Last week we talked about the importance of the A.R.E. questions in your relationship, namely, whether you and your partner are:
We tried to help give you some steps toward creating a relationship in which you are both Accessible, Responsive and Engaged. (This foundation for a strong relationship was described by Dr. Sue Johnson in her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.)
But what if you just can’t get your partner to be accessible, responsive OR engaged?
Many people complain to me that they just feel plain invisible in their relationships, like they’re not even considered.
And this can be super frustrating.
As a result, when someone doesn’t feel heard, seen or considered, they often turn the volume up in their relationship. In other words, they will become louder themselves.
That makes sense, right?
If you’re feeling invisible, you’ll do whatever you can to be more visible. If you’re feeling unheard, you’ll get louder.
Making more noise is a behavior that makes sense if you are operating under the assumption that your partner doesn’t notice or care about you. While you’re trying to get your partner’s attention, those feelings of frustration get channeled through your efforts to reach them, and you may become critical to your partner, if not downright hostile.
It’s like you’re poking at your partner trying to get a response, and nothing seems to work.
So the more your partner withdraws or seems to shut down, the less you feel noticed, the louder you get, and the harder you poke.
It only makes sense for you to think that your partner just doesn’t care about you.
But that’s where so many people get it wrong.
You may not believe what I’m about to say…
It’s not that your partner doesn’t care about you, it’s that they care so much. And your little attacks are constant reminders of how they’ve got it all wrong. As a result, they back off, withdraw, and more likely than not, feel helpless that they’ll never be able to figure out how to get it right. They essentially give up. It’s too painful for them to even try. And you go feeling all the more invisible.
Try to believe me on this one. I’ve worked with many couples who fall into this all-too-common pattern in which one of you feels invisible and the other seemingly doesn’t care. I’ve heard from both partners though, and when we get down to it, the folks who shut down and withdraw really do care.
The fact that they care so much is actually why they shut down.
In fact, psychologist Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues have measured what happens physiologically to men when they are shut down and backed off from their partners. If they truly didn’t care, their heart rate would be normal and they wouldn’t seem to be physically activated at all.
But that’s not what was found!
Male withdrawers actually have an increased heart rate and measure physiologically as being distressed, proving this point even further.
Even if it is close to impossible to believe that your partner actually cares about you in those moments where you just can’t seem to reach him, there’s a strong likelihood that he cares more than you can imagine.
So when you look like this:
It reaffirms the message that your partner just can’t get it right, and they back away.
They don’t realize that if they just looked at you or listened to you, you’d be fine. You just need to feel important to them. We all need that.
But they think they have to accomplish some unattainable feat to get your approval.
And they back off further.
And the more they back off or seem not to care, the louder, angrier and more dangerous you get in their eyes. And around and around you go in this vicious pattern, with seemingly no resolution.
Psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson calls this pattern “The Protest Polka,” in her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, and it is one of the most difficult patterns to get out of.
So what should you do?
Turn the volume down. Just give it a shot and see what happens. Try to be gentler and nicer, and see if your partner comes toward you a bit more.
I know this suggestion might feel totally counter-intuitive. You may fear that if you get quieter, your partner will definitely not notice you. But if it’s true, like it is in so many relationships, that your partner cares more than you realize, when you turn the volume down a little, he may start to pay a bit more attention.
He may not feel as threatened and criticized by you, and like a turtle coming out of his shell, he may start to check things out a bit more.
Won’t that be nice?
Underneath that cold, hard, impenetrable shell is a softie who may be feeling more vulnerable and helpless than you realize.
Hopefully this will help, but if not, fear not…
Depending on how long you’ve been caught in this pattern and how strong a hold it has on your relationship, you may not be able to get out of it without a little help from someone outside of your relationship. If your partner doesn’t budge even if you back off, all hope is not lost, it just means it’s going to take a little more work on both of your parts to get things back on track.
You could check out my book, Your Best Love: The Couples Workbook and Guide to Their Best Relationship for starters. It explains this and a few other patterns that couples get caught in perfectly, and is one guide to help you break through them.
This book is based on principles of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT is all about nipping these patterns in the bud so that you both can really become Accessible, Responsive and Engaged with each other.
EFT is a short-term approach that has been demonstrated to produce results for couples in 8-20 sessions, regardless of the level of distress they start therapy with (unless either partner has a history of trauma, in which case it can take longer).
Unlike other approaches, with EFT, you won’t be in therapy for years and years.
Want to learn more?
Check out my book here.
Hopefully you won’t need therapy and you just need to tweak your approach.
You could even share this article with your partner and see if it makes any sense to them.
Emotionally Focused Therapy will help, though, if your own attempts don’t cut it. So if you feel like it’s the best plan for you, don’t be like the average couple who wastes 6 years before getting help.
You deserve your best relationship today, so take action to create it now.
Cheers to your best relationship,