At 40 when I was divorced and dating I met guys who had given up intimacy. These guys had decided that since they are “no good” at intimacy, they might as well just have a good time and focus only on finding women willing to be sex partners with no entanglements. They didn’t care if the woman was married or not, just that she was ready to hop into bed without any “strings”. Lately I have been meeting women who have also given up, but because they don’t want promiscuous sex, they resign themselves to a life without men.
It seems that when we reach a certain age and we have not been able establish a long-term intimate connection we tend to give up. Now, obviously this is not true for everyone as some people divorce and remarry many times trying to make it work. But many people do give up. I think its sad. Some of the men and women I have met are marvelous people, intelligent, creative, hard working and attractive. They are lonely, though often they try to convince themselves that single life is fine and they are happy. Maybe some of them are, certainly many of them have full, meaningful lives. But usually when I hear them talk about relationships it’s with a sad, wistful look on their faces.
So what are they to do? One woman I spoke with said about her ex-husband, “You know, he was a really great guy, but when we were together it brought out the crazy in both of us.” Without knowing what it is that makes us “crazy” when we are together we are left in a hopeless tangle of feelings and confusion.
Going to therapy is one obvious choice, but what if you have gone to therapy already, but you still don’t understand what when wrong? I went to therapy and learned the reasons for some of my bad choices and some really important things about myself (even becoming a counselor myself). I learned to be more assertive with my friends. I learned to feel better about myself as a person. I processed through a lot of old pain from my childhood. And yes, it did help me make a better choice in partners, but it didn’t fix the problems I had relating. Only after discovering what I now call “The Cycles of the Heart” did I begin to understand what was making me… and my partner, “Crazy”.
You see, something we humans don’t like to admit about ourselves is that we are animals. We have animal instincts. We have hard-wired brain reactivity that forces us to react in certain ways under certain circumstances. The emotions that drive the behaviors that result are compelling and overwhelming. We think that we have to do the things that our brain is telling us is required of us.
What triggers our brain into these survival mechanisms is a sense of threat. For animals, that sense of threat comes in pretty simplistic forms. They observe signals of a physical nature coming from another animal that compels them to react defensively. A growl, a stare, ruffled fur, bared teeth, stiffening of a spine all trigger a defensive reaction in animals. But human beings are a bit more complicated. Our brains store more data than most animals and it gets us confused about what is an actual threat and what just feels like a threat. It doesn’t matter to our brains whether the threat is real; it only knows to respond.
Our partners are important to us so we are really sensitive to threat from them. This is why we may have no problems getting along with our friends but a terrible time making a partnership work. What happens then is that our partners unwittingly say or do something that creates a sense of threat in us, we get frightened in some primitive way, and react defensively. Then, or defensiveness triggers a defensive response in our partner and the cycle begins; never to end.
We both end up acting like crazy people because we are reacting to something that feels way bigger than the situation, that the other person doesn’t understand, and neither of us knows how to end.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Well it should.
It is unlikely that any of us have gone through life without being involved in a situation like this. The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter how “grown up” or “mature” you are, or how much “work” you have done on yourself. All of us will, in the wrong situation, find ourselves acting like, well, madmen. We are embarrassed about it later and have no clue why that situation brought us to such depths of reactivity.
But that is how the brain works. The feelings are intense because our survival mechanisms are our most primary drive.
When we learn what makes up these cycles of behaviors and how to choose differently we can learn to make different choices. It’s not easy, but its possible and it can make a huge difference in your ability to relate to those closest to you.
Learning to see each other’s reactivity for what it is: survival reactivity, allows us to see the other person as a whole person and not just their behavior al reactivity. It allows us to have the same empathy for ourselves and teaches us to be compassionate with all people.
We no longer have to hide behind protective barriers to prevent further wounding. because we understand what is happening inside the relationship and in our heads. There is hope for those of us who think relationships are “not for them”. The way out involves deepening our understanding of others and ourselves and learning to develop the skills of respect, ownership and empathy. While the concepts are simple, the process is anything but simple.