Recently, I became inspired by the song Where is The Love? by The Black-eyed Peas. Do you know it? It’s a song that is fast and slow, rough and soft, deep and raw–all at the same time. I found the tempo motivating. And, I found the lyrics compelling. It speaks to the dilemma of where people find love in a world that is full of pain and problems. As a couples therapist near Bethesda and in Washington, DC, I often am struck by how couples bravely enter my office and are willing to confront their own pain for the sake of love.
Like the song, relationships can be full of contradictions. Both confusing and conflictual at times, committed relationships challenge our emotional reserves. We rely on our relationships for support, yet we find ourselves drawing from an empty tank when our relationships are strained. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, purports that our spousal fights are simply protests to the pain that we experience when we feel disconnected from our lovers and our committed partners. We are wired to connect and love. And when we can’t feel our partner’s love or our love for our partner, then we are left feeling scared and lonely. When we’re fearful or in pain, we revert to our survival instincts toward flight or fight. It is our instinctual attempt to soothe and protect ourselves from our hurt feelings. These repeated attempts result in a negative cycle or pattern of relating, and when left unattended will usually create further distance and conflict within the relationship.
In couples therapy, I work with couples on identifying their default tendencies, or their most comfortable coping mechanisms when fearful or overwhelmed. Some of us flee. Some of us fight. Some of us avoid. Some of us pursue. Some of us do it all. In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, I work with each partner to begin to understand their default behaviors and how those behaviors contribute to the negative cycle in their relationship. I also help each person begin to understand and appreciate their partner’s “go-to” coping strategies in order to see how a relationship block is created, and how each partner’s reactions to their own pain will keep that negative cycle underway. We work to untangle that block and create time and space for each partner to evaluate their underlying feelings and wishes as well as their partner’s longings.
“Tell me how you were loved, and I’ll tell you how you make love.”
A prominent New York psychotherapist, Esther Perel, writes in her book, Mating for Captivity, about how separateness is a precondition for connection. She describes how couples struggle with remaining connected while maintaining their separate desires and wishes. You can read more about her work at EstherPerel.com.
Perel asserts, “Tell me how you were loved, and I’ll tell you how you make love.” In this statement, she’s putting forth the notion that distressed couples often face a bind–can they want what they already have? In other words, can partners allow themselves to be separate enough to still pursue and allow their own sexual “wants” in a connected, comfortable, committed relationship?
How do we do this? It requires truly understanding the sexual, emotional and physical aspects of yourself; it necessitates the same of your partner. In order to understand our own longings and blocks, we must learn to appreciate our own story of how we were loved, and perhaps how we were not loved. It doesn’t mean that we exactly replicate the foes and follies of our parents. Yet, it does suggest that it matters how we were seen, held, disciplined, etc.–it makes some kind of mark that emanates into our adult intimate and sexual interactions. So I ask you to consider Perel’s questions as you think about your own committed relationship–
”Did we learn to experience pleasure or not, to trust others or not, to receive or be denied? Were our parents monitoring our needs or were we expected to monitor theirs? Did we turn to them for protection or did we flee them to protect ourselves? Were we rejected? Humiliated? Abandoned? Were we held? Rocked? Soothed? Did we learn not to expect too much, to hide when we were upset? To make eye contact? How much closeness can you stand to feel? And finally, Can you tolerate pleasure with the one you love?”
In the next part of this series, I will share more about finding love in the midst of our family dynamics.