Thursday, 20 August 2009

Finding safety in the face of fear

Harry reappeared for counselling, having seen me for developing his coping skills while going through a painful divorce a number years ago. Unfortunately, he had been finding himself faced with very similar problems in his new relationship. On one level he was conscious that this was a pattern which had prevailed long before he met this woman, however during our first session together he was too preoccupied with blaming this woman for the flaws and defects that he felt were too important to ignore, yet he could not leave nor seem to resolve them. He also reported that he could not "bear" the feeling of being out of control that being in a relationship brings. Harry's dilemma was that in order to become a father, he needed to decide whether to stay and commit or to leave and find someone he felt more compatible with.

Vanessa, another client, had been married three times; she insisted that she continued to believe in the benefits of marriage but could not bear the experience of being "controlled" once in the marriage. Her problems in relationships she noted, appeared in a similar pattern, time after time.

What becomes apparent for such people is that their fear of being controlled in relationships (and of losing control) have come to dominate their life choices; and as with most powerful fears, what we focus on will unfortunately come to pass. If we focus on our hearts' desires and life goals, we can achieve something pretty close. If however, we focus on the things that we fear or really do not wish to happen, then unfortunately these will come to pass. As the ancient chinese proverbe says, "the dog that barks loudest is the one that gets fed". If our fears are louder than our hearts' desires then our goals and dreams become lost over time, as we "feed" the fear.

For Vanessa and Harry, because of their fear of being controlled, they have become hyper-sensitive to it, continually scanning the relationship for problems, over-reacting to the signs of any, and over-compensating by becoming both overly controlling themselves and then letting go completely. Sadly, this creates an ideal environment for a controlling pattern to grow. In highly controlling relationships, the major problem is a fluctuation between too much and too little control, creating erratic swings in decision-making and moods. Additionally, because they value independence and a high locus of control, they likely gravitate towards partners with similar preferences or problems. Pop psychology articles might refer to these individuals as "commitment-phobic", however this label is extremely unhelpful in helping these individuals sustain a mature, loving relationship.

Finding Safety
Cognitive Therapists will work with their clients to identify their "safety behaviours" during the diagnostic phase of therapy. This is because clients experiencing undesirable patterns in their relationships have likely developed some maladaptive safety behaviours. In order to break the undesirable cycle in the relationship, so must these safety behaviours be identified and broken, as these maintain the problem. During therapy, the safety behaviours for Harry and Vanessa to work on adapting were as follows:

1. Serial withdrawal: breaking up and making up was a regular occurrence; as was threatening to split in order to get their partner to "back off" or to change their behaviour;

2. Keeping the escape exit clear - for Harry this meant refusing to be in a relationship where having children or making a bigger commitment were on the agenda; for Vanessa this entailed her keeping her social life completely separate from her partner;

3. Being hyper-vigilant to the early warning signs of losing control; fighting to regain control.

These 3 safety behaviours are good examples of what someone "commitment phobic" might do. Another very common one is to pick a partner who themself cannot become an intimate partner or make demands of true intimacy. In order to "protect" themselves from their fears, Harry and Vanessa were responding in a way that meant a mature, loving and adaptive relationship was untenable. What they both agreed to do was develop new and healthier ways of responding to their fears and the real problems experienced in their relationships. This involved both of them being able to take each situation on its own merits, solve problems early rather than allowing them to fester; to negotiate the differences rather than withdraw or fight; to reduce their tendencies to over-compensate to the point where control became the issue once more (i.e. fluctuating between abdicating control and then grabbing it back).

For this fear to dissipate, focus was also shifted towards Harry's and Vanessa's most positive desires, their life goals and their achievements. For Harry, this was becoming a father and for Vanessa, this was experiencing the happiness in her third marriage that she felt had been lost after the early years.

Exercises were introduced for increasing their tolerance to giving up some of the control in the relationship and in trusting their partner. They learned with their partners to become alert to the early warning signs and found ways to better communicate how they were feeling rather than becoming emotional and ineffective. Harry realised that he was remaining in an unsatisfactory relationship simply because it permitted him to have more control. Having control is important in life, having too much control is like tightening the sail on your sailboat to the extent that you are no longer moving. Releasing their sail and learning better navigational skills allowed movement towards their goals, for both Harry and Vanessa.

As illustrated in this short blog, moving towards healthier, happier relationships might involve breaking unhelpful "safety behaviours" and learning the more adaptive skills which allow a loving and intimate relationship to flourish. I am pleased to say that Vanessa is now much happier in her third marriage and Harry finding a woman he is more compatible with, with whom he is now the proud father of 2 beautiful girls. If you find you are responding more to the things you do not want in life rather than the things that you do want, think about how you are protecting yourself. How could you otherwise solve the problems; what is the evidence supporting the problem - what is the evidence to the contrary (develop your balanced thinking); what is the impact of your protective responses on others close to you? Bringing back your focus onto the things that you dream about; the things that you want in this life will increase your chances of realising them; focusing on your fears will unfortunately smother them.

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