Creating Magic in Your Relationship, Part 2: Repairing Disruptions in the Rhythm
Last time, with a little help from Coldplay, we explored the “magic” that can occur between partners in a committed relationship when they feel close and intimately connected with one another. When both partners really “get” each other, even though the couple may be having a difficult conversation, each one feels known, valued, recognized, and understood. When they’re in their rhythm, each partner feels completely safe, so much so that together they can co-manage even the most difficult feelings that inevitably come up in a long-term relationship.
However, lapses in the rhythm of any relationship are inevitable. Every couple has a particular rhythm, and so too each relationship’s lapses are unique. The more tuned in you are to your relationship’s rhythm, the easier it is to know when the disruptions happen.
I can’t think of a better way to show you what these lapses are like than to share with you the “Still Face” study by Dr. Ed Tronick. Trust me, it’s worth three minutes of your time:
Can’t see the video? Watch it here.
As the video begins, the mother and baby are totally in sync with one another, aren’t they? Each one is, in her own way, engaging the other to “coordinate their emotions and their intentions, what they want to do in the world,” as Dr. Tronick observes. When the mother turns back toward the child with a still face, however, the affective, empathic bond between the two is momentarily disrupted. The baby tries everything to restore the tie, to protest the unexpected loss of the closeness, and when all of her efforts fail, she loses it.
Maybe you’re thinking, “What does a baby video have to do with my marriage?” Lapses like the one in the video happen all the time in intimate relationships, and whether large or small, they cause emotional pain. At first, we react to this pain and attempt to regain the tie by making “bids” for closeness. A husband warmly apologizes to his wife after a thoughtless remark, for instance, or she surprises him by cooking his favorite meal. So, too, with the baby in the video. The child at first tries to restore her connection with her mother by smiling, pointing, and reaching out to her.
When these attempts go unnoticed, when our attempts to repair the rhythm aren’t reciprocated, we, like the baby in the video, lose it. Before the lapse, the couple managed or regulated feelings together, and during the lapse, each partner becomes more and more dysregulated: She gets angrier and angrier; he becomes frustrated, sighs, and withdraws; she loudly blames him; he feels increasingly anxious and distressed. Just as the baby in the video eventually reacts to her mother’s still face by screeching, flailing her arms, and crying, each partner is trying to restore the connection to the other in their behavior. Whether through her anger or his withdrawal, both are saying, “Something is unexpectedly wrong. I’m really hurt. I want to get back into our rhythm so we can talk about it, because I can’t deal with these feelings alone.”
The key, then, to repairing the rupture and getting back into the groove of your relationship’s rhythm is twofold. First, show up. Be emotionally present with yourself and with your partner as well as you can. When you show up, you’re choosing to respond to your partner instead of react to your pain. Showing up will thus open up new possibilities for your relationship and ensure that momentary lapses are just that—momentary. Reflect on what you’re feeling and find a way to share it with your partner, even if it’s only to say, “I’m angry with you. I’m not sure why. Can you help me understand?” Second, be empathically curious about your partner’s feelings, taking responsibility for what you did to cause the rupture. You want to get to know what’s going on with your partner emotionally. While you’re not taking responsibility for your partner’s feelings, you should own anything destructive that you did while you were “losing it.”
Disruptions to an intimate relationship are far from magical, and repairing them is often extraordinarily difficult. It requires that partners choose the relationship, their growth together as a couple, instead of staying in familiar patterns of reacting to each individual’s pain. The magic happens, though, when through repair, the rhythm is at last restored. The relationship is stronger, and each partner is known more fully, than before the lapse ever took place.