I confess I was dragged to watch this movie and I muttered and grumbled and squirmed but this final scene made it all worth while. The Story of Us tracks Pleiffer and Willis tearing themselves and their marriage apart in a slow, torturous and scarily familiar decline – and finally when things seem hopeless this happens . . .[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3HaJdopTDo]
It was almost enough to make me forgive Hollywood because they captured an essential shift in moving towards a happy marriage or relationship. In the last post I wrote about PEA aka the love drug hooks us into relationship with a suitably incompatible person – that was not a typo. We fall in love with people who will hurt us emotionally in very similar ways to our early childhood caregivers. PEA makes us blind to this until we are committed, in relationship, with babies etc and then we discover that Prince Charming is kind of a slob and our precious Princess is whiny and pretty needy. This ushers in the next stage of the relationship which in Imago we call the “power struggle”, others call it hell and for some it’s just marriage as usual.
What’s happening in the power struggle is that the young parts of our brain that drew us to this incompatible person are trying to get new responses from our partner using the strategies we learnt as a child i.e. sulking, criticising, tantrums etc. These behaviours stress our partner causing them to retreat into the younger parts of their brain and the result is more anger, withdrawal, counter criticisms, tantrums and defensiveness. Soon the patterns or withdrawal and attack become a stable (and very unpleasant) dance. Yet in this dance both partners are silently longing for their partner to see them.
In the same way that an upset child needs their angry or detached parent to take a deep breath, smile and say, “OK enough of Mr Grumpy let’s go get ice cream,” we long for our partner to hear that under our complaints what we are really saying is, “I’m lonely, I’m scared, You are important to me.” There are two powerful alternatives to what Sue Johnson calls the “Demon Dance”.
I call the first one, “listening to baby,”. When my partner complains at me I imagine I am listening to her as a 5 year old girl and I listen carefully for the need under the complaint. For instance my partner could complain that I am late. As I listen to the little girl I realise that she is saying she is lonely. When I take that on board I feel empathy for her – I don’t want my partner to feel lonely – I want her to feel loved and cherished. This builds empathy with our partner – empathy encourages the release of oxytocin, the hormone released after orgasm that tends to make us feel connected and cuddly.
The second skill I call, “relational alchemy”. It involves turning lead weight of negativity into the golden glow of positivity. It requires me to look at the good thing under the complaint. I ask myself who is she lonely for? She’s lonely for me, she wants to be with me – she likes me – I’m important to her. When I take this on board I feel important – I matter in her life. It’s a tricky skill but the better I get at it the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. I may even say to her, “Darling it sounds like you really miss me when I’m late and I’m important to you and you want me with you – did I get that right?” This last strategy is not always effective if someone is angry but someone who is quite open will often nod and say “Yeah you got it,” and the whole tenor of the dance will change.
In the next post we will look at why we marry such difficult people . . .