Is Your Partner Really A Priority To You?

Some couples I see are in a place of profound anger and despair. This post is not for you. If you are in that place, I wouldn't expect you to be making time together and enjoying date night. Likely, you can barely be in the room together, and are feeling incredibly hurt and wounded by each other. This post is more for couples who are neutral or feeling minor friction with each other. 

So, back to the point of this post  - is your partner really a priority to you? I hear clients all the time talk about the concern of if they are really a priority to their partner. And I think "priority" is a challenging word and idea, anyway. The reality is that your kids, partner, parents, work, personal health, friends all have to be priorities. And often times one of those things cycle into the spotlight for a while. A huge presentation at work, a parent going into the hospital, a kid that is struggling at school, all of those things will at time take more of your attention and energy. Sometimes, though, we forget to check back in and cycle the relationship into the spotlight again.

I think of the connection between partners like a rubber band. It needs to stretch and give bandwidth for each to, at times, not be as focused on the other. In a healthy relationship, it stretches out and then comes back in, where the couple restores and reconnects, strengthening their bond. Issues can come when the rubber band stays stretched too far out, and starts to strain and fray. 

Things can go off course subtly and quickly. As you start to feel depleted, and like you aren't getting the help you need, some resentment can start to build. Now, when your partner expresses what he/she needs, you start to feel like, "Hey, if you helped with the dishes, I would have more energy to want to go on a date night with you." Or, "If you had sex with me, I would feel loved and have more in the gas tank to go to your parents house for dinner again."

With a minority distressed couple, I would try having a conversation about the way your partner feels the most prioritized. Be curious. What helps your partner feel the most loved? Why? What is it about that thing that makes them feel so good and so special? Try to be open to what's real for them. Instead of interpreting something like, "You like sex because you're a typical guy and you just want to get off," try to really understand what physical touch from you feels like and means to them. Or instead of hearing, "You want me to do the dishes because you're a nagging perfectionist with unrealistic cleanliness standards," understand what it means to them to feel like to have help from you, what it means that you care about what concerns them, that they don't have to do it all alone.

Pursuers and Withdrawers - Which One Are You?

The kind of couples therapy I do, Emotionally-Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), outlines the dance between Pursuers and Withdrawers so beautifully. When I first learned about this, it blew my mind. But before we get to the dance, how do you know what you are? Of course, no one is a cookie cutter, so this generally outlines what category you may fall into.

Pursuers:

Oh, Pursuers. You make the world go round. Verbal, motivated, organized. You are often the one on top of all the things in the household. You can fall into the role of manager, or even sometimes, blamer/demander. You pursue your partner for connection. You complain when something disrupts that connection. On the outside it might sound like, "Hey, you didn't do the dishes? What is wrong with you?" but on the inside it sounds like, "When you don't do the dishes, I feel like you don't care about me! Please know this and fix it, so I can feel close to you."

The Pursuer fears loss, and generally feel fairly anxious (female pursuers seem to be more connected to their anxiety, male pursuers seem to be more connected to a feeling of indignation). They fear they will lose their partner. They work really hard to explain themselves and try to resolve conflicts so this doesn't happen. They explain to their partner often what would help resolve the issue. The anthem of the Pursuer? "I've told him/her exactly what I need, why can't they do it?"

Pursuers can be very gentle, making quiet, quiet bids for what they need. Or they can be strident, where there is no question that they are upset with you. But they tend to be the ones who bring the complaint first, and who can stay in the tough conversation a little longer.

Quiet Withdrawers:

I love Withdrawers. They are so not me. Thoughtful, observant, quiet. You take in the world, and pick up on much more than it seems. In conflict, though, you are a bit of a challenge. In conflict, Withdrawers typically shut down. They go stone cold silent or get defensive and then shut down. They may leave the room. They rarely come back the next day and say, "Hey, you know that fight we were having where you were telling me what a failure I am? Can we resume that?"

Withdrawers look stoic, but truly are far more sensitive than you realize. It cuts them deeply to hear, over and over again, that they are failing you or letting you down. Their brains go into a "freeze" mode in conflict, which makes it very difficult to stay engaged in even minor disagreements. Pursuers may not think they are telling the Withdrawer that they are failing, but trust me, that is what the Withdrawer is hearing deep down.

Whenever someone comes in and tells me, "My partner has no emotions, they are emotionally stunted." I think - oh, you're married to a Withdrawer. Quite the opposite, Withdrawers have as many emotions as anyone else (which are ALL EMOTIONS, for heaven's sakes, all people have all emotions!) they just don't look like it, because they have learned to suppress and deny their feelings. 

Reactive Withdrawers:

Reactive Withdrawers actually come with some gifts, even though you can look like firecrackers in the moment. Reactive Withdrawers have the same motivation of a Quiet Withdrawer, which is to end the conflict. Quiet Withdrawers end the conflict by literally not talking. Reactive Withdrawers end the conflict by turning on the firehouse and blowing everyone away. They look explosive, but they are not pursuing for connection. They are wanting the disagreement to end.

The bonus of the Reactive Withdrawer is that you stay somewhat verbal in conflict. Your brain is probably still getting flooded, which means you feel overwhelmed in an argument, but with some tweaking you can dial back that firehose and stay in the conversation with your partner.

Often, the dance we see with partners is Pursue - Withdraw. But sometimes you can have Withdraw - Withdraw, or Attack - Attack. Regardless, the questions underneath all these conflicts are the same. Do you love me? How important am I to you? Am I your hero or your disappointment? 

To learn more, read Dr. Sue Johnson's book "Hold Me Tight." She founded EFT and is a genius bringing healing to so many couples.

But I want to fix it ...

"Don't try to fix it. I just need you to listen." Every man has heard these words. And they are the law of the land. No matter what. A short film by Jason Headley at www.jasonheadley.com. Shared with permission.

It can be a hard concept to get your head around - you want to fix your partner's pain, but somehow it never seems to work. I hear clients say, "I just want to fix it," and of course that makes so much sense. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't just men who want to fix their partner's pain, we all want our partners to feel better. But think for a minute, do you actually want to soothe your partner's pain, or do you just want them stop feeling the pain? Because they are two totally different things.

Wanting our partner to stop feeling bad makes sense - it feels SO AWFUL when our partners are upset, especially at us. So we try to fix the source of their pain, or we minimize their pain with the hope they agree it's "not that bad".

Trying to fix the source

Partner 1: (after weeks of complaining about how awful his job is) I just can't do it another day, it's so stressful, it's killing me.

Partner 2: Just quit! We'll be fine for a while, just quit! Or go talk to your boss about it!

Minimizing their pain

Partner 1: (after weeks of complaining about how awful his job is) I just can't do it another day, it's so stressful, it's killing me.

Partner 2: It's not so bad, it'll be ok. Just hang in there.

Partner 2 is trying to fix their partner's pain by providing a solution or by trying to convince them it's not as painful as they think it is. While this is understandable, it's going to leave Partner 1 feeling kind of lost and alone.

Actually fixing it

Partner 1: (after weeks of complaining about how awful his job is) I just can't do it another day, it's so stressful, it's killing me.

Partner 2: I am so sorry, that sounds really tough. You have been working so hard, and it sucks that it's not getting better. What can I do to help?

 

When clients say to me, "I want to fix it," I say, "Great! You totally can. You just need to use a different tool than you have been." Now this gets much harder if the partner's pain is a result of us, if we did something that causes them distress or mistrust. But a good first way to try this is when it's something outside the relationship like with work, etc. Give it a try, see what happens.