It’s a lazy Saturday morning here on the boat with my mug of coffee next to the computer. A strong weather front is due to push through the area in less than an hour. The angry green blob is moving quickly toward us on the local radar display. It’s a good morning for writing.
I’ve been thinking about geography and continental drift…..and about how tectonic plates are the perfect metaphor for what’s happening in so many marital relationships. It’s like the slow drift of continents away from each other. And we really need to look beneath the surface to understand what’s causing that drift.
I recently read Pat Ogden’s brilliant book Trauma And The Body. In her book there’s a section where she discusses different action systems. These systems are the motivational states that will dominate a person at any given moment. Some of these states include: the play action system, the attachment action system, the social engagement action system, the exploratory action system and the defensive action system. I’m particularly interested in the last two because I think they are involved in the demise of nearly half of all marriages..
Here’s my explanation. After the initial in-love phase of a relationship most of us have to get down to the hard work of maintaining affection with skill. Not only do we have to protect our partner’s feelings but we also have to reinforce each others’ affections by providing positive experiences. Some of our affection is reinforced by physical touch and some of it by service or thoughtful tokens of affection. You’ve heard about the 5 love languages. I really don’t buy into those as being nearly as important as the 6th love language: curious pursuit of mind. Think about it. Imagine that your partner is curious and shows delight in learning about what you want, what you love, how you feel and what you experience. As your partner asks about your core experience your partner shows in his/her face and eyes how much he/she enjoys your inner world. If that kind of experience occurs day in and day out then you will feel loved. Your feelings will most likely reciprocate and you’ll feel love in return.
The problem is that people often don’t have the emotional regulation or enough discipline to adequately protect either their partner’s emotions or their own. As the bruising slowly accumulates in each person’s unconscious, their defensive action systems gradually becomes more dominant. It’s a very subtle process like the shifting of deep tectonic plates. However, there’s one reliable indicator of what’s happening: The exploratory system is suppressed and curiosity dies. Partners no longer seek each others’ minds. Behavior becomes limited to routines that are safe. The partners calcify into predictable roles of responsibility that won’t get them into trouble. But without curiosity, affection is no longer being reinforced. Love is no longer fed. Each partner starts feeling unimportant in the relationship. And when some partners feel unimportant the pain will often evoke their fight/flight system.
So there it is. Tectonic plates in our personalities. The perfect metaphor for how we become defensive instead of curious in our relationships. One plate dominates over the other and the volcanic action starts.