There are other dynamics that can kill love besides hedonic inhibition. In our discussion, we’re going to diverge from the usual “one size fits all” approach adopted by most relationship self-help authors. Human beings are complex. Human relationships are even more so. Many systems are hierarchical, interactive or both. It’s not realistic to say just follow these ten steps and your relationship will be repaired. It’s more realistic to understand what type of problem you have so you can more specifically target your intervention strategy. Understanding these additional assassins of love can help you do this.
Assassin #2: Attachment Neglect
Attachment neglect can kill love primarily because of ignorance. Many couples are not initially hampered by core shame or attachment ambivalence. However, they may still kill their relationship because they just don’t know any better. This is a subtle dynamic because the damage is done not by something that happens, but by something that doesn’t happen. An appropriate metaphor is that a person can be hurt by injury but can be hurt just as badly by starvation. Many relationships just starve to death because the partners don’t know that their relationship needs to be fed.
In Chapter 4, we discussed how nurturing of attachment needs to occur primarily when partners are both in a free paratelic state. Many relationships deteriorate when children arrive on the scene and partners relate to each other only as co-parents. If partners share all their experiences as a family, then they set themselves up to lose passion. If they’re smart enough to balance out their roles (sometimes co-parent, sometimes business partner, sometimes playmate) then they’re set up to maintain love. I’ve seen many couples rekindle affection by simply restructuring their schedules to share regular private time with one another.
When relationships begin to suffer attachment neglect, relationship shame is usually accumulating as well. Most people don’t want to admit to themselves that they’re as emotionally dependent as they really are. It may not occur to them to tell their partner that they’re beginning to hurt from loneliness and a yearning for more connection. That’s why the accumulating relationship shame may stay unconscious. When a person no longer sees affirming signs that their core self is important to their partner, their shame of feeling unloved will build. This unconscious shame will usually begin to exhibit itself in the form of angry, critical behavior. It’s as if the unconscious mind says, “If I’m not important enough to be loved then at least I’ll prove I’m important enough to demand respect!” Consequently, partners may find that they’re fighting about issues such as who put the salt shaker back in the WRONG spot?!!
There’s a good metaphor for the fighting that often accompanies attachment neglect. When relationship shame builds up due to attachment neglect, it’s as if humidity builds to one hundred percent in a room. With the humidity at saturation point, all it takes is a few cosmic particles to ionize the air to bring about a lot of condensation. In the same way, a charged atmosphere between partners will lead them to find some small provocation for a fight. Their minds will look for an excuse to act out their defenses to unconscious shame. Their angry defensive energy will condense into a fight.
The end result of attachment neglect is usually an escalation of defensive criticality. The bruising fights beget more shame, more inhibition of emotional attachment, and more escalation of defensiveness. Marriage counselors who naively focus on the couple’s fights are hopelessly doomed. The source of the strangulation is far below consciousness in each partner’s unstated fear. And the fear is that maybe, just maybe, they really might not be that important or loveable after all.
One hopeful point should be mentioned about attachment neglect. It’s quite reversible if neither party is strongly inhibited by core shame. If the partners are merely ignorant, then they can be taught about what’s really going on. They can learn to be more honest with themselves, learn to courageously express their needs instead of resorting to defensive criticisms, and learn to routinely structure attachment experiences with each other. Many couples experience rapid improvement in their relationships as a result of these interventions. However, improvement becomes more difficult if either partner is hobbled by core shame as described with our next assassin.
Assassin #3: Conflict Avoidance
Get ready for some serious initial confusion about this one. We’re going to discuss why avoiding conflicts will actually kill a relationship. Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? But like many paradoxes inherent in human nature, it makes sense when viewed from a broader perspective.
First, let’s be clear that we’re not talking about screaming, cursing, hitting, raging kinds of conflicts. We’re instead talking about integrated, tactful, respectful, productive conflicts. We usually don’t think of conflict as being productive because many of us are so poor at it. But when we’re good at conflict, our relationships are more vital and passionate. This is because well-executed conflict serves four important functions:
1. It rebalances boundaries. When you confront intrusive behavior, it prevents your partner from establishing patterns of behavior that will degrade and shame you in the future. Healthy confrontation is sometimes necessary to prevent your partner from adopting a parent-like role over you.
2. It reinforces your sense of having a separate self. The act of expressing disagreement and facing disapproval can actually strengthen your autonomy on a neurological level. Some ways are more effective than others, and we’ll be discussing them in the later chapter about autonomy.
3. It prevents the accumulation of relationship shame. When you confront intrusive or domineering behavior, you largely prevent the injection of shame into your system. When you shrink back from confronting such behavior, you allow the conditioning of what’s known as “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is the viscerally rooted perception that you’re totally powerless in your situation. Think of it as a close cousin to hedonic inhibition. Learned helplessness is about safety and control, while hedonic inhibition is about enjoyment and pleasure. Relationship shame is also avoided when you openly conflict and negotiate for what you want. This prevents the accumulation of hedonic inhibition that we’ve already discussed.
4. It allows you to risk getting closer. Think of it this way. Would you feel as scared walking down a dark alley if you knew you were packing a .45 in your back pocket? OK, perhaps that’s not such a great metaphor for the peace loving, but you get the idea. When you’re packing well-honed conflict skills, you can afford to get close. You intuitively feel more secure. This idea flies somewhat in the face of the common belief that the purpose of intimacy is to get vulnerable. That’s a myth. It just so happens that when we’re intimate we’re usually more vulnerable than at other times. In his superb book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch makes the point that it’s not virtuous to be vulnerable. People who are too vulnerable can’t get close at all. They can’t risk closeness because they don’t have the protective autonomy skills needed when conflict and disapproval arise. I would add to David Schnarch’s premise that the real virtue is to reduce our vulnerability in a way that allows us to risk exposure and love more deeply. In this way, well-honed conflict skills can allow us to get closer. And we won’t have these skills if we don’t use them sometimes. It’s like the adage “Use it or lose it!” If we don’t use our conflict skills, we’ll probably lose our emotional intimacy as well.