Recently, I witnessed Dr. Sue Johnson give a monumental lecture about love. In a most modest and unsuspecting way, she gave every attendee something to think about.
Through her research, Dr. Johnson has developed a model for the type of relationship we all desire. She calls it an A-R-E relationship
- A for accessible. We want our partner to be available to us when we need them.
- R for respond. We want to know that they will respond if we ask them to.
- E for emotional presence. We need their emotional presence at times. When we need them, they can’t be totally unavailable.
She described what happens (she called it a dance) when these needs are not met. She said she witnessed a tipping point in most relationships. The tipping point occurred when safe emotional connection had been lost. And at that moment, the couple would either move toward alienation or toward secure connection.
When we sense a loss of connection, the brain goes into fear of rejection and/or abandonment mode. At that point, now beyond a rational frame of mind, we decide the partner is the enemy, and we treat them as such. We demand and withdraw. Thus begins the dance.
This behavior begets angry criticism, which in turn draws stonewalling and dismissiveness. Unless one member of the couple is strong enough to recognize what is going on, this destructive behavior continues.
Successful couples see that they're scaring each other. They slow down and start soothing one another. This becomes an invitation to return to emotional safety. Dr. Johnson called this a “Hold me tight” conversation. She said this kind of emotional soothing carries a charge and that is as true as love gets.
She closed her session by offering, “Learn to reach for the people you love. Nothing grows people like love. When we are loved, we blossom. Survival of the fittest had it all wrong — it’s really survival of the most nurtured.”
Upon the heels of such a presentation, I went to an intuitive reading session with Dr. Naomi Pabst. I sat down and instead of asking what I was really curious about, the health of my marriage, I asked a mundane question about my career. It was at that point in time that the cards literally leapt from her hands. One card landed face up. It read, Lovers. She burst out with a hearty laugh, “No, my darling. You are supposed to ask about love.” And so I did.
She blew my mind with her response.
“Get in the game, Rebecca. You are on the sidelines. You are not even fighting for this. You are watching him flail around all alone. You married him, Rebecca. Get on the court.”
I knew she was right. I was halfway out the door. I’d been halfway out the door for a long time. I’d been dishing out angry criticism and he’d been greeting me with stonewalling and dismissiveness. The textbook dance, as described by Dr. Johnson.
“You need to offer him unconditional love, Rebecca,” Dr. Pabst advised. “Stop hanging back and criticizing him.”
So I made up my mind. It was time to get back in the game. Even if it didn’t work out, at least I would know that I had tried with everything I had.
Here are a few things that have truly helped me in this progression from pure frustration to over the moon with love:
1. Limited drinking.
I stopped consuming as much alcohol in the evenings. In fact, I’m barely consuming any, opting instead for herbal tea. It helps me sleep better, and I'm less inclined to lean toward things that irritate me. This allows me to focus on the things that bring me joy instead.
2. More affection.
Remembering that we all need love, I have been overtly affectionate, offering cuddles and kisses as often as I can. I see my husband warming to me like a kitten when I turn to him with affection instead of harsh words. In kind, he responds with more affection. It’s a far better dance than the previous one.
3. Less attachment.
I’m sending him on a weekend to Red Rocks, CO with his friend to see his favorite band. Before, this would have set me off. I would have been full of resentment because he was getting to do something fun while I had to stay home and take care of the kids. But now I can see how hard he works, and I understand that we both need to be able to do the things we love. That way, we have more love to offer each other.
It’s been wonderful, almost like a honeymoon all over again. So I had to share, didn’t I? I mean, we are all in this together. And I've found that the only way to truly learn anything is to teach it, especially when it comes to love.
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