How Not to Damage Your Relationship When You Argue
For a relationship to feel good, both partners need to feel safe in each other’s care. They need to talk through what problems come up, understand each other, and still enjoy the relationship, even if they can’t agree on every issue. That’s what secure emotional connection does.
At their best, partners create positive ways to talk about the good and the bad:
- They learn to express themselves gently so the other can and hear and respond.
- They speak for themselves and their own feelings, so that neither has to seek protection from attacks or criticism.
- They turn kindly toward each other even when problems come up.
These are some of the way strong couples manage to keep a positive climate of emotional connection between them.
Some partners have more success than others in handling disagreements. Fortunately we’ve learned a lot about how to protect your relationship when you argue.
Disconnection Is Usually the Real Problem
When we’re feeling unsure or unheard, especially with a loved one, two things happen. First, partners feel shut out of the circle of care and love between them. That alone feels bad enough.
Second, each person starts to wonder if the circle of kindness and care is still intact. When something happens to disrupt a relationship, you each need to know that the relationship itself is still safe. Feeling reassured you are both there for each other is essential.
In an intimate partnership, disconnection isn’t just a harmless misstep. Broken connections can trigger feelings of insecurity, anguish, panic, and rejection. If painful feelings outnumber the good feelings of connecting again often enough, there’s greater risk the relationship will fail.
That’s why it’s important to see and understand moments of disconnection. If you start doubting that your partner can return or validate your feelings, it’s hard to repair what hurt in the first place. Your relationship becomes more painful.
On the flip side, problem-solving and intimacy gets better when you’re confident in each other’s support and care.
Emotional disconnect can trigger what some call attachment panic. Attachment panic is a state of acute emotional distress. It’s a response to signs your loved one doesn’t see you, appreciate you, or value responding to you.
“Broken relationship” moments happen. To fix them, it’s important to know more about the impact of disconnection and the power of attachment. A study known as the “Still Face Experiment” provides a stunning illustration of how attachment panic feels. It also informs a therapy model — EFT — to help restore healthy emotional connection.
How Losing Connection Triggers Panic
Researchers wanted to understand how a baby’s emotional state would change when someone important — mom — tunes out.
Dr. Ed Tronick made video studies of what happens when a baby’s attachment figure breaks emotional connection. This is the renown still face experiment. It begins with mom playfully responding to the baby’s bids for connection. As mom responds to her baby’s waving arms, finger pointing, coos and baby talk, the baby is all smiles.
Then for two minutes in the experiment, the mom turns off emotionally. Her face goes blank. She maintains eye contact. But she doesn’t show emotion, smile or move except to blink.
At first, the baby tries to re-engage mom. She does what she did before –pointing, making inviting sounds, and waving her arms. But it doesn’t work. The baby’s distress builds. She keeps trying and failing.
Soon, the pain is overwhelming. The baby screeches and strains against the seat’s safety straps. Her face reddens. She starts to cry. In less than two minutes without emotional connection, the baby is sobbing. She’s in full meltdown.
Repair Connection First
Fortunately, the instant the still face time is over, mom springs into action. She promptly comforts her baby. It’s a huge relief to see what happens. The baby’s furrowed eyebrows visibly relax as mom become emotionally present again. The baby calms down as mom grasps her outstretched hands, meets her gaze with a smile eyes and assures: “I’m here.”
The experiment shows us the pain of attachment panic when bids for connection fail.
We feel the same type of panic when we lose connection adults. So say psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Ed Tronick. They describe the need people of any age have for connection in their “Love Sense” video:
Sue Johnson (0:10):
Science tells us clearly, that bonding goes from the cradle to the grave. Staying close to a protective loved one is the main survival strategy of our species. We can now look at pivotal moments in the dance we call bonding in infancy and romantic love, and pinpoint the core moves in the emotional dance, that define so much of our lives and our happiness.
Ed Tronick (01:43):
We need loving contact like oxygen. We really do not have many ways to deal with the pain of disconnection at any age.
Tools to Restore Emotional Connection: EFT
Sue Johnson used her findings about bonding to create Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) — an approach to help couples heal and strengthen their relationship.
What happens if partners become more aware of the thoughts and feelings they experience with disconnection? The EFT approach includes a series of conversations to help couples identify what they need to work through to feel safe and happier together.
Here’s an example of attachment panic from an article by Samantha Rodman, PhD in: Attachment Panic, or Why You Can’t ‘Just Chill Out’. In parentheses are the unspoken attachment issues that people learn to address as their skills grow:
Woman: Why didn’t you call me when you were going to be late? (I have told you this bothers me, and when you do it again and again, I fear that you don’t actually listen to me at all. I feel like my opinion, and therefore myself, mean very little to you, and there is in fact no secure relationship here at all.)
Man: Something just came up at work. What’s the big deal? (Uh oh, here she goes again, if I defend myself then maybe she will stop attacking me and we can have a nice evening.)
Woman: I was waiting for you! We were waiting. I made dinner! (You still don’t understand me, you are not listening. I fear that this means you don’t care about me and the relationship.)
Man: So, I always say eat without me if I’m not there. Why are you making a big deal out of nothing? (Defend, ignore, deny, minimize, and maybe she will just lay off. I hate disappointing her. This night is shot.)
Woman: It’s not nothing! You promised me you would call! This is so disrespectful. I make dinner and it’s like you don’t even appreciate it or care. You just think about yourself. (I am panicking here! It is so upsetting to me that you don’t seem to register how bad I feel. You do not notice my pain at all. I must mean nothing to you.)
Man: Why can’t you just chill out? (Please let this be over. I hate when she gets mad like this and I don’t know what the hell to do. It scares me when she is this angry because one day she might just decide to end it.)
Healing Hurt Feelings Behind the Fight
What’s really going on under the fighting words?
At the heart of this argument are the unspoken thoughts and feelings of emotional disconnection.
To repair a loving relationship, these are exactly the thoughts and feelings we need to address. We need to know our whole being is welcomed, valued and accepted — especially through upsets and distress.
Imagine how this same couple might talk with each other if they focused on understanding each other’s feelings.
An EFT therapist or workshop can help you get started down a path that goes more like this:
Man: Sorry I’m late.
Woman: You ARE late! You didn’t even call. And I’m very upset about it!
Man: I forgot to call. I’m sorry. I don’t blame you for being upset. Please tell me more.
Woman: I planned extra time to make a nice dinner. I feel like you blew me off. It’s like I don’t matter, or you don’t care. I’m wondering if you even really love me. That hurts a lot.
Man: I see you’re upset. It looks like I don’t care. That feels awful to me too. You matter a lot to me. I feel bad I messed up. I’m amazed that you took the time to do this for us. I love that you do extra things. I’m worried if I keep letting you down you’ll stop wanting to be with me.
Woman: I don’t want you to feel bad. Yes I’m disappointed. But letting me know when your plans change will help me a lot. I just want you to call next time if you’ll be late.
Man. I can try to do better. Hey this dinner looks amazing. Have I told you how much I love coming home to you….
Broken connections need healing. It’s important to be aware of where the hurts are. The goal isn’t to inflict them on your partner ‘get even’ — but to comfort a partner’s attachment panic, so you both can get back to feeling good together again.
Once we begin to see signs of emotional disconnection, we can respond in more healing ways. We have the benefit of help from approaches like EFT.
Imagine being able to focus on your emotions — and your partner’s — and shift into new types of conversations that bring you closer.