Before we gained love sense, it was hard to offer an incisive explanation for how love fails. Theories that concentrate on bad behavior and lack of communication skills focus on the symptoms of couple distress rather than the root cause: the overwhelming fear of being emotionally abandoned, set adrift in the sea of life without safe harbor.
What we’ve missed for so long is that discord is almost always an unconscious protest against floating loose and an attempt to call, and even force, a partner back into emotional connection. Here are some of those signs of discord:
1. The slow erosion.
When emotional starvation becomes the norm, and negative patterns of outraged criticism and defensiveness take over, our perspective changes. Our lover begins to feel like an enemy; our most familiar friend turns into a stranger. Trust dies, and grief begins in earnest.
Research from the University of California found that the quality of positive support—reassurance that a partner is loved and esteemed and is capable of taking control of his or her life—is the most crucial factor in the health of any relationship.
2. Poisonous criticism.
We never like to hear that there is something “wrong” with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on. Criticism from loved ones rings the survival alarm bell in our brain; it sets off the deep-seated fear that we will be rejected and abandoned.
Psychologist Jill Hooley’s work at Harvard measures the impact of critical, hostile comments made by loved ones and shows that disparagement by those we rely on may even trigger relapse of mental illness, such as depression
3. Toxic stonewalling.
We all use withdrawal at times when we are hurt or offended, or simply worried about saying the wrong thing. It’s like a pause in the duet we do with our partner; it can allow us to gather our thoughts, find our balance. But withdrawal is toxic when it becomes the customary response to a partner’s perceived blaming.
One of the rules of attachment is that any response is better than none. When we stonewall, we mostly do so in order to cut off our emotions; we freeze and retreat into numbness. But when one dancer completely leaves the floor, the dance is no more.
4. Dead end.
As the cycle of hostile criticism and stonewalling occurs more frequently, it becomes ingrained and defines the relationship. These episodes are so destructive that any positive moments and behaviors are discounted and marginalized.
And as a couple’s behavior narrows, so do the partners’ views of each other. They shrink in each other’s eyes; the full panoply of their personalities shrivels. She’s a carping bitch; he’s a withholding boor.
Psychologists refer to this as a process of escalating negative appraisal, where every response is seen in the worst possible light. Both partners become hyper vigilant for any hint of slurs and slights, abandonment and rejection. They cannot give each other the benefit of the doubt, even for a moment.
5. The sudden snap.
Everyone knows that an affair can cripple a relationship. But other events may be just as momentous and damaging because they contravene our wired-in expectations that loved ones will be our shelter at moments of threat or distress. The young wife who miscarries and finds her husband can’t comfort her. An immigrant who pleads with her husband for her sick mother to visit and is told to grow up.
If we do not understand the incredible power of attachment and its impact on us, we can inadvertently hurt our partner deeply simply by not understanding what kind of response is required.
All such disastrous events are marked by moments of intense need and vulnerability, when a loved one is called upon to provide responsive care and does not come through. In these incidents, the answer to the key attachment questions—“Are you there for me when I need you?” and “Will you put me first?”—is a resounding no.
These failures of empathy and responsiveness create wounds that cannot be put aside or papered over. Most people recognize these wounds on an instinctual, gut level when they are describing them, even if they have never heard of the new science of love, and many do not believe that they can be healed. But indeed they can, even when they occur in relationships that are already tottering.