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Couple's Net

By Chandrama Anderson

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About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and have lived in and around Palo Alto since 1969. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in Silicon Valley for 15 years before becoming a therapist. My background i...  (More)

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"How Can We Be Happy Again?"

Uploaded: Feb 5, 2014
Dear Chandrama,

How can we be happy again? I try to argue with him to get him to respond, and he goes further and further away, including long hours at work, and then on his devices when he's home.

Help!

Dear Help,

Thanks for such a good (and big) question. Over several posts I am going to write about the fundamentals of couples' happiness, and how we can all work on that. I will be writing about attachment theory, which has been around since the 50's, and is the basis of healthy relationships. I will begin by defining secure attachment and what is means to a couple.

John Bowlby first coined the term Attachment Theory as "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194). Mary Ainsworth created a study called "The Strange Situation" that illustrated and helps distinguish the types of attachment bonds between a mother and her child. You can view this on YouTube. Over the years, a great deal more research has been added to this body of knowledge. The definitions and explanations have recently been simplified by Stan Tatkin, PsyD., so I'll be sharing that with you, too.

The premise that relates to your couple is that the "secure bond" we needed as children with our primary caregiver is sought – and needed –- again with our partner. This is an evolutionary, biological drive for connection that affects our brain make-up (neural pathways). Fundamentally: Are you there for me? Do you have my back? Can I count on you?

Secure attachment is defined by five things: We give each other attunement (which is deep listening AND empathy); we have each others' back; we seek comfort from each other; we seek sex from each other; and we create a home that is a haven that gives us strength to do everything we need to in our lives.

The bottom line is that we need to be "securely attached" to one another – as an "anchor" as Dr. Tatkin calls it in his excellent book, "Wired for Love." If we're not an anchor, we're either a "wave" or an "island." These terms are so good because it's easy to intuitively understand what these mean. Waves are anxious/ambivalent in relationship, and tend to make waves, come at their partner, prefer to talk issues out to the point where our mate wants to run and hide. Healthy, kind, calm talk is good -- pay attention to timing (10 minutes, not an hour) and revisit the topic later if it's going nowhere. Islands are avoidant, and want to get away, and (have learned to believe they must) take care of everything themselves.

Waves and islands end up together in relationships all the time. It is very hard to understand why he is making a fuss, starting an argument, or she keeps coming at me when all I want to do is be alone and regroup.
Both waves and islands can learn to become anchors. We can learn to step back and see our beloved acting as a wave or island (which is what we learned as a child in our particular family), instead of deciding that she is doing this or that TO ME. We can gain compassion, and stop reacting. The healing process begins.

Becoming an anchor couple is the same as being a securely attached couple.

Tatkin calls this creating a "Couple Bubble," which he defines as: "a pact between partners . . . to burden one another with the tasks of devotion and caring for the other's safety, security, and well-being. This mutual burden determines the degree of shared gratitude and valuation you both enjoy."

In a healthy marriage, we both work to build and maintain our secure connection, we begin to rely on the feeling of being known, seen, heard, respected, and valued. We know what it feels like to be beloved. We know what it feels like when this is "off" and we take immediate measures to repair and regain our connection.

Are you an anchor, wave, or island?

Comments

Posted by lovely, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Chandrama, your posts are all so thoughtful.

I have a clarification question. I'm afraid I might be a 'wave' but want to be an 'anchor'. I think you'll agree (but maybe not?) that "talk[ing] issues out" is sometimes a good thing. But in this article it somehow is not optimal. So:

1. What is the alternative to talking an issue out? Just hugging but not seeking to understand at an intellectual level?

2. If it's a matter of moderation, how do I know when talking it out is ok? Is it enough to say: 'At some point I want to discuss this issue; but I'm happy to wait until you're ready.' Or is even that too talky?

Thanks!


Posted by Chandrama Anderson, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Feb 5, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Chandrama Anderson is a registered user.

Thanks for asking for that clarification, Lovely, because talking things through is definitely a good idea, and the more explicit, the better. It's really HOW we talk that makes a difference. Your suggestion to talk at some point is called a "slow start up" by Gottman, and that's helpful. The person who asks to defer talking until later is responsible to come back later to have the discussion (and gives a chance for the Island and the Wave to calm down (once our heart rate is 95 or over, we physiologically need at least 20 min. to calm down). The talking needs to be kind and calm, with the intention of re-connecting (not blaming or starting up an argument again, or being right). The talking can take this format: When _____ happens, I feel ______. I wish ______. So here's an example: "When I am not greeted when I get home, I feel snubbed and disrespected. I wish we could make eye contact and hug for a minute." This is not "You never greet me, what the hell is wrong with you." It's tricky because a wave keeps picking at an island, and an island keeps retreating; it's a downward spiral. We have to switch to an upward spiral. Get curious. Listen and give empathy.


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