Something was comin' their way.
And it was no good.
Shira was hoping that today will be the day that David finally gets home before seven o'clock in the evening. She decided not to hope too much so that she doesn't get too disappointed. "But I'm not thinking about that", she thought. "He is coming home before seven and no later than seven because he promised, so it's going to happen", she convinced herself.
As the minutes drew closer to seven o'clock, Shira decided to stop looking at her watch. She told herself, "What good will that do you". But her heart began beating harder and its clock-like rhythm took the place of her watch. With each heartbeat, she could feel her chest contracting, jaw clenching, and a low rumbling in her throat She tried to counter all that by mumbling to herself - "it's ok, everything is OK, just keep preparing dinner, he will be here Shira, you will see".
David parked the car in front of the building at 6:55 PM. As he turned off Waze, he noticed the time and smiled to himself. "I made it thank God. I even have 5 minutes to go. Hmm... I can check my email and still be on time. Shira will be happy...".
When David walked in at 7:10 PM, Shira was already wound up with a knot in her stomach. But she tried to steady her emotions and forced herself to keep it together. All she did, therefore, was snap with a hiss - "you're late agggain!"
That took David by total surprise. He was sure he had done well. What happened? He was speechless. As usual in these cases, David then walked briskly and silently to the bathroom, where he stayed longer than needed, playing with his phone, hoping that Shira would calm down and everything would be fine.
He finally came out, bracing himself with some anxiety, tiptoeing into the kitchen as Shira was ferociously stirring the soup she prepared for them.
She heard him tiptoe in but made believe that she didn't. "Don't explode Shira, what use is it anyway?" she told herself. But, as usual, the more she noticed David relax and feel as if everything was back to normal, that angrier she got.
It was as if she were a bystander, watching herself on a rollercoaster tumbling down the mountain and picking up speed with no breaks to stop it. The words finally erupted from her mouth like rapid-fire - "where did you disappear to now? You're out the whole day and finally, you get home but then you go lock yourself in the bathroom for an hour! You don't care about me or the kids, no, you love your phone and your job more anything else. Certainly more than us!"
Wait a minute, CUT!
What just happened here? What is the force behind this negative whirlwind that Shira and David find themselves thrust into, escalating into emotional oblivion?
Well, you may remember the "secure emotional bond" we spoke about in my previous post. Let's go back there for a moment.
When I have a secure bond with someone I trust - say my mother for example - then I am calm and composed and I can face the world and take it on. But what if mom is not available? What if she is not attuned to my needs? What if she simply does not get me?
Well then, I go into distress. And this distress roughly takes on three main forms. Either I:
1. Get anxious, become clingy, and demanding of mom's attention. Or -
2. The opposite - I may become distant, closed off, disconnected, shut down. Or -
3. A confusing combination of the above two - "I need you / get away from me!" kind of thing.
These are universal ways of coping with stress created by a break in our bond with a close person. And these coping styles show up in couples as well.
Back to Shira and David.
Something happened there that whirled them into this bad place between them. There was a break in their secure bond. And each of them deals with this break in different ways. Shira is the anxious one. She gets anxious when David is not showing up, not available, or attuned to her needs. Therefore she may feel rejected and even lonely. But those emotions may be too vulnerable for her to focus on.
A much easier emotion (for us all) is anger. So she gets angry, trying to cope with her stress by demanding and complaining to David. Of course she goes there, because this is how she learned to protect herself. All Shira wants is to get closer, to get back to her secure bond with David.
Unfortunately, the message she tries to give David comes across very differently. He feels attacked. He may feel like whatever he does is not good enough. He's surprised, hurt. He may feel anxiety and a sense of rejection as well. But that's rough to admit or to even think about.
It is a lot easier for David to shut down his emotions, to not feel, to grow distant. So, he glosses over the negativity, locking himself in the bathroom, hoping she calms down, while in fact, he's doing the best thing he knows to calm himself down and to protect himself. This is the strategy he learned to use most when he felt stress in relationships.
All David wants is to feel loved and close to Shira. Unfortunately, the message he tries to give Shira comes across very differently. by shutting down, he shuts her out and she feels not being seen or cared for by David. It makes her feel all the more isolated.
Now, what do you think happens to her then? Bingo, she gets even angrier, protesting and complaining away. And David? He responds with even more silence, running away as fast as possible. As Dr. Sue Jhonson would explain, we may call Shira a pursuer and David a withdrawer. The more she pursues, the more he withdraws and vice-versa.
And so, round and round they go, trapped, maybe for years, as they grow distant and tired of each other. Eventually, one of them or both will grow hopeless. Divorce will then only be a matter of formality since they will have already been emotionally divorced for years.
"So, whose fault is it? Who is to blame??"
Ahh, well it is not the fault of either of them. They are caught in a negative, vicious cycle together. The cycle is their enemy.
Noticing this cycle and NAMING it is the key to TAMING it.
It is the first crucial step towards restoring a fractured bond and a marriage falling apart. In fact, this idea of the cycle, is important for any couple, really. Because we all fall into those rough categories of "pursuer" or "withdrawer". Not purely, and perhaps sometimes we exchange roles. But one of those styles is usually more pronounced. Personally, I know that my own default style is being more of a withdrawer. How about you? What's your coping style with stress in your marriage? Think about it.
Next time we'll talk about how we can use this new awareness to heal our marriage.