When it comes to your relationship you have a connection and a bond with your partner as a result of your love for each other. This love means you have a huge impact on the other and this impact desire is to be good. But you can also have a negative impact where your relationship heads for an iceberg like the Titanic. Left unattended your relationship heads for that iceberg easily and often. Approaching things with intention will be all the difference between a cycle of disconnection or connection in your relationship. The best way to influence this cycle is to have awareness of what you do, say and feel and how this impacts your partner and visa versa.
Why Committed Partners Influence Each Other So Profoundly
You are in a committed relationship and that means you and your partner have chosen to be in each other's tribe. Translation: you matter a ton to each other. Your meaning to each other is in stark difference to the barista at the coffee shop where what she or he does or says is a mere blip of an impact on you. But because you and your partner are in your tribe together, this fuels a primal motivation: to maintain a strong member status in the tribe. Think about it, if you were not an important part of a tribe way back in the day then you would have been left behind in a vulnerable position to defend yourself against attackers in the world. Read: Saber-tooth Tigers, other tribes, illness, etc. Left behind = death. As humans, we are at heart animals, and as animals we want to be safe, and there is safety in numbers: in a Tribe.
And so we want to feel like we belong, we matter, that we are important to our other main tribe members. When it comes to your relationship, you and your partner are like King and Queen of the Tribe. You are united and a team driven by your Unity Vision Statement for your relationship. The idea is to keep a Us Vs. Them mentality. This means WE are part of the tribe and WE work as a team to unite ourselves against the dangers of the world. No, today’s dangers don’t include a Saber Tooth Tiger or are even as obvious. The dangers may not look like life or death situations but our bodies don’t know how to distinguish threats. There are a whole host of modern-day threats that can be sneaky and still activate the nervous systems that have us worried about our Tribe status. We want to not only be in the tribe, but we also want to be a valued member.
How Our “Tribe Member” Status is Threatened
The “We” or “Tribe” mentality can turn to a Me Vs. You, dynamic pretty quickly when a trigger or threat enters the picture. The things that threaten the tribe is often sneaky, modern-day dilemmas like that toilet that just broke in the downstairs bathroom or not feeling like sex has happened in a while. When a trigger enters the picture, like the towel that your partner threw in the middle of the bedroom floor, as mine did recently, a disconnecting cycle can occur if we let our relationship get stuck at the tip of the iceberg. When you are stuck on the tip of the iceberg this means you are stuck arguing about what’s on the surface, the towel on the floor for example, when in reality we need to dive deeper and look at what’s fueling, or triggering, the argument. This will guide you both back to connection and steer your relationship away from disconnection.
When you get triggered, at the very core, waaaaaay down at the bottom of that iceberg is an “Ouch!” or “Ut Oh!”. Ouch, you said or did something that hurt me and now I’m not so sure of you as my co-tribe member or how you feel about me as your co-tribe member. Or you may get a “Ut Oh!” if you feel some distance from your partner and your animal instinct to not want to be alone gets triggered. These go hand-in-hand with our basic fears as humans of “not being enough”, which has us worry about not being a valued member of the tribe and ultimately left behind, or the fear of “being abandoned”. One or both of these fears can get triggered. If you’re like me, both can get triggered in your relationship.
What’s Below the Tip of the Iceberg
Think back to a recent argument or frustration you had with your partner and use that as a way to look beneath the iceberg. We want to look at what triggers you, what your fear is, what thoughts you have about it, how you feel and then how you ultimately behave because this influences your partner. This process can happen super quickly inside you and the more you know those steps you can start slowing it down to allow you to respond vulnerably. The trigger isn’t the problem per say, we can’t get rid of our fears but it’s what we do with them is the key difference in a positive, connection cycle and a negative, disconnection cycle.
I want you to track how your process occurs and I’ll give an example from my relationship to help you. Imagine me walking into the bedroom and I noticed my Husband left his towel on the floor. Right there in the middle of the path into our bedroom. On the outside this could be just an innocent act of his, a towel slipped off in a rush to make it to work on time. But my insides felt differently.
A path toward the tip of the iceberg where we bet caught in a Disconnection Cycle, where the softer, vulnerable emotions are bypassed and goes quickly into disconnecting meaning, emotions, and actions.
Trigger: Seeing My Partner’s Towel disregarded on the floor
Fear Poked: Abandonment
Thought: “Ut oh!”
First Emotion: Scared and hurt (** Bypassed and not expressed)
Meaning I make of it: “I’m not important because he left his towel carelessly behind. I told him cleaning is important to me. He doesn’t think I’m important!”
Second Emotion as a result of this thought: mad/frustrated
Action made: pursue in attack mode such as: “why don’t you ever clean?!”
Result? → My partner is now “triggered”
Trigger: Me attacking my partner’s actions in absolutes
Fear Poked: I’m not enough
First Emotion: Hurt (** Bypassed and not expressed)
Meaning he makes of it: “She is never happy with what I do. I can never get it right”
Second Emotion as a result of this thought: mad/frustrated
Action made: pursue in attack mode defending himself OR Withdraw and not engage.
If you followed along, you will see that the vulnerable parts at the base of the iceberg are bypassed on both sides and quickly we get caught in a loop-da-loop around me attacking his actions and him defending them and around and around we go. We are at the tip of the iceberg arguing about a towel and staying at the surface and all the underneath is getting ignored, which further fuels the hurt and disconnection. And if things stay here and don’t go below the tip of the iceberg where we can access connection, then the original “Ouch!” and “Ut Oh!” don’t get attended to and compounds the next time a trigger happens, weakening the relationship with another crash into the tip of the iceberg.
Creating an Invitation for Connection
Where the above negative cycle can be avoided is taking vulnerable action at the place of the first emotion emerging. Vulnerability is a key piece in relationships and the reason is it helps invite the interactions between you and your partner below the iceberg so that the core pieces are getting addressed rather than fuming over the dishes or a towel, or whatever it is. This allows the elements below the iceberg to get attended to rather than left unresolved to be added into the next argument. This is why things from years ago can be pulled into arguments today because they hadn’t been fully resolved. An argument about the TV can all of a sudden be about when your partner was late to pick you up for your birthday years ago.
So you dive below the surface and do so as soon as you can. So in my example above, instead of jumping to making negative meaning, a vulnerable invitation to avoid the tip of the iceberg altogether could be “Sweetie, I feel like our house isn’t important and I’m not important when you put your towel on the floor. I know you aren’t intending that but that’s what triggers in me. Would you please put your town back up and try and keep it in the bathroom in the future? And can I have a kiss since I'm feeling disconnected right now?”
Some of you reading this may think “well, why do I have to tell my partner what to do or what I need? Shouldn’t he know?!” Yes BUT at that moment, when you are triggered, the only way out is to pull your partner in a nice, vulnerable invitation which involves sharing your emotions and telling your partner what you need to “close the loop” and feel connected once again. Your partner is not a mind reader, help him love you by sharing and telling him what you need at the moment. He’s not going to know the towel on the floor, or whatever it is, has an impact on you and what you need instead and what you need to get back to connection unless you tell him.
Practice Makes Connection
Doing this vulnerable invitation right at the moment is hard. It takes practice to stop that negative cycle and to go underneath the surface into the vulnerability waters. You may not go below the tip of the iceberg until after several rounds of the negative cycle but as soon as you catch it, try and invite your partner into the waters of vulnerability so you both can get back to connection and feeling strong in your tribe. And keep in mind this doesn’t fall all on your shoulders, your partner has a responsibility to stop that cycle too regardless of “who started it”. In my example, if I missed an opportunity for a vulnerable connection, my partner could also invite us down below the surface and say something like “Oh Sweetie I know this isn’t likely just about the towel, and maybe you feel unimportant since that’s a big trigger for you. Know that I love you so much and you are so important to me! What do you need right now from me?”
And you may be at a point that vulnerability is not accessed by either of you until hours or days later. The key is to close the loop and get back to connection. So if it’s been a few hours and you both huffed off to separate rooms, you can still go below the surface and get back to connection and not leave any hurts unresolved. For the example I gave about the towel, say my partner and I got caught on the tip of the iceberg and in that moment neither of us could pull us down into vulnerability, after the fact I could go to my husband and share something like “I realize I was caught on the surface attacking your actions which likely had you feel like I was attacking you. I was feeling ignored and not important and what I really needed in that moment was for you to acknowledge the towel on the floor, hug me and tell me you love me”. This not only closes that loop but also gives valuable information for what can be said or done the next time there is a trigger...
...because there are always more triggers. It’s a jungle out there! And these triggers will poke at your fear. You can’t get rid of fear, nor should we want to, because you aren’t a robot. But you can learn to minimize the triggers as best you can to avoid that tip of the iceberg. And if you find yourself there, try to get into the vulnerability waters and beneath the surface as soon as you can.