“We are never so vulnerable as when we love, and never so hopelessly unhappy as when we lose the object of our love.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Haley met Eric on a sunny day while they were sitting outside enjoying Sunday brunch. Everything about him got her attention: his looks, his choice of clothing, his Bloody Mary, but mostly the kindness in his eyes. When he approached her table, she felt her heart race.
But Haley wasn’t sure if she was excited, apprehensive or both. She was still healing from a painful break up. She didn’t understand what went wrong in the old relationship, and the not knowing scared her. Whenever she felt attracted to someone, she wondered, would he break her heart, too?
Here’s the simple truth — we are vulnerable with those we love.
It is the one relationship where we show up with our strengths and our weaknesses, too. Psychologist Sue Johnson talks about “raw spots” in her book, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”
Sue defines them this way: “A hypersensitivity formed by moments in a person’s past or current relationships when an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed.”
What is an “attachment need?”
That refers to our human desires for acceptance, belonging, comfort when we hurt, and safety to be ourselves. From the cradle to the grave we all long to feel understood and accepted by those we love. That is why most fights and conversations couples have in my office are not about money, in-laws, remote controls, or divisions of labor. They are about those attachment needs, and the threat we feel when they are not met.
Haley and Eric had an intense courtship and a beautiful wedding. But they never discussed their raw spots. Haley was still afraid of getting her heart broken, and not just because of the previous relationship that had soured inexplicably. Her father had left home when she was only 7. Both she and her mother had been deeply hurt.
Eric had his raw spots, too. Inevitably, he and Haley fought. And when Haley criticized him, he felt he could hear his mother’s nagging voice. She hated his interest in video games and texting, just as Haley criticized him when he focused on his phone messages instead of her.
The love and attraction Haley and Eric felt for one another was unmistakable, yet their fights were intense, too. He felt she was disproportionately angry; she should cut him some slack. She felt desperate and confused. Was this relationship going to go down the tubes, too?
During the sessions in my office, we unpacked all those hurt feelings. Haley and Eric came to understand that the fights were more about their own raw spots than problems with each other. As they healed their wounds and their relationship, the fighting decreased drastically.
What can we learn from Eric and Haley?
We all have raw spots.
You know you’ve hit yours when you go from 0 to 60 over something seemingly trivial. Or, you and your significant other have the same fight over and over. Or, in a seemingly normal conversation, something said bothers you so much you react with anger, confusion or coldness.
To stop and contain these destructive fights, it’s important to identify the raw spots, try to understand them, stop the negative fighting and focus on healing.
For instance, Haley was able to tell Eric that it helped when he let her know that he expected a busy day at the office or that he was preoccupied by a problem at work. Then Haley understood that his preoccupation wasn’t personal; he wasn’t distancing himself from her.
Haley also told Eric that she found his touch and hugs very comforting, and he was happy to hear that. He learned he could comfort the woman he loved and feel better about himself as a husband.
Eric told Haley he needed to know he was a good partner and appreciated affirmation from her when he was thoughtful and caring. He also asked Haley to tell him when she was upset and not remain silent and fuming. He also asked her not to withhold sex because that was an important way that he felt comforted and loved.
Our raw spots are easier to address if we have grown up in a safe, secure home where expressions of emotions and needs were respected and acknowledged. However, in the case of past emotional trauma and possible neglect and/or abuse, the challenge is bigger and requires more patience and perseverance in therapy.
My best advice: Do this work, however long it takes. The reward will be that thing you’ve always wanted – a close and loving relationship.
Editor’s note: All of the couples mentioned in this blog are purely fictional, but they illustrate some of the problems shared by my clients over the years.
Note: I’m taking a short, summer break, so there will be no blog in August. See you back in September.