We talked last time about the implicit nurturing of a child that results in a style of relating that the child takes with him or her into adulthood. This attachment style is hardwired into place by the age of 4.
Right about that time, the child goes off to school and establishes a social life beyond the home, complete with influences of all kinds. Those who embark on this journey with a secure attachment style navigate the new social sphere with relative ease. Those with an insecure attachment style struggle to make healthy connections, to varying degrees and in varying ways.
For the next 15 years or so, we continue along that social journey, encountering relationships that sometimes bring us joy and hope, and sometimes dent, damage and wound us. We react by further developing our style of relating (See Why Men and Women Fight, Part 4). In effect, we create a wall around our true selves so that we don’t get too hurt in the fray, or so that we at least minimize how hurt we appear to others. After all, a wounded animal is most likely to be left as prey for stronger animals.
Physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual abuse and neglect result in some of the most common wounds, the worst of these being the kind you can’t see…the kind that doesn’t get you to the emergency room. (Research suggests that emotional neglect is even more damaging to the brain than physical abuse.)
So by the time we reach adulthood, most of us have accumulated a variety of dents along the way, and few of us even recognize how we fashion for ourselves a shield of self-protection. We’re just surviving, and we don’t even consciously realize it.
Then we meet some beautiful person who is also all dented up, and our hormones tell us that this person is the perfect solution to fill all the hollow places inside. And they’re looking at us through the same hormone high, expecting us to do the same for them. This works beautifully for about 6 months or so, until the hormone high dissipates and we’re left realizing that the person we thought was going to fill our emptiness is actually expecting us to fill theirs.
And that disillusionment, creates some really hot fights between men and women. Worse, we don’t even realize that those losses along the way have changed us, have wounded us, and that we’ve been demanding our damaged partner to keep us from having to grieve those old losses that left our real self somewhere deep inside a self-protective shell, only sending out a pseudo representative to interact for us until we deem it safe to play without our emotional armor.
Our pseudo representative relates to others through a lens of (mostly unconscious) fear, anxiety and stress. This is the self that manipulates through shame, blame, rewards, threats, distance, proximity and a host of other strategies. This self seeks approval, and is willing to sacrifice the essential self for acceptance. Often times, the essential self, the true, authentic self, has been tucked so far away, it’s hard to even find him or her anymore.
Now imagine partners relating to each other from this posture of self-protection, two pseudo-selves who had imbued the other with superpowers to heal wounds inflicted by people and circumstances that predate the current relationship. Fighting erupts, representing the disappointment and disillusionment that sets in when the foolish belief in the perfect other is exposed for what it is: a lie told by one’s own wishful thinking. Better to blame and resent the other than to take responsibility for being the fool of our pseudo-self’s desire to believe what we wanted to be true, rather than what simply is true.
Fortunately, fighting because of unresolved damage and loss diminishes as both he and she can identify their unresolved wounds, responsibly tend to our own, and allow the other the respect to do the same. Letting go of the demand that one fill the emptiness of the other takes a planet-sized burden off of a relationship.
So now we’ve looked at the operating system and the hardware that make men and women fight. Tomorrow we’ll discuss some software that can also have that effect.