This blog post is part of a series on relationships. If you have not yet done so, I would encourage you to read the earlier blog posts in the series before continuing with this one (starting with why we fall in love, the infatuating effect of romantic love and last week's look at choosing true love).
When the romantic love phase of a relationship ends, we enter a power struggle phase that can go on for many years. During this phase we may feel disconnected from our partner, struggling to express our own needs or address our partner’s needs.
When we fall out of connection and move into the power struggle phase, we feel unsafe in the relationship and begin to see our partner as a threat.
When that happens, our survival instinct kicks in Growing up, we develop different survival mechanisms when we feel threatened - we fight or we flee. You might use both strategies in different situations, but most people tend to lean towards one or the other.
In my course for couples — Get Close — I refer to these two survival styles as the Big Jumbler (the fighter) and the Small Square (the fleer), but we'll be using a more tangible metaphor as we continue here.
Fight mode: The lion
One survival instinct is to maximise our reaction.
This is like a lion with a thorn in her paw. (I say “her” paw, because women are better known for using the maximising, fighting coping mechanism. Not all women, but that is the most common dynamic in South Africa).
How do you help that lioness? It isn't a fun prospect because you might get a paw across the face or your head bitten off. But she still needs (and often wants) help; there is a wound, a sensitivity that needs healing. However, anyone drawing closer is perceived as a possible threat, so she might just hurt you preemptively instead.
How can you recognise if you are a lion (a big jumbler)?
You repeat your needs.
You exaggerate emotions.
You intensify your experiences.
You are often on the attack.
You will have diffused boundaries, meaning you will openly share with everyone about your struggles - including your relationship struggles.
You want to address issues immediately.
Everything seems on the same level of urgency.
Flight mode: The bird
Another instinct is to minimise our reaction.
Imagine this like a little bird with a piece of string around its foot. You can never get close to the bird because when you try to help, it gets scared and tries to fly away. They flee, they move away, they avoid, they isolate, they shut down. The greater the perceived threat, the deeper the bird will withdraw into its cage. You may see that the bird needs help, but you can never get close enough to help.
How can you recognise if you are a bird (a small square)?
You deny your needs.
You suppress your emotions.
You have very rigid boundaries and don’t share your relationship experiences with many people often.
You postpone dealing with issues. Or you want to deal with them, but maybe in October 2055.
You are defensive.
The survival dance
Now imagine that the lion with the thorn in its paw and the bird with string around its foot are in a relationship.
As soon as the lion approaches, the bird flies away. And if the bird touches the thorn in the lion’s paw, the lion starts attacking and roaring louder.
This survival dance keeps on repeating itself over and over until the couple finds themselves in a gridlock.
Conflict as a clue
Instead of letting that gridlock consume the relationship, use the conflict as a clue.
We have to become curious about our own reactions and our own needs.
Instead of asking “What is wrong with him, he pushes my buttons all the time”, rather ask, “What are the buttons in me that are being pushed?”
Don't blame or shame yourself, just be curious about the nature of the things that trigger your survival response. Is it an insecurity? A bad experience in your past you are afraid of repeating? An emotion you are avoiding feeling? A belief that helps you feel safe? Once you identify that trigger, you can then choose to figure it out with your partner instead.
But to do that, you will have to choose to not act from your survival instinct. An intentional, unnatural reaction is necessary; the lion has to choose to stop roaring and biting, and the little bird has to choose to come closer.
When we become aware of our own role in the conflict we can change the rhythm of the survival dance and choose to move our relationship to a conscious level.
CONSIDER / TAKE ACTION
Which survival style do you resonate with the most? What survival does your partner usually default to?