The Taconic Counseling Group

Elisha S. Fisch, Ph.D.

In Relationships: When What Comes Naturally Doesn't Work

It is natural to assume that what is natural is good. We are all pro-nature and we take as truth that nature's designs are as close to perfect as anything gets. And yet, when it comes to the emotions of human relationships, nature has left us disturbingly unprepared for the kind of relationships civilization has fostered.


Why is this? Think of our emotions as an emotional immune system, similar to our physical immune system. In fact, they are so intertwined as to make them functionally inseparable. Our physical immune system is designed to protect us from life threatening invaders, and for this purpose it is quite effective. However, to do this well, our immune system has 'decided' that it is better to make the error that something is an enemy even when it is not (false positive), than to make the error that something is safe when it is not (false negative). Since survival of the organism is the goal of the immune system, this trade-off makes sense. The price we pay for this higher level of protection is a higher level of over-reaction; the immune system reacting to a stimulus that is not a real threat. The discomforts -- and sometimes serious effects -- of our allergic reactions, is our direct experience of this designed over-reaction.


Our emotional immune system is, similarly, designed for survival. The core of that system is the fight/flight response. We see a threat and we either fight or run. Our human version of the universal fight/flight response was formed in the last major evolutionary development of humans somewhere between 35,000 and 120,000 years ago. It was designed for life in small clan clusters where everything outside the clan -- animal or human -- was likely a threat to survival. Under those conditions it made no survival sense to 'take a chance' on the peaceful intent of the stranger: attack first and play it safe.


Fortunately, for the most part, the majority of people in the United States live in a safer world than did their primitive forebears. Rarely, except during war, are our lives threatened. Consequently, we now want much more from life than survival, and we want much more from our close relationships than merely their continued existence. We want emotional closeness and emotional safety with our family members, lovers, and good friends. And we want all the wonderful feelings that flow from that emotional closeness and emotional safety; love, joy, harmony, importance, meaning, and satisfaction.


But there is a problem. The biological design of our emotional immune system is biased in favor of our physical protection, and our emotional reflexes are built on that. We are designed to 'assume' danger and react accordingly, even though, in our close relationships, we are rarely in that kind of danger. In fact, the real threat in these close relationships is that we will be emotionally hurt or feel anxious or afraid. Yet, our reflex, under these circumstances, is still fight or flight. We fight; that is, get angry, or critical, or sarcastic, or we flee; that is, emotionally withdraw, or avoid, or turn away.


Now, here's the paradox. If you are walking down a jungle path and a member of an enemy tribe steps onto the path in front of you, it makes sense to assume you have to fight or flee. But if your spouse says something that feels uncaring and your feelings are hurt by that, assuming that your spouse wants to kill you is not a reasonable assumption. Yet, that is, essentially, the core emotional reflex that drives the way people react. We go into our fight/flight reactions, and the consequences of this are predictable and sad.


Troublingly, our biologically based, 'natural' self-protective reactions to feelings of hurt and anxiety don't work to create the emotional safety we want. When those feelings are connected to someone we care about, they actually backfire. If your spouse says something that hurts your feelings and, as a result, you get angry or withdraw, it is most likely that your spouse will, then, react to your reaction with anger or withdrawal. You, seeing your spouse now adding insult to injury by being angry or withdrawing, will further escalate your reaction to their reaction. We all know where this leads.


But, wait. When your spouse hurt your feelings, what did you really want from him or her? You, most likely, wanted him or her to see that you had been hurt and to do something to take that hurt away: perhaps an apology, or expression of concern, or an act of soothing, or a regretful realization that they had hurt you, or something that would heal the hurt. Instead, by reacting 'naturally' self protectively, you triggered your spouse's 'natural' self-protective reaction, and rather than the two of you engaging each other with behaviors of mutual concern, you have both now assumed 'enemy' stances. Our emotional immune system, that set of reflexes designed to protect us, has now deepened our hurt and may have caused us alienation from the one person we wanted most to be close to, and who we most wanted to ease our hurt. If they designed cars like this, going in reverse when we really try to go forward, there would be a high level government commission of inquiry.


What we need is to develop personal modes of reaction that correct the negative consequences of our biologically based reflexes. As anyone who has tried to change a habit, let alone a reflex, this is no easy task, and requires the acceptance of some basic ideas first.


1.     Imperfection. We are imperfect: life is imperfect: and from time to time all people inadvertently hurt the people they care about. No child, no matter how benign his or her world, can grow without having been hurt by life and by their loving parents. ( Of course, a harsh life and unloving parents cause even more hurt). And no relationship, no matter how good it is, can protect its members from being hurt in that relationship. We love imperfectly. We do not always think about the people we care about (the hurts of neglect or omission), and we can sometimes get hijacked by our own emotional needs and fears, causing us to act in ways that hurt the other ( the hurts of commission).


2.     Repair. Since the imperfections of life and ourselves inevitably lead to hurt, our task in relationships is to repair the hurt. While preventing hurt is always an important goal, wanting to repair the emotional damage we have, advertently or inadvertently, caused is a fundamental necessity. This means both seeking to repair, and permitting the other to repair the damage they have caused. Unfortunately, when hurt, we seem to be somewhat resistant to repair. It is as if we fear that allowing repair will lower our defenses (which it will) and make us more vulnerable to future hurts (which it won't, as long as we remain in the relationship to work things out).


3.     Safety. The true meaning of 'safe' and 'unsafe' in a close relationship goes counter to our intuition. The emotional immune system is supposed to provide protection; that is, increase our emotional safety, and create intuitive beliefs about what those 'safety-making' moves are. However, it turns out, these 'safety-making' moves do not really create emotional safety at all. They, actually, increase the true danger in relationships by increasing the likelihood that one will be emotionally hurt and estranged.


My favorite illustration of this comes from the physical world and is from the experience of downhill skiing. We clearly have an innate response to the danger of falling off a cliff, and that is to lean back, away from the danger. This makes a great deal of sense. But civilization and human ingenuity invented skiing. In downhill skiing, you purposely decide to go downhill, and with some speed. When our biological reflex meets skiing, we reflexively lean back, away from the fall forward, and this is disastrous. What worked for humans faced with falling off a cliff, works against the safety of humans wanting to ski. Leaning back on skis puts too much of your weight on the tail end of the ski and reduces your control and steering power. What is required is the counter-intuitive and anxiety-provoking move of leaning forward, in spite of the fear, towards the abyss. Only that way do you achieve the control over your skis that provides true safety.


This is perfectly analogous to relationships. True safety in relationships requires the counter-intuitive and anxiety-provoking move of lowering our defenses; the equivalent of leaning forward toward the abyss.


4.     Protection. In close relationships, the best protection is no protection. Nothing goes more counter to our emotional reflexes. Our impulse to protect ourselves is built in, and our protective choices are to fight or flee. But when we fight or flee from a person we are close to, this engenders self-protective distancing in him or her, the person we most want to care for us. Defenselessness gives our loved one open access to our hurt without their having to feel in danger of our blame or criticism. It is more likely to bring out the soft, caring side of our loved one and elicit from them the caring we yearn for.


All this is easy to say and hard to implement. What else is new in life? However, the acceptance of these ideas is a first step and maps the direction we can take in our self-development. Our humaneness requires that we wed our biology to the best that civilization has to offer. The second step, the motivation to implement, is assisted by keeping in mind the emotional cost to you, to your loved one, and to your relationship, of not implementing. The third step, actually choosing to not defend yourself, requires locating within yourself the personal courage and strength to be defenseless. Accepting our imperfection makes defenselessness tolerable.