A couple of years ago, I spoke with a wonderful couple who found themselves struggling with occasional disconnection. In our conversation together, I pitched them a series of questions that helped to uncover a communication dynamic that had been repeating itself over the years in their marriage.
This is a dynamic I’ve seen all too often in relationships. Here’s how it worked. From time to time, the husband would do something that scared or hurt his wife—e.g., make a financial decision without her, spend multiple nights a week out at the pool hall with his buddies, etc. When she tried to respectfully let him know how his behavior was affecting her and what she needed, he either brushed her off, or made a temporary adjustment and soon repeated the behavior. As her messages failed to get through and her needs were left unmet, her anxiety and frustration rose. Only when she finally confronted him in anger did he register that she was not okay. Unfortunately, this aggressive approach felt like punishment and control to him, so even though it caused him to stop the behavior, it also led him to retaliate by giving her the silence-and-distance treatment for a few days until he was ready to reconnect.
Once we had identified this pattern, I said to the husband, “It sounds like your wife wants to have a respectful conversation and invite you to choose to adjust to protect your connection. She doesn’t want to control you. Why you aren’t listening to her at that point in this process?”
After some thought, he said, “I guess I just didn’t know that me doing these things meant that much to her.”
“Well, what’s happening is that you’re showing her that the only way to convince you that something is important to her is for her to get disconnected, angry, and controlling,” I said. “Could this be something you learned growing up? Was that maybe how your mom communicated with you?”
Sure enough, we had pinpointed the source of the dynamic. He admitted that his mother often got loud and angry when she wanted him to do something, which felt controlling and punishing.
“So, the irony is that you don’t want to be controlled or punished, but you are still using the set of tools you learned growing up, which are all set up to deal with a controlling, punishing person. This ends up telling your wife that she has to act like your mom to get you to listen to her.”
At this point, husband and wife both laughed—because it was true.
“What you need to do,” I continued, “Is to get some new tools. Forgive your mother for communicating with fear, anger, control, and punishment. And then ask yourself this question: ‘Am I willing to listen and adjust to my wife when she’s being respectful and letting me know her feelings and needs?’ Once you make that choice, you are going to start approaching conversations with her differently.”
If We Want a Different Result, We Need a Different Approach
We all have a set of relational tools, and every one of these tools is designed for one of two purposes—self-protection or connection. One of the biggest challenges in entering a marriage, or any close relationship, is that it exposes the set of tools that feel normal to us. If we grew up learning to protect ourselves from family members who were unsafe, then unless we get some new tools, we will unwittingly telegraph to the other person that they need to be unsafe in order to relate to us. Strange as it is, “unsafe” feels like love to us. This is how we end up recreating the very unhealthy relationships that we are trying to leave behind.
Here are 3 steps to take to trade in a self-protective toolset for one that will help you build connection:
#1: Identify and Dismantle Triggers
A trigger typically manifests as three As—anxiety, anger, or avoidance. As in the case of this husband, our triggers are often connected to behavior patterns we learned in childhood, usually from our parents. In particular, our relational dynamics with our opposite sex parent, especially in adolescence, most directly shape the way we interact with our spouse.
Paying attention to these self-protective reactions will help us to identify when we are judging a situation to be unsafe. At that point, we can ask ourselves if this judgment is true, or is based on a lie we have learned from the past. Once we have identified the trigger (e.g., “I’m avoiding you because when you do that, I expect to be punished like my mom punished me”), we dismantle it by repenting for believing a lie, forgiving our parents and ourselves for embracing this tool as normal in relationships, and asking God to heal us and show us the truth that we don’t need to protect ourselves from people we love.
#2: Change Your Goal
Before we can change our tools, we have to change our goal from distance to connection—particularly in the situations where we used to get triggered. In the case of this couple, the husband had to decide to be intentional about holding on to the goal of connection in the moments where his wife started letting him know how she was feeling about his behavior. Though they told me at the outset of our conversation that they had a great relationship when they were connected, the fact that they had a pattern of disconnecting and reconnecting made it clear that in certain situations, they were changing their goal. They weren’t fighting for a deeper connection that they could hold on to no matter what. This resilient connection is what we want in relationships. The disconnect-reconnect pattern isn’t fun or healthy.
#3: Start Practicing Connection Tools
My top tools of connection, which I describe in more detail in Keep Your Love On, are these:
- Using love languages
- Assertively communicating the truth inside (thoughts, feelings, and needs)
- Listening to understand and identify needs
- Adjusting to meet needs
In this couple’s case, I challenged the husband to focus on listening. Becoming an effective listener is based in a heart decision to lean in to what the other person is telling us about their thoughts, feelings, and needs. It’s choosing a posture that says, “I care about our connection. I want to be a safe place for you to show me who you are. I want to meet your needs, and I am willing to adjust to do so.” Making this internal shift enables us, as it did for this man, to respond much more quickly and effectively when the person we love gives us great information about what they are experiencing and what they need—and to prevent disconnection by meeting those needs.
So what tools are you using? Are you showing the people you love that they have to relate with you through distance and control? Or are you communicating that the goal of relationship with you is a safe, loving connection?