problem, we can begin to blame and withdraw less, and feel safer with each other emotionally so that each person has a chance to get back to feeling loved and connected.”
Mastering the dance steps often requires the help of a “dance teacher” — in this case, a therapist — but there are simple things couples can do to begin.
3. Lowering your defenses and stepping together — hand in hand — is the only way to make it through.
When we begin to recognize the little girl or boy deep inside who longs to be loved, that’s when we finally begin to soften and engage.
“That’s when we see we’re not getting what’s so important to us. We begin to recognize that we want more than anything to feel cared for, to feel valued and appreciated.”
To work through the conflict, Figs suggests reverse-engineering your reactive feelings and behaviors back to the vulnerability that lies within. It is within this landscape of vulnerable desire for connection that two people are most likely to find each other again.
“When we’re in a fight, there’s always the tendency to think the other guy is fine and isn’t distressed at all, whereas we’re dying. But when you start to understand that you’re both caught in this dreadful pattern, you actually start to be able to help each other out a bit,” Johnson says.
Once couples understand that they’re in it together — that it takes two to dance, for better or worse — then it becomes obvious that the more you’re defensive, the more your partner will be defensive. And that it has an impact on the child within.
4. Learning the basics of dancing is only the beginning.
“You can’t avoid problems. Relationships are recurring moments of disconnection, repair and reconnection. That’s the way relationships go,” Johnson says. “You can’t put aside the habits of years of disconnection and assume you won’t ever get stuck. The issue is you can get unstuck. You can repair.”
Couples who become good dancers may not avoid conflict entirely but they will have an easier time navigating according to the guiding principles of acceptance, empathy and compassion.
Figs says of his own relationship with his wife: “We get in the exact same cycles as any other couple but we stay in them for less time, we cause less harm to our emotional bond during that time, and when we get out of it, we repair and end up feeling closer than ever. It’s not just an argument that fades — we end up being able to love, comfort and soothe each other after these times of feeling threatened and reactive and stuck.”
5. Dance with your heart, not your head.
Amid a culture increasingly focused on technology and wealth, relationship problems are often approached analytically: figure out who’s at fault, then correct their behavior. But that strategy has about as much a chance of success as tackling a car’s engine trouble by rotating the tires.
“In this mecca,” (Figs lives and works in San Francisco) “of technological advancement, everybody is trying to use their neocortex to come up with a solution for everything in life. But at the end of the day, the problems of relationship are primarily problems of the limbic system. You’re not going to neocortex your way out of a limbic problem.”
In other words, when the little child inside you gets scared, you’re not going to think your way out of it. Instead, Figs says, you have to help that little child feel safe again.
Rather than denying the very part of yourself that gives rise to emotion, instinct and mood, you face down your fear, anger, sadness and grief.
Hand in hand, walking each other home.
Photo: Getty Images