By Lisa Rabinowitz
LCPC, PACT Level 2
We have all been in situations in which we feel misunderstood by our partner. We might be left scratching our head, wondering why our partner just doesn’t get us. PACT therapists recognize that such misunderstandings or misattunements to nonverbal and verbal cues are similar to what can happen with babies and their primary caretaker(s). We know from attachment theory that if the caretaker is unresponsive, punitive, anxious, or inconsistent, then the baby may fear abandonment or withdraw or overreact, developing an insecure attachment. On the other hand, if the caretaker responds in a consistent and reliable manner, then the baby will develop secure attachment, believing the caretaker will be there for him or her in the future. As adults, this kind of signal-response system affects our romantic relationships, whereby we repeat the patterns of our childhood—either with inconsistent and unreliable responding partners or with partners who are reliable, loving, and responsive.
Each of us has a “baby” inside us, and PACT therapists often encourage partners to look for the baby in each other as a way to achieve greater connection and intimacy. As adults, we have an opportunity to respond to that baby in our partner, who wants to be held, cared for, connected to, talked with, cuddled, reassured, encouraged, or comforted. We can also miss each other’s cues and fail to interpret the signals made by the baby. When we miss the baby, an argument may ensue, causing the baby to lock him or herself behind a protective wall, feel scared to come out, scream, rant, or leave the scene of the fight. If we miss seeing the baby, then we can repeat the cycles from childhood. We may be scared to get too close to our partner out of fear that he or she will not take care of the baby inside us, just as our parents failed to do. In our romantic relationship, we can finally get it right and care for and be cared for by our partner, but only if we hear and see the baby in each other.
Sometimes when couples are upset and feeling hurt, their comments become more and more negative and attacking. This can result from reading each other’s faces as negative instead of neutral. For example, if you blankly stare at your partner or pause after your partner asks you a question, your partner’s brain may interpret your face as negative and fill in the pause with all sorts of negative statements. That doesn’t mean you always have to smile (fake smiles are also taken as negative) and make small talk while you try to think how to answer the question, but you need to be aware of how your partner is interpreting your face and your pauses, along with your tone of voice and body posturing.
When we interpret a cue as a threat, we can respond in a fight, flight, or freeze manner: (a) we attack, criticize, or dismiss our partner; (b) we leave the room, or (c) we don’t respond. As the conflict escalates, we act as if our partner is an enemy, seeing any action or statement in a negative light.
Consider the example of Lila and Roberto, who are in the kitchen, preparing for dinner.
Lila: (reaches out for connection) Hey, do you want to spend time together tonight?
Roberto: (looks away) We’ll see.
Lila: (interprets his look as withdrawal) What? You never want to spend time with me! You always want to play on your phone.
Roberto: (misses her need for closeness) It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, but (pauses) I’m tired from work.
Lila: (doesn’t know how to create connection, so continues the argument) You always are tired. When are you ever going to make time for me?
In this exchange, Roberto lost an opportunity for connection when he missed the baby in Lila as she reached out. She responded with a fight response, and he continued to overlook the baby. In the following replay, we see how this can be corrected:
Lila: (walks over to Roberto, waits for him to turn and look at her) Hi, honey. Is this a good time to ask you a question?
Roberto: (sees the baby in her) Sure. What did you want to ask?
Lila: (cues that she wants connection) I was wondering if we could spend 15 minutes together after the dishes?
Roberto: (continues to see the baby, offers connection and responsiveness) I was hoping to watch my favorite show for 30 minutes after the dishes, so can we spend time together right after that?
Lila: I’d really appreciate that. Thanks.
The next time things start to get heated between you and your partner, take that as an opportunity to stop, listen, and care for each other. By taking care of the baby within you, you can repair hurts from childhood and strengthen the bonds of your romantic relationship. Here are three tips:
- Stop, listen and look: stop talking, listen to your partner, and look for nonverbal cues from your partner that reveal his or her baby.
- Ask yourself: “What are the nonverbal cues telling me?” “What does the baby need?” “What does my partner need right now?”
- If the argument has started already and you are miscommunicating, replay: ask your partner if you can restart the conversation and take care of the baby inside of him or her.