Relationship trouble and physical reactions
I can't stand the way he eats an apple!
Many people come to counselling and psychotherapy to try to resolve difficulties with relationship. Sometimes this might be caused by a particular crisis or its aftermath. There are others like the person quoted above, who spend years living with their partners in a steady state of frustration or dull boredom, or with a constant anxiety-provoking pattern of pushing away and pulling back. In general they live with the niggling awareness that they are being hurt by the relationship, that they are with the wrong partner and that they are not getting their needs met.
Commitment might be all that is keeping you together, and there is a feeling that the other partner could provide relief from the frustration but chooses not to. So a culture of blame develops. As defensive walls go up communication shuts down. There is a sense of confidence being underminded, battle stations set, and behind it all the uncertain thought "is it me? Is there some way I can change my perspective which will change all this?"
How do you know when to trust your own perceptions in a relationship when time and familiarity have down their work of adaptation? Perhaps you have the sense that you have sacrificed your individuality, your own identity. Instead there's the feeling that your partnership has somehow sucked you in to losing yourself in favour of the needs of the other. What became of the joyful adventure originally envisaged together, to be replaced by a sense of revulsion caused by something as mundane as watching your partner eat an apple? The clue lies in the physical origin of your reaction.
Once upon a time the partners in any relationship were drawn to each other with a sense of reciprocal certainty that they had each found 'the one'. Then with time the euphoria, endorphins and idealising wears off. What remains is a complex physical and biological imprint of automatic response and reaction. Each person carries this imprint with them from early life. That biophysical imprint will be activated so fast that it is beyond conscious awareness. The person will feel triggered and have feelings often associated with anger or numbness, aversion or need. Thankfully, they can also be feelings associated with warmth, expansion and love.
What does the negative biophysical reaction in a relationship look like when it happens? I have already mentioned the apple. Take for another example a wife, driving the car, reaching for her husband's hand in a moment of affection for him. He reacts with an instant feeling of claustrophobia and withdraws his hand. He doesn't know why he feels aversion from the touch, but can't stop himself. He feels bad about it and wonders if he'd be better on his own. She feels rejected and hurt. She begins to think critical thoughts about him. An argument begins.
The couple could be of any gender combination, any culture. They are acting out something instinctive that belongs to a pattern that has its roots far from the present moment. Perhaps the man experienced his mother as over-protective and learned to withdraw from her approach. Perhaps the wife experienced her father as unavailable and longed for his affirmation. She has married a man who also keeps her uncertain of his affirmation and hence feeling unsafe and needy, and he has married a woman who makes him feel avoidant with each affectionate touch. Perhaps instinctively each recognised the potential for healing in the other, but they have got lost. Through misunderstanding of the complex biophysical 'language' of each individual in a partnership, hurt often perpetuates a toxic cycle.
Early in life we learn to attune to our caregivers and thereby learn how to regulate ourselves to feel safe and well, and our experience is through the sensations in our body. As time goes on we begin to integrate these sensations with our mind and rational understanding, our emotions and our relationships. We are profoundly shaped by our interactions with others at this stage. We then, often unconsciously, carry the imprint of those early experiences forward with us into adulthood. This plays out as we recreate and re-experience past wounds and engage in strategies of which we're not even aware.
These hurts and reactions may be automatic, but they don't have to stay that way. Counselling and psychotherapy can open a door to new insight and change. The positive aspects of the biophysical cycle can be brought into awareness. Understanding, warmth and affirmation which can create positive state shifts in self and partner which in turn create moments of mutuality. Communication flows again and something different can happen. Old biophysical patterns can be overcome and relationship can be experienced anew.
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About Aubyn De Lisle
Aubyn de Lisle is a UKCP registered transpersonal psychotherapist working with adult individuals in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, and in Little Venice in central London.
Before training as a psychotherapist she qualified as a teacher, and was a senior manager in businesses both small and multinational, and farming.