We’ve all been there: you’re with your partner, something happens, and suddenly - you’re angry. It might feel like it comes out of nowhere: one moment you’re calm, and the next moment you’re whisked away into the realm of anger and a painful argument. You feel emotionally attacked; you want to defend yourself, or run away, or emotionally attack your partner in return.
In her book ‘Hold Me Tight - Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,’ Dr. Susan Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) writes about the concept of ‘raw spots’ in our relationships:
“We all have raw spots. They are sensitivities that come from our temperament, our personal attachment histories and from negative experiences in our relationship with our partner. They always reflect moments when a loved one was perceived as not responding to our need for loving attachments, and so triggering our attachment fears.”
We enter into relationships with our core fears and vulnerabilities in tow, and we unconsciously search for information that confirms our existing stories. We also continually check and test our attachments - does this person still care for me? Do I matter to them? Are they there for me? This is a natural, normal process, but the stakes can feel high, particularly when we have attachment wounds and fears that are being triggered in the moment. Because we are deeply social animals, when we are feeling uncertain about our connection, and our partner is not responding in the way that we need or want, it can be perceived as a threat. If the missed opportunity for connection occurs in the context of an already existing raw spot, it can raise the stakes even higher. It can cause our nervous systems to react quickly and decisively, in order to protect us.
Susan Johnson offers information about universal raw spots - or vulnerabilities that nearly all people share in common:
“The universal raw spots are: feeling deprived of contact, comfort, attention and safe connection; feeling deserted when our partner does not respond to our need for closeness; feeling rejected when we get messages that we are disappointed and not wanted. Without a safe haven connection, we all tend to feel helpless.”
At times, when our vulnerabilities are triggered and our nervous systems go into high alert, it can in turn trigger our partner’s own attachment fears, leading you into an escalating dialogue or argument where no one’s attachment needs are met, and each person’s internal story feels as though it has been confirmed. Even though you love each other and you want to meet each other’s attachment needs, your battling vulnerabilities lead to further rupture and even distance.
To start to disrupt this process, try setting up ground rules with your partner ahead of time, when you’re both feeling calm. Acknowledge that when you start to feel rage and anger during an argument, it’s an understandable nervous system response that signals to you that your deep attachment fears are being triggered. Note that if you are feeling escalated, your partner is likely feeling escalated too, and navigating their own attachment fears. Agree ahead of time that when this starts to occur, you will take a short time-out and seek some solitude.
This time-out is important, because when we go into a state of nervous system activation (fight or flight), important cognitive and emotional processes in our brains go completely offline. We become flooded with stress hormones, and we are focused on neutralizing or escaping the threat. We cannot return to connection and honor our own and each other’s vulnerabilities when we are in a state of nervous system flooding and distress. It’s important that you are able to go into a safe space where you can help bring your body back to its baseline state of regulation, and allow the emotional and cognitive processes that you need in order for connection to return.
A shared theme amongst many of the universal raw spots is the fear of abandonment and desertion. This on its own can trigger even more activation, and trigger us to pursue our partners more intently if we perceive them moving away from us in a heightened moment. With this in mind, it is pivotal that there is a guarantee that each partner will return to the discussion* once they’ve had a chance to allow themselves to shift back downward into a regulated state.
Once you’re back to your baseline, try approaching yourself with curiosity - what attachment fears are being triggered for me? What stories am I telling myself about the conflict at-hand, and do I feel safe enough to check in about my stories with my partner, to see if they’re true? What attachment fears might my partner be responding to? What stories could they be carrying into this conflict?
It can be difficult to interrupt our current dynamics, and it takes practice. It’s important to treat yourself with a lot of compassion as you work to shift this dynamic in your relationship - your body and your inner selves are working hard to protect you, and they have good intentions. Rest assured that this dynamic exists for almost every couple and every person, because attachment is so central to our well-being as humans. With practice, you’ll be able to help support the parts of you that are scared, uncertain, or feeling abandoned, which will then help lay the groundwork for more openly discussing your fears with your partner. Working on these skills with a couples therapist is an excellent place to begin, and to start to map out more of your relational dynamics within a safe container.
*Important disclaimer: In cases of intimate partner violence, it may not be safe to return to the discussion or to the conflict at-hand. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, or you are experiencing intimate partner violence or abuse, you can reach The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for more specific support. If you find yourself reacting violently to your partner, you can call the same number (800-799-7233) for nonjudgmental support.
Do you ever feel like you must choose between being independent and authentic (yet alone), or in close relationships (yet codependent and people-pleasing)?
Many of us have internalized the message that our primary value in the world lies in what we can offer to others. Maybe we learned this in our childhoods - perhaps we were put into a position of parenting our parents and supporting them through their own struggles and challenges. Others of us learned this as we got older - maybe friendships were contingent on what we could offer, rather than who we were as people. There is plenty of societal messaging that underlines this idea - we are often encouraged to objectify people and discard them if they aren’t giving us what we want. Ultimately, this can lead us to a place of feeling as though we must be who others want us to be, rather than who we truly are.
Sometimes when we notice this, we can over-correct. We go full-speed into independence: “I don’t need anyone! I can rely on myself.” That way, you might think, I can be who I truly am - and you might begin to associate being alone with being free. It might feel too uncomfortable to be your full self and take up space with others, so it feels easier to either go along with it or exit entirely. Still, we’re social beings and we need belonging, and this can lead us to feel as though we have a stark choice to make: give up ourselves to be in relationship, or stay alone and be our true selves.
This is a tough state of affairs. In each of those choices, we’re giving up something very important. We need connection, and we also need to be able to be our authentic selves. It can be difficult to know which to choose: dependence, or independence?
“Along with the other animals, the stones, the trees, and the clouds, we ourselves are characters within a huge story that is visibly unfolding all around us, participants within the vast imagination, or Dreaming, of the world.”