Can it be that in spite of people seeming so different from one another, that we share a common need for connection and “contact comfort?” Frank and Bridgette (not their real names) are a couple who at first glance would seem to have extremely different needs.
Frank says he doesn’t need the comfort of his wife’s presence. He enjoys when she goes with him to the beach on weekends, but for the most part he says he is happiest just being left alone. Bridgette, his wife is desperate. Each day when they come home from work Frank barely speaks to her. “Regardless of my efforts I can’t get him to talk with me.” Bridgette feels like an announcer with a megaphone, shouting, “Talk to me!” “It seems he’d rather spend all his time on that darn computer or with his nose in front of the TV!” Bridgette sighs. “I know he goes into chat rooms a lot. Why can’t he talk to me instead of all those strangers he doesn’t even know?”
Slowly Frank describes to Bridgette that it is precisely because they are strangers that he is more comfortable in chat rooms. “I stay away from you a lot, especially when you are upset, just to keep things from blowing up. I know that I’ve let you down a lot. I can’t bear to hear any more about how lonely you are. I can never get it right with you. And if we have one more blow up, I’m afraid you’ll leave me forever.”
Frank and Bridgette are a composite of many couples I see in my practice and do not represent any specific individuals. They are very familiar examples of polar opposite ways that people have of dealing with the universal need for contact comfort. Frank wants calm and peacefulness. This feels safe. When things are calm between them, he feels assured that they can make it through life together. He knows there are many ways he has let her down. (He has heard her litany of complaints enough times, to never forget!) She wants him to socialize more, to talk more, to spend more time with her family; the list goes on and on. He trembles to think of all the things she demands of him that he can never fulfill.
The more silent Frank becomes to guard the peace between them, the lonelier and more desperate Bridgett becomes, thinking he is pulling away from her. Unlike Frank, who automatically turns down or ignores any needs or wishes for contact with her, Bridgette hyper-activates or exaggerates her needs and demands for connection. She is unaware that each time she becomes panicked and insistently demands that he pay more attention to her, Frank freezes just a little more. Frank shows a cool, calm, “it doesn’t really bother me” exterior as his best attempt to manage his growing alarm that he is not getting it right with Bridgette. His cool exterior hides his fear that she has discovered his is “not worth her while” anymore and that one day she may just give up on him completely and go away, never to return. He is unaware that every effort he makes to keep the peace and not argue with Bridgette, adds one more jagged crack to her aching heart and growing belief that he has no interest in her any more.
You may recognize parts of yourself in Bridgette or Frank. You may recognize the kind of exasperation and criticism that hide the loneliness that Bridgette experiences. Or you may know something of the futility of never measuring up, that Frank hides beneath his nonchalance and seeming indifference. And you may also share some of the tragedy that Bridgette and Frank were experiencing when they entered therapy: feeling unimportant, unwanted and like a failure to the other. Fortunately for Bridgette and Frank, they were open to exploring with me in therapy, the negative spirals that trapped them in repeating dances of disconnection. Together, they discovered like many distressed couples, that there were hidden pearls of love and desire buried in their distancing dance. Frank discovered that in fact Bridgette admired a lot of things about him, and that her complaints and accusations were her best attempts to draw him close and get him to respond to her! Bridgette, although quite incredulous at the start, discovered that she was supremely important to Frank, and he cared deeply for her.
Recognizing the negative spin they were caught in began to increase the sense of safety and care in the relationship. Frank began to grasp how his silence was hurtful, and Bridgette saw how her desperate attempts to get Frank to hear her were destroying his confidence. Gradually they shared their unspoken fears and risked more and more disclosure with each other. They found tender ways to mend the broken hearts of their damaged relationship.
If you resonate with the couple in this story and wish to explore how to mend your damaged relationship, call me or another therapist certified in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy or purchase the book or DVD entitled Hold Me Tight, by Dr. Sue Johnson. You and your partner can begin your most sacred voyage of all: the journey that leads to contact comfort and secure acceptance and connection! An EFT therapist can help you to de-escalate your automatic negative responses to one another and build enough calm between you that you tell one another, “What am I most afraid of?” Gathering courage like Frank did, you can share your deepest fear. It may be different than Frank’s experience. He feared that he wasn’t ever going to be enough for Bridgette and that if he risked conversation with her she’d discover the absolute let-down that would prompt her to leave him for good! Slowly Frank developed the confidence to tell Bridgette that he needed her to ease up on him and stop telling him how disappointing he is to her. If you ease up on me, I will be there for you. I can be a good partner for you, but I need you to give me a chance!” Bridgette shocked us both as she said, Wow, I like you like this. When you stand up for yourself like this, I feel a lot safer with you! I need to know you are this strong. Otherwise I always fear that I will overwhelm you with my needs. I don’t want t hurt you and when you ask me to ease up on you, I feel your strength and I really want to do that!”
Later after Bridgette and Frank grew in their trust that Frank would not disappearing anymore into his usual silences, Bridgette spoke in a very quite, timid voice to him about her greatest fear, that he would abandon her just at the times she needs him the most. She told him how he was always the one she counted on to calm her down and help her feel safe and assured that ‘everything’ will be alright. She took an enormous risk to let him know how tiny and insignificant she really felt inside. When I asked her if she would take the even bigger risk of asking him if he can accept this part of her and if he is willing to give her the reassurance she so desperately craves for, she stepped back. She felt very afraid of asking him for this. “He’s never seen me in such a state, she said. He’s always seen me as the strong organizer of everyone. I’m not sure he will like this side of me. I certainly do not me like this!” Frank was moved by this admission on Bridgette’s part. He was drawn to her with warmth and gentleness. “Do you hate this part of me, she ventured?” Without skipping a beat Frank said, “Of course not! I feel closer to you than ever! I had no idea I could mean this much to you! I never knew that I can calm you when you are afraid and feeling worried and in need of reassurance. I feel safer with you, just hearing this from you. I’d love to give you this safety!”
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Remember, seek professional help at the early warning signs of relationship difficulties. Waiting too long is never worth it, because you get stuck in negative patterns of interaction that become increasingly automatic, rigidly entrenched, and more and more difficult to change.