Hanging On For Dear Life

Look closely: one of them is about to push the other one off a cliff

After we’d cleared out all that old crap at our garage sale last weekend (which I’ll write about once I’ve recovered), I was hoping that some new energy (money, say, or large gifts) would flow our way.

What I got instead was another fight! Or The Same Old Fight!  The details of which I will post when we’re dead and gone and all incriminating information has been duly altered.

For now, just let me say that maybe all that clutter was serving a purpose after all.  By spending all that time focusing on all our clutter, apparently we didn’t have to deal with some of the stuff going on beneath it.

Luckily, this mother of a fight sent me scurrying to my bookshelf (who am I kidding—sent me scurrying beneath my bed, where a good 84 books are currently stuffed) in search of help.

What I found was a goldmine: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson.  This is a book that I started reading last winter, then immediately insisted Ken read it as well.  Did we finish it? Of course not.  After he jumped ship, I soon abandoned the book alongside him, figuring: why bother?

Why indeed? Because if we’d finished the damn book we might not have spent the last few days fighting the same fight we’ve been fighting for the past three years.

Arggghhhh!  (That’s the sound of me slamming my head into a concrete wall.)

So here’s the basic premise of Johnson’s book: our fights with our spouses are not what we think they’re about.

We have to dive below [the surface] to discover the basic problem: these couples have disconnected emotionally; they don’t feel emotionally safe with each other. What couples and therapists too often do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.  Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you? Do you need me, rely on me? The anger, the criticism, the demands, are really cries to their lovers, calls to stir their hearts, to draw their mates back in emotionally and reestablish a sense of safe connection (30).

Pretty intense stuff, huh?

Johnson’s work as a therapist really took off once she began applying psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory to the couples she was working with (Click here for a brief synopsis on Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth‘s groundbreaking work about how your attachment to your parents when you were an infant predicts future behavior).

Suddenly, the pieces began to fit together.

Attachment theory teaches us that our loved one is our shelter in life.  When that person is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we face being out in the cold, alone and helpless.  We are assailed by emotions—anger, sadness, hurt, and above all, fear.  This is not so surprising when we remember that fear is our built-in alarm system; it turns on when our survival is threatened.  Losing connection with our loved one jeopardizes our sense of security.  The alarm goes off in the brain’s amygdala…and triggers and automatic response.  We don’t think; we feel, we act.

(Remember the David Code book we talked about a while back, To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First? Same idea.)

We all experience some fear when we have disagreements or arguments with our partners.  But for those of us with secure bonds, it is a momentary blip.  The fear is quickly and easily tamped down as we realize that there is no real threat or that our partner will reassure us if we ask.  For those of us with weaker or fraying bonds, however, the fear can be overwhelming.  We are swamped by what neuoroscientist Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University calls “primal panic.”  Then we generally do one of two things: we either become demanding and clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from our partner, or we withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect ourselves.  No matter the exact words, what we’re really saying in these reactions is: “Notice me.  Be with me.  I need you.”  Or, “I won’t let you hurt me.  I will chill out, try to stay in control (30-31; emphasis mine).”   

At this point, we’re stuck in what Johnson calls the “Demon Dialogues,” otherwise known as:

  • Find the Bad Guy,
  • The Protest Polka or
  • Freeze and Flee.

(What’s that? Don’t bother me right now—I’m looking for some bourbon.)

OK; OK—it’s not all bad news.  Yes, it’s not the easiest thing to climb out of these nasty sinkholes once we’re stuck inside, but it is possible.  And the first step is to identify which dance or pattern or Bermuda Triangle best describes you and your beloved.

Now, I’m not going to say which pattern Ken and I are stuck in, just that if you happened to have dated either one of us way back when, you already know.

Because we don’t just change these kind of patterns overnight.  We keep coming back to them and back to them and back to them.  But the cool thing about a strong marriage is that it’s a really great place to heal and grow.

As Johnson says,

Still, we are not prisoners of the past.  We can change for the better.  Recent research by psychologist Joanne Davila at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, as well as others, confirms what I see in my sessions: that we can heal even deep vulnerabilities with the help of a loving spouse.  We can “earn” a basic sense of secure connection with the aid of a responsive partner who helps us deal with painful feelings. Love really does transform us (103-4).

Yay!  Pretty good news, huh?

Now here’s the kicker: to get there, you have to feel safe enough with your partner so that you can share your vulnerabilities.  Otherwise, pally, you ain’t gonna get anywhere.

And as we all know, there’s plenty of craziness in life that can rock our boat and add to that unsafe feeling that Johnson’s referring to.

Perhaps you’ve got your undies all bunched up over the new job your spouse is about to take.  Or maybe you’re dealing with an impending illness, a move or the death of a loved one.

Perhaps it’s something much smaller.  Maybe your honey-bunny brought home a 6-pack of Schlitz when you were hankering for some rose; maybe your better half brought home a friend when you were expecting a quiet, just-the-kids-and-us kind of night.

Sometimes even the smallest change can rock our boat, especially if we’re not expecting it.  Which is pretty much the definition of change, isn’t it?  I mean, I don’t know about you, but over here, things don’t often work out as neatly as we’d like.

Just look at our kids.  Has their childhood (not to mention their birth, toddlerhood, last night or hell, last hour) gone as smoothly as you would have liked?

What’s that? You’ve had to deal with some unexpected events?  Hmm, how odd.

The other day, I was talking with some friends about the whole kindergarten transition when one of the women said something that really stuck with me.

The rules are changing, she said.  Now that our younger kids aren’t babies any more, we no longer need to put so much of our energy into the same stuff that consumed us way back in the beginning.  Now that my youngest is in preschool and more independent in general–plus, sleeping through the night, that kind of thing–I’m ready to get back out into the world again.

Another change, another transition.  When our kids begin to need us less than they once did, our world starts to open up again.  Perhaps this means that we have more time to jump-start an idle career, start going out with friends again or resume forgotten hobbies.

All of which takes us away from our spouse, whose world (and yes, this is a generalization) might not have changed as drastically as yours.  (Now, I know this is going to piss off some people, but first listen to what my friend had to say about it: since her husband still had the same 9-5, he wasn’t as entrenched in the day-to-day needs of the kids as much as she was since she worked part-time and spent the bulk of her time with the kids.)

Did I get myself out of that one, or are you still going to set me out to dry?

Either way, I think it’s important to look at the larger picture behind her words.  What do these new changes mean for us and our spouses? Are we on a parallel track, or has one of us derailed?  In a relationship where two people are constantly growing and learning and changing, it’s important to know that we’re still headed in the same general direction.


I don’t know about you, but I’m tired.  This shit is hard work—hard and wonderful and scary and yes, totally fucking worth-it.  No wonder so many of us fall by the wayside.

And no wonder so many of us hang in there, holding on for dear life.

So what do you say we set aside the bourbon—for now—and pick up a glass of wine instead?  A glass of wine we can maybe even perhaps share with our spouse–that crazy, good-for-nothing love of our life.

Yes, my man done drive me crazy.  But I do love him so.

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5 Responses to Hanging On For Dear Life

  1. Mica October 14, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Hi Tanja,

    This column/blog was very interesting to me. We know I’m not in the same
    position as y’all (not married, no kids). But having been married (a
    thousand years ago, it seems), I can understand/remember a lot of these
    feelings (even without the kids). And I think these feeling are universal –
    at least in women. As I’m not in a relationship right now, and don’t see
    one on the horizon (or in this solar system!), I’ve been thinking about what
    “relationship” means. And does it have the same meaning for men and women?

    “Attachment theory teaches us that our loved one is our shelter in life.
    When that person is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we face being
    out in the cold, alone and helpless.”

    I think the above statement is true for both men and women. Men need a
    cheerleader and a nurturer (despite being adults), and women need to feel
    safe (emotionally and physically). I wonder if men would agree with the
    statement (below) that they need to feel emotionally safe? I wonder if most
    men even think in that term? Why do men get married? I think women do it
    for emotional security – and that we may have a greater need (or at least a
    different need) to connect. Men seem to be happier in, or at least less
    bothered by, the rougher times of a relationship. Which leads me to believe
    that they expect less from a relationship.

    “these couples have disconnected emotionally; they don’t feel emotionally
    safe with each other.. Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each
    other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me? Will you
    respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and
    accepted by you? Do you need me, rely on me? The anger, the criticism, the
    demands, are really cries to their lovers, calls to stir their hearts, to
    draw their mates back in emotionally and reestablish a sense of safe
    connection (30).”

    I know there are times when I get so tired of doing it all on my own and
    would like someone to lean on/to share the burdens, and the happiness. I
    talked to a guy who is self-aware and reflective and asked if men get tired
    like that. I’ve never heard a man express that. He said they do, and they
    don’t think they can express it very often. I asked how he gets through
    those times. I was hoping for a magic formula, but it’s just one foot in
    front of the other – and repeat.

    Maybe relationship/marriage is really all about having someone to lean on,
    to pull you along, when you don’t think you can take one more step..

    • tpajevic October 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

      Thanks for your insightful comments, Mica. I’ve been thinking about your question/comment (why do men get married? do they expect less from relationships than women do?) and would love to hear from some men on this one. Any takers?

      My guess (being the unofficial amateur shrink over here) is that guys have the same fears and same need to connect, even if they might not be able to articulate it. This is something that drives me nuts–the whole “raising our boys to be manly and stuff their feelings” kind of thing, and I think, a travesty for both our men and the people who love them. It’s my hope that by talking about this kind of stuff (and by hyping books like Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys we can put a stop to this for the next generation.

      In the meantime, I have to hope that if we keep encouraging our men to express themselves (and providing them with a safe space/relationship to do it), that they’ll slowly begin to open up. That’s assuming that they’re conscious enough to do so, which, as The Atlantic piece by Kate Bolick (“All the Single Ladies”) pointed out, isn’t always the case.

      And yes, having someone to lean on, someone to catch our back–that’s gotta be what it’s about at the deepest level, I think. That’s my take, anyway.

  2. Tanja Pajevic October 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    I’d also like to send J a giant thank you for getting in touch to say that this post saved her years of spinning her wheels with her mate. Yay! Thanks, J–your email made my day!


  1. All the Single Ladies | Reboot This Marriage - October 18, 2011

    […] making things suck, that is.  If that’s you, take two steps back and re-read “Hanging on For Dear Life.”  Do not pass go. […]

  2. Steps 2 and 3: Have a Big Fight and Use that Fight for Change | Reboot This Marriage - October 31, 2011

    […] OK.  This is where I skip back to the wonderful little book (Hold Me Tight) that saved our collective married ass a few weeks ago.  I don’t want to drive this nail into the ground, but the book really is pretty goddamn good.  So, whenever you need to, click here to read that post again. […]

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