The last blog I wrote was about a cuscus and a giant rat and fear and at the end of that blog I concluded that the opposite to fear was not courage but love. I argued that love was possible when we move through 5 stages:
- Awareness first to assess whether harm is intended or not. The rat and the cuscus didn’t sense harm; they were alert, watching and listening and aware.
- Connection seemed to come next; sniffing, looking and touching, by the humans and the animals alike. Finding out about each other viscerally and behaviorally.
- Once a safe connection has been made, trust seemed to follow. Backshall let the cuscus climb all over him and the cuscus let itself be stroked and hugged.
- When awareness, connection and trust were established Backshall and the crew were able to appreciate the animals, to really see them in all their detail. To see them as separate, unique and perfect.
- And when this seeing has happened, then love is possible. The kids and I fell a little bit in love with the cuscus. Not romantic valentine love, but a love for the cuscus just being a cuscus and being remarkable.
I love how writing works. When I set out to write the cuscus blog I also had another blog that I wanted to write, about what goes on with P and I when we fall in and out with each other.
I did a straw pole with 2 other friends. One said she and her husband never argue and she never hates him. The other friend rows with her husband daily and often hates him. Does that mean one is in a good marriage and the other is not? No. Both are happily married it’s just that one has a different style of marriage than the other.
Over New Year P and I went through one of our negative cycles. By January the 2nd I hated him and he hated me. We couldn’t find a nice thing to say to each other but remained civil and silent.
I did what many of my female friend do which is to run through my survival strategy; I go through the details of life without him: how I mange financially, how I will juggle child care, how I will fill my evenings and how I will reorganise the soon to be empty shelves.
He does something similar but without the detail, he just want to escape.
I’ve been trying to think about how we get into this negative cycle now and again.
We behave unkindly to each other. We stop being appreciative and kind. We talk harshly to each other, becoming more easily hurt and so more critical and controlling. Our body language changes, we touch less, we make less eye contact.
I then asked myself what causes the behaviour change?
We change our behaviour because of our cognition, because of what we are thinking. I start to think negative things about him and how he is speaking to me and so does he. We each think the worse of each other. We expect the worst of each other. We don’t like and trust each other.
But what changes to make us think differently? How is it that we are getting on well, and then we aren’t?
- Do you and your partner get into negative cycles?
- What triggers them?
- What sustains them?
The answer is in my last blog: we become scared. Scared of being hurt, of being left, or being loved, unlovable, scared we’re making a mistake being together, scared of being treated badly, of being taken for granted, of being misunderstood, overwhelmed, unable to connect, unable to meet each other’s needs of have our own needs met.
What triggers the fear? How is it that we perceive threat when we might another time see jest, teasing, stress, personality.
There are 2 types of fear; real and imagined. Real fear was what Eldest son felt as he held the blazing Christmas tree branch and what I felt when I saw him. Real fear is when there is a real threat. P is never a real threat.
- What kind of things to you think about your partner when you are not getting on?
- How many of those thought are ‘true’?
So if he’s not a real threat, what triggers the fear? All those fears listed above are fears in case something happens, they are imagined fears of what could happen, rather than what is happening. This has to be true as when we’re getting on well and he teases me I laugh and yet when I am fearful and he teases me I hear condescension and lack of respect. I focus on the behaviour and then have thoughts about it.
Back to the cuscus from the last blog. Fear is learned and the cuscus hadn’t learned fear. P and I however have. We have both had the experience of being hurt, overwhelmed and dis empowered. I have had the experience of being dis-respected, lied to, manipulated and bullied. He has had the experience of feeling overwhelmed and trapped. We have both felt misunderstood, we both know what it is like to not have our needs met.
We have learned to be fearful based on past experience. So when one of us does something, unintentionally, that reminds the other of something that caused us fear in the past, then we respond with fear based thoughts of blame, judgement, criticism and attack and our behaviour and words match. In psychoanalytic terms this is called transference, when we transfer feeling from the past onto the present situation. Or maybe we have been conditioned into feeling the fear.
Which ever explanation most fits; I think our negative cycles start with fear.
- Does this make sense to you or is it another feeling?
Then the cycle stops and reverses into a positive one and I ask myself how it happens as no amount of positive re-framing helps when I hate him.
After my defensive ‘I can cope without him’ check, I speak to girl friends about what’s going on. I talk to my soul friends who listen without judgement of either of us but remind me of who I am and what I have lived through.
As I talk about it I start to see ‘it’ more clearly, the narrative takes on a form and so feels more tangible and easily examined.
As I am more able to examine what is happening my fear decreases as I instead of being an amorphous scary mess I see 2 people behaving unkindly without meaning to.
Talking to other people helps me put into words what my experience is and when I have done this with friends, I can talk to P about it. By this stage I am starting to get insights as to what’s going on and my fear is decreased and so I am able to be more open and less defensive which allows me to think more clearly and see him how he really is, rather than the ogre I have been making him into. I start to see his vulnerability and fear too and can be gentle with it.
As we talk, his fear lessens and he softens and so we are able to connect again with each other in the here and now without whatever we were imagining about each other.
This time there was a final step. We were with friends I and told them about one of the things which I found attractive in the first week we met in Greece; I loved how he could park a car in a tight space without getting stressed.
As I recounted that event I felt the love flooding back.
- How do you get out of your negative cycles?
I could see him as he is again, AS HE IS.
Because fear isn’t the only thing at play when things go wrong, we also stop seeing each other as we are, we start seeing each other as we think we should be.
When I saw him park that car, I liked his clarity of thinking, his calmness, his persistence. He hasn’t changed…I just lose sight of what I liked.
When he drove my kids and I in that same battered old Micra down precipitous, hairpin roads to the beach I marveled at how safe I felt and how much I trusted him. I do still trust him and feel safe with him, I just take it for granted, it’s become like the background and so I stop seeing it.
In our first conversations we promised honesty and truth telling. I do absolutely trust him and know he tells the truth. I take it for granted as I have stopped seeing it, it is so all pervasive, I don’t notice it.
- What do you take for granted in your partner that you really appreciated when you first got together?
Even when I hate him he is honest and trustworthy and reliable…I just take it for granted and so don’t see it.
When we first met we saw each other from the outside, as a unique human being who we had no control over, no expectation of, no claim on. It is so easy in relationships to stop seeing that unique, autonomous human being and to start focusing on what they ‘should’ be like, on what we expect of them and what we have a right to from them. As soon as we start to fall into an ‘ownership’ mindset, ‘my partner’, we cease to see the person as they are, but as we think they should be.
So when fear gets triggered, and I start transferring past hurts onto him and focusing on what I don’t like and I can’t see the good things to balance it, they are so self evident even when we don’t like each other, that I can’t see them and so the things I don’t like get magnified. I start focusing on what I think he should be like and stop seeing him.
So we fall out because some fear gets triggered for one of us which lead to fear based behaviour which then triggers fear in the other and so the circle starts. Add to this the fact that we have stopped seeing what we like about each other and what we don’t like is magnified, which further increases the fear.
So, back to the beginning again and what did the cuscus teach me?
- Awareness first to assess whether harm is intended or not. The rat and the cuscus didn’t sense harm; they were alert, watching and listening and aware. When I am alert and I watch P and really look to see how he is feeling and behaving I can see he doesn’t intend harm. I can’t always do this in the moment so I do this when I am talking to my girl friends.
- Connection seemed to come next; sniffing, looking and touching, by the humans and the animals alike. Finding out about each other viscerally and behaviorally. With P and I this is often an uncomfortable conversation about how we are both feeling. Because we promised honesty it’s not usually a very cheerful conversation but it does feel very real. We are able to tolerate each other expressing our dislike, anger, need to withdraw etc.
- Once a safe connection has been made, trust seemed to follow. Backshall let the cuscus climb all over him and the cuscus let itself be stroked and hugged. Once we have been honest with each other about all the sad, angry and scared stuff we’ve been thinking and feeling we rebuild trust. Some people might argue that we should skip step 2 as it is ‘negative’. I think not. Yes is can be painful to hear that he hated me for that time, but I could feel that instinctively anyway, so him putting it into words is a way connecting and trusting. He sense when I withdraw, even if I say nothing, so when I own up to this in step 2, it he knows he can trust his own intuition and he can trust me to be honest which reduces fear and builds connection.
- When awareness, connection and trust were established Backshall and the crew were able to appreciate the animals, to really see them in all their detail. To see them as separate, unique and perfect. This is so true. Once we have connected again, as the fear drops away, we start to see all the things we like about each other again, all the stuff we’ve taken for granted and which have become invisible become visible again and we appreciate each other.
- And when this seeing has happened, then love is possible. The kids and I fell a little bit in love with the cuscus. Not romantic valentine love, but a love for the cuscus just being a cuscus and being remarkable. And so it is with us. Once we can see each other as we really are, without transferences, without fear, without expectation of how we think the other should be, love is there. Love was always there, we just let other stuff get in the way.
Thank you cuscus. Thank you writing..I wonder how this awareness will change things.