Inga Gentile, MFT
Many couples tell me they simply don’t have the time they need to set aside to address issues in their relationship daily. They are too tired at night, mornings are too hectic, and their days are a blur. However, there are things they can do and ways they can be toward one another to help create greater safety and security in their relationship.
One way to increase secure functioning in your relationship is to be aware of the core vulnerabilities that underlie chronic distress for you and your partner. Stan Tatkin (2012) talked about the three or four core vulnerabilities most people have, usually rooted in childhood experiences. Secure-functioning couples realize it is their job to be aware of such vulnerabilities and to tend to injuries when needed. They don’t spend a lot of time complaining that an injury shouldn’t be there or shouldn’t ache so much; rather, they make a point of creating quality moments during which they can say and do things that have a positive impact on each other’s self-esteem and sense of security.
This is important when you find yourselves in a distressed situation as well as when you are in either a non-distressed situation or a situation that is building toward a point of distress. In each case, you can make an effort to circumvent or diffuse reactions linked to your core vulnerabilities. Do this by knowing what makes each of you feel bad as well as what makes you feel good. Use this information often in large and small ways.
Paul and Anna are a couple in their thirties with no children. One of Paul’s core vulnerabilities is a fear of being blamed. Another vulnerability is feeling he can’t get it right with those he loves. When he senses that Anna might blame him, he freezes or withdraws. Fear of abandonment and fear of being a burden are two of Anna’s core vulnerabilities. She experiences Paul’s freezing and withdrawal as abandonment of her. Experiencing his withdrawal as abandonment confirms her belief that she is a burden to him, and she often responds by amping up her criticism of him.
After they worked in therapy to uncover their core vulnerabilities and reshape their narrative around who they are and why they behave as they do, Paul and Anna began to practice in real time saying and doing things to shift the other’s state, and then paying attention to what happens. In session, we worked on their physical impulses to move toward or away from one another in moments of distress. Here is one example of how that played out at home.
When Paul comes home from work, Anna is in the kitchen washing dishes. As soon as he walks in, she begins to complain to him about her day. He picks up a yogurt and starts to eat it. She says, “I can’t believe you can just stand there and eat when I told you I haven’t eaten all day.”
Instead of feeling blamed and withdrawing, Paul makes the decision to move toward Anna in a friendly (and unexpected) way. As she is speaking, he offers a spoonful of his yogurt, holding it up to her mouth for her to eat. She tastes the yogurt and begins to laugh.
In this quality moment, Paul shifts Anna’s state and assuages her core vulnerability of being a burden. He is able to listen closely to her words, feel her distress, and understand that she is hungry. Because he isn’t feeling attacked, his impulse is to nurture her. This is mutually rewarding because Anna expects to be abandoned, especially when she is fussy, and instead feels soothed. Additionally, she is touched by his ability to get it right with her in a way that perhaps no one else could.
This couple demonstrated an ability to soothe and to give each other what they most need in the present, thus bypassing their core vulnerabilities. When it comes to such quality moments, frequency and precision (and not necessarily duration) go a long way toward creating a greater sense of safety and security.
Tatkin, S. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain can help you defuse conflicts and spark intimacy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.