As a therapist, I have since seen hundreds of couples. What I have found, is that there are 10 dominant defensive behaviors ruining relationships. My goal, is to bring these to light, and offer alternative routes to strengthening versus destroying bonds.
Defensiveness and acting out cause damage to relationships
In a series of posts, I will outline 10 Relationship No Nos of defensive and acting out behaviors. Everyone uses at least one or two in their defensive fighting strategies. Putting down these emotional weapons, can open up more depth and possibility in relationships, and ultimately lead to more love.
Relationship No No #1: Threats
Threats arise in a relationship, when one feels emotions they don’t know how to express such as: stress, overwhelm, anger, hurt, confusion, disempowerment, or shame. Instead of expressing those feelings, they threaten to leave the relationship or say something like “You are just going to leave me” or “This is never going to work” or “I am calling a lawyer for a divorce.” Different from actually wanting to leave, these threats are a strategy to get their partner to chase after them or surrender their own defenses.
How threats are a defense
In childhood, our emotional survival depends on seeking love and approval and avoiding pain. In avoiding pain, we develop defensive structures to protect ourselves. For example, if your mother yells to get her own needs met, you might develop an avoidance and withdrawal strategy to protect yourself or yell back. Another word for these, are coping strategies. As kids, this is all we have, as we can’t control our circumstances. We also can’t control our parent’s ability to process through difficulty in a healthy way. Kids have to cope with what they get.
These defenses and coping strategies follow us into adulthood. As adults, these defenses arise when we are under stress or attack and they emerge automatically as if fused with who we are.
Negative Impact of Threats
Reoccurring threats erode a sense of security in the relationship. Even if the threats are empty and known to be a strategy, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other person to feel safe and secure. The nervous system and subsequent body sensations remember the threat, even if words explain it away.
Do it differently
The best medicine is to stop using threats as a defense. If you find yourself wanting to use this strategy impulsively, stop. Use this as an alert, for your inner parent to remove yourself from the situation. Take time away from your partner, and check-in with the deeper levels of what you are feeling underneath the threat. Often, the person using threats is feeling insecure and fearful themselves, projecting insecurity onto the relationship. Make sure to provide self-care for your own nervous system as well by taking a walk, talking to a friend, taking a warm bath or journaling to access your true feelings, wants and needs.
Setting up a healthy dialogue
When you are feeling calm and centered, invite your partner to a healthy dialogue. Ask if they are ready and if not, ask them to let you know when they are ready. Healthy dialogue is only appropriate when both parties are ready to hear one another with calm, curiosity and attention.
The growth opportunity, is to bring awareness to the autonomic defense response and question whether it is helping or hurting the outcome we want. Stop the defense, provide self-care, and invite your partner to a new conversation when the time is right.
Artwork by Clark Tate http://clarktate.com/
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