Love can feel like risky business…

Love can feel like risky business…will we lose ourselves in the process? Open ourselves up to depend on another only to be rejected or abandoned? What would that say about us if it happened, that we are not worthy or not good enough? No wonder we want to protect ourselves!

Rumi makes a very wise point: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”

There are all sorts of reasons we might build barriers against love, sometimes consciously, sometimes without even knowing it. Barriers can develop from what we have seen and experienced in our families, past relationships, and popular culture. Yet, in the effort maintain these barriers, to protect ourselves, to avoid being alone or to maintain a sense of control, we limit our ability to connect with others.

It’s easy to point fingers where relationships are concerned and even easier to keep focused on the other person and what he or she needs to change, instead of looking inside ourselves. Ideally your partner would make some changes too (or make all the changes your heart desires), but realistically that is not something you can control. In staying other-focused, it’s easy to avoid looking at ourselves, where we do have some control.

By getting to know and learning to accept ourselves for who we are, weakness, strength and all, we can spend less time trying to prove our worthiness or seeking love from another in order to feel okay and instead begin to transform our barriers into bridges.

What are some of the barriers that might prevent you from being available for love?

What is Your Attachment Style?

Though surely to avoid attachments for fear of loss is to avoid life -Lionel Shriver

On way to start exploring barriers is to look at your attachment style. In a nutshell attachment style is how you relate to another person. We develop our first experience of attachment with our primary caregiver(s). There are thought to be four main attachment styles that develop in early childhood which tend to impact how we attach to others as adults. However these early styles of attachment and their resulting adult attachment styles are on a continuum and we are likely to move between styles depending on the situation.

Secure Attachment:

  • primary caregiver(s) are sensitive and responsive to their infant
  • primary caregiver(s) are consistent
  • child is able to regard the primary caregiver(s) as a secure base from which he or she can begin to explore the world
  • child tends to be secure being attached to others while maintaining their autonomy
  • Impact on Adult Attachment: Able to create meaningful relationships; empathetic; able to set appropriate boundaries.

Avoidant Attachment:

  • primary caregiver(s) are emotionally unavailable and not able to be sensitive and responsive to their infant
  • primary caregiver(s) encourage independence and discourage crying
  • primary caregiver(s) have difficulty responding to their child’s distress
  • children learn to be self-contained and not depend on others to have their needs met
  • Impact on Adult Attachment: Avoids closeness or emotional connection; tend to be cerebral and suppress their feelings; may be distant, critical, rigid, and intolerant; distance themselves from stress and conflict.

Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment:

  • primary caregiver(s) are unpredictable and inconsistently attuned to their children – sometimes responding in a nurturing manner, sometimes in an intrusive and insensitive way
  • primary caregiver(s) have difficulty responding to their child’s distress
  • children tend to be insecure, confused and distrustful and at the same time can be clingy and anxious
  • Impact on Adult Attachment: Anxious and insecure; may be controlling, blaming, erratic or unpredictable.

Disorganized Attachment:

  • child experiences trauma and/or abuse with primary caregiver(s)
  • the primary caregiver is the source of terror and pain, but also the person the child flees to for safety
  • children tend to disassociate from themselves
  • Impact on Adult Attachment: Do not have a clear sense of self or a clear understanding of how to successfully connect with others; may be chaotic, insensitive, explosive and untrusting even while craving security.

Interested in learning more about how your attachment style? Try this quiz and feel free to post your thoughts.

What are your Expectations?

It’s good to set our expectations high isn’t it? There are all sorts of quotes telling us to do just that:

By asking for the impossible we obtain the best possible. -Giovanni Niccolini 
High expectations are the key to everything. -Sam Walton

And yet Shakespeare said: Expectation is the root of all heartache.

Having high expectations might be a good thing in terms of knowing what we want from ourselves and our partners….but these expectations can create barriers if we don’t understand what is behind them. One way to gain some insight into the root of our expectations is to take a look at our family of origin. Because our family of origin is the first relationship dynamic we experience, we can — both consciously and unconsciously  develop ideas of how we and our partners should behave. This can be especially true in relation to how conflict is managed. For example, if your family of origin dealt with conflict in ways that were volatile, scary or conflict was discouraged, you might then have difficulty knowing how to address disagreements in your present relationships in healthy and appropriate ways. Instead of learning conflict management skills in your family, you likely would have developed tools and skills for protecting or distancing yourself from these situations. In your current relationship this might appear as expecting your partner to be agreeable all the time, or feeling attacked when your partner brings up difficult topics.

You can ask yourself following questions to better understand your family of origin:

  1. What roles did your mother/father/guardian play?
  • Taking care of finances
  • Housework
  • Yardwork
  • Communicating style
  • Child rearing
  • Career
  • Activity and social planning
  1. Were men’s and women’s roles defined differently? If so, how?
  2. When you were hurt or scared, who did you run to? How did they respond to you?
  3. Were decisions discussed or did one person make the decisions?
  4. What sorts of issues caused conflict or disagreement in your family?
  5. How was conflict handled by different people in your family?
  6. How were you affected by conflict between other members of your family?
  7. Was conflict seen as safe and necessary or negative and unsafe? Explain.
  8. What emotions or feelings were not okay to express during a conflict? In general, who determined this and how?
  9. Did each family have different roles during conflict? (e.g. initiator, peacemaker) What was your role?
  10. What skills did this role teach you?
  11. How did you cope with conflict or soothe yourself when there was a conflict?

After answering those questions, take a moment to consider how these early experiences may impact your expectations in your current relationship. Are there any roles you may unconsciously be playing or expecting your partner to play? The more clearly you understand your early family dynamics, the more you can begin to choose how you respond in your current relationship… and the more you can be conscious of what roles you might be playing or expecting your partner to play. Through this clarity you can begin to dismantle another potential barrier to connecting with yourself and your partner.

Healthy Conflict = Healthy Relationships

Client: hello, my partner and I are interested in couples counselling
Me: I’m glad you guys are looking for some support – that takes courage. What’s led you to seek counselling?
Client: hmmmm it’s hard to put into words….ummmm….I guess communication….

Communication difficulties are cited by 90% of people who contact me for couples counselling. Couples know that something isn’t working and can give me lots of examples of communication going sideways. While hearing about the content of their conflicts is a starting place, in order for insight and change to occur it’s necessary to go deeper and that takes some dedicated work. How does each person view conflict? What is happening in her/his nervous system? How was conflict handled in his/her family of origin? How well can each person regulate his/her own emotions?

Conflict is a natural and needed part of building and maintaining an intimate relationship. So the goal isn’t to get rid of conflict but to help couples to find ways of engaging in and repairing conflict in order to increase feelings of safety, connection, and intimacy.  That can sometimes feel like a tall order! But luckily there are lots of amazing tools and strategies for helping people change how they communicate.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to talk about some of the tools the couples I work with have found particularly useful: Stop-Replay, Regulating your Nervous System, and Emotional Bids.