And I behaved in a way that is less than who I am.
Yael and I don’t have children so our mornings are usually serene and consist of prayer and mediation; separately (and sometimes together), and getting Niles up, our 4 ½ year old Green-Cheek Conure.
Getting Niles up means moving him from his sleep cage to his daytime cage, where he can do his business. (He doesn’t poop in his sleep cage so he needs to go). One of us gives him his breakfast: pellets, chickpeas, apple, fresh water and … banana-his favorite.
On this particular morning I woke up early and went for a walk because the night before we had a huge argument.
The last 5 months have been very stressful for us. Yael was sick and it was hard on me spiritually, emotionally and psychologically because we are very close. Not only are we partners; we are also BFF’s.
From the outside, I looked together, confident and optimistic, but inside I was terrified, anxious and exhausted. I was also sad and disappointed because we had to cancel our vacation to England.
This was the first time we dealt with a health crisis and the stress of it catapulted us into this collective insanity.
We began to argue a lot and that was disturbing because it’s out of character for us. I’m not saying we never argued, but it’s out of character for us to argue so frequently.
Usually we can sense when things are beginning to escalate between us, so Yael or I would start reflecting what the other is saying, which helps us stay calm and connected. But this time that didn’t happen. We quickly spiraled into a hole and the reactive survival dance, AKA the turtle/alligator dynamic, was in full force.
When I’m in survival, my perception of Yael is that she is not there for me and I feel alone, unloved and abandoned, which stirs up anger and frustration.
My sentences began with you need to … you never … I always … and I whine about everything. My judgment and criticism of her are harsh.
In survival, Yael checks out emotionally. She gets quiet. She can also become very defensive, rational and dismissive.
Now, as an Imago therapist, I was intellectually aware of what was happening between us. But our brains were hijacked! We were relating from our defenses and all of my professional training and good feelings toward Yael were not accessible.
My perception of her (she’s the enemy) prevented me from telling her how afraid I was and that I didn’t feel safe. Of course, she can’t open up in the battle zone when fits of anger and criticism are being hurled at her. She also didn’t feel safe. After a relatively short period of time we stopped and we went to bed hurt and exhausted.
The next morning I decided to go for a walk. On my walk I vowed that when I returned home, I would stay calm and keep my mouth shut!!!
I was sitting in the living room and Yael walked in. I could see that she hadn’t slept and was still upset.
But instead of telling me how she felt, she asked me how I was! Her gesture registered internally as manipulation. Intellectually, I knew that it was her way of checking the emotional temperature … checking to see if it was safe to come out of her shell and reconnect. But even though I vowed not to get angry, the energy in our dynamic hadn’t run to its completion and the cycle started up again.
In hindsight, I should have just mirrored Yael and said, “What I hear you say is you are wondering how I am? Am I with you?” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. My brain and nervous system were still on HIGH alert. You see, I was still seeing her as the bad guy, the one who wasn’t there for me and was not loving me, and it hurt.
Those of you who have worked with me or attended my couples workshops have heard me talk about when an interaction goes on like this, with this much intensity, that the behavior is being fueled by an unmet need in childhood. A frustration from childhood is trying to be healed. However, in order for the healing to take place, there must be safety.
Vulnerability requires safety.
I continued with my accusations and (unconsciously) did everything to make Yael (unconsciously) withdraw and go to the back of her shell.
I know from experience that people don’t learn when they are being criticized and judged. I was not even remotely uncritical.
I opened with something like, “You can’t even give me a crumb of yourself?”
“I have to play hide and seek with you!”
“No one loves me … blah, blah, blah …,” complaining about everything I could think of since 1965.
Yael started to cry.
It was a terrible, terrible, horrible very bad interaction day.