When you’re in severe relationship distress, it might feel like your world is ending.
It can feel like you’re going insane in your relationship.
Like Shirley (her name is made up + details are a combination of several clients to protect privacy).
She was ready to leave her marriage when she called me last year.
I honestly wondered if she was experiencing domestic violence.
Her situation sounded so bad, her marriage so much on the rocks, and if we throw emotional abuse and threats into the mix, we are treading on even more dangerous territory.
Domestic violence is serious, insidious, lethal, and not my specialty.
It can affect anyone – read more about one survivor’s journey here.
(If you are experiencing domestic violence, http://thehotline.org is a resource with confidential counselors on call to help you.)
I wasn’t certain what exactly was going on, so we met for an initial consult and I knew I could refer her to other resources if needed.
Like so many couples and individuals who are at a breaking point with their relationships, Shirley felt like her world was crumbling because of her marital stress. Almost like she was going insane.
When we feel disconnected in our primary relationships, it can feel like life or death.
Like the whole world is falling apart.
This intense feeling is not because we are weak, too needy or codependent (though this feeling can be more overwhelming and downright disabling for survivors of trauma), but it’s because of our biology.
We are wired for social connection, and when we can’t get that from our primary relationships, our brain goes into a sort of primal panic that gives us the message that our very existence is being threatened.
Back in the day, if we were left on our own, apart from the tribe, we’d be dead.
When you can’t connect, your brain goes haywire.
That’s why couples use life and death metaphors to explain what it feels like when they are unable to reach each other, most commonly natural disasters in my experience: a volcano erupting, a tidal wave rendering you helpless, drowning in quick sand, or feeling in free fall – like the rug was pulled from underneath you.
Physical and social pain register in the same part of your brain (here’s a quick video from a few years ago that explains a bit more on that).
This also may explain why solitary confinement is the worst punishment that exists for prisoners, and why many literally start experiencing hallucinations as a result of the horror of isolation.
As I spoke with Shirley more, I started to see that she was not in the classic domestic violence situation that is so lethal, but in the throes of a deep disconnect with her partner that she could see no way out of.
As I learned more about what her marriage once was to her and what it became, I could practically see her brain lighting up with fear and pain as she spoke about it to me.
If you feel like your world is falling apart because you can’t connect to your partner, you are not insane.
She started to feel a bit more “normal” and less insane as I explained that to her.
Disconnection with the ones who matter the most is a really difficult, frustrating, scary and isolating experience that is actually dangerous in some ways.
By simply understanding that and allowing yourself to feel how you feel without shaming or blaming yourself, you’re on your way to starting the connection.
But that requires courage on your part and a willingness to risk being vulnerable in order to foster that connection.
Shirley took the risk.
We started looking more deeply into what was going on and how she was contributing to the disconnect with her own automatic self-protection.
We slowed things down and she started to see that her marriage was not crumbling, and the world was okay.
She saw herself in one of the classic patterns that couples find themselves in, and started to de-escalate it to foster real connection instead of defensive protection.
Arguments still would erupt but instead of monsoons that jeopardized our species, they were passing showers.
If you’re struggling in your relationship, there’s a lesson in there somewhere, gold to be found, and the distress will make you stronger, even though that may be far from your reality right now.
Probably not what you want to hear, but I urge you to take responsibility and do something about it.
To your best love + strongest connections,
P.S. For individual support and assistance with your relationship, I urge you to work with an Emotionally Focused Therapist for couples. EFT is the gold standard of couples therapy and can help you go from tidal waves to the fun kind of exhilarating ocean waves that won’t kill you in your relationship.
Find an EFT therapist near you by clicking here.
If you are not at a place in which you are ready or interested in individual support, join My Best Relationship Society where you can get education, resources, support, a community and laser coaching from yours truly to create your best love and enjoy the weather in its many variations.
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