Of all the places I expect to find great relationships insights I confess Justin Timberlake was not at the top of that list.
However his song Mirrors touches on a number of the most interesting and elusive themes in relationships. Last week we looked at the concept of the lost self – this week we are going to look at the related theme of Complementarity. This video captures the idea beautifully and is by a fabulous Kiwi artist Edwin Derricutt called Symmetry – Check him out here .
Complementarity is the idea is that we choose partners that are strong in areas we are weak. As you will see this is the other side of the lost self, or put another way the process by which relationships are supposed to heal the gaps created by the lost self. And just by way of proving you can find relationship insights everywhere I’ll take you to Rocky 1 where Rocky Balboa explains why he fell in love with Maria.
So in the honeymoon phase we appreciate our partner’s strengths in the areas we are weak. But we typically fail to consciously recognise just how different our partner is from us. So we tend to think of our partner as reflecting ourselves – our preferences – our styles. If my partner is strong, I feel powerful; if my partner is loving I feel tender; if my partner is passionate I feel free. Which in the honeymoon phase feels fantastic. The problem emerges in the next stage of relationship in the power struggle. When my partner gets upset I assume she is acting like I would. So if I started yelling at my partner or telling them they didn’t love me I would have my bags packed and be ready to leave. So when my partner gets upset and starts reacting emotionally in this way my child brain tells me, “She hates me, I failed, I’m a bad person, She’s mean etc.” My baby brain starts panicking because I don’t feel secure in the relationship and that is extremely unsafe for me and I want to do anything to fix it. These younger brains start yelling at my adult brain to find a solution – my stressed adult brain goes to the things I’m good at doing (fixing problems). When that doesn’t work my adult brain gets flooded and goes offline (literally that part of the brain disconnects). Then I’m left with the strategies I had a 4-8 year old which in my case was to go and climb a tree outside the house.
However my partner is on the other side of the mirror. She feels upset because I am not available and her child brain feels alone and disconnected, so she starts crying and protesting hoping that I (an adult) will see her child brain upset and move to cuddle and listen her, something I may well have done in the honeymoon phase. When I react by being logical she feels distressed and frustrated, “He’s not getting me,” so she tries to help me by protesting louder so I try a different strategy. When I get stressed and withdraw this upsets the child brain, but terrifies the baby brain for whom disconnection is synonymous with death. At this stage she will literally be out of her (adult) mind with anxiety or may simply collapse and give up. Needless to say this is horribly distressing and upsetting and over time we will tend to disconnect to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of deep, loving connection. The unconscious message from the baby brain is something like, “If I really love you and you leave me I might die, if I love you less I might survive.”
Ironically in this very common scenario what we both want both want basically the same thing; safe, calm, loving connection. So the key to moving through the mirror is to start by recognising that the partner we fell in love with, that warm, loving, caring, emotional person, is still there. What this means is that we send a different message to our child brain. The new message goes something like this. “Wow she’s really upset she is in her 6 year old brain now. Hmmm what would my daughters need when they were acting like this? Well they are (in my case) an emotional being (maybe in your case they are a logical fixer). Well then she wants to be heard and understood.” Then I start listening and aiming to meet her needs in her style. This typically means listen and letting go of trying to solve the problem – you can’t solve emotions simply be present with them. When you do this in a calm, loving and connected it becomes safer for my partner to have her experience and she moves through the process of connecting with her deep values which clears her mind to choose her next path of action.
If your partner is a fixer you might remind yourself, “Ok he really loves me he just wasn’t trained to deal with emotion. So he’s probably sweating right now behind that blank face, trying to find a way to fix everything and freaking out because he can’t,”this will help you engage your compassion and your positive view of your partner. Then you can say, “Babe I’m really upset right now I need you to sit down, hold my hand and just nod and listen while I talk, then give me a hug, tell me you love me and I will feel a lot better.” What this does is the give the fixer a job so they stay present and they don’t get so overwhelmed.
The great thing about doing this is that it tends to be a lot more effective. Additionally our baby and child brain receives our loving care of our partner as if it happened to us, and it starts to reactivate the underutilised neural circuitry of our lost self. For me a fixer that means over time I become more loving, empathic and intuitive, for my partner she becomes more stable, centred and calmer. The final benefit is that often as our partner calms they are more able to ease back into accommodating our style because their adult brain comes online.
You can read more about the lost self and complementarity in Imago Relationship Therapy founders Harville and Helen LaKelly Hunt’s book Receiving Love
Next Week I want to look at living with Mr fix it – thanks for reading your comments are always welcome.