“Here we go again. He won’t stop criticizing everything I do. I don’t know where his anger is coming from, but I can’t take it anymore. I feel like I can’t do anything right.”
“So what do I do in response? Naturally, I shut down. What am I going to do, keep arguing with him? It’s so much easier to just go off on my own. I don’t need him. I don’t ‘need’ anyone.”
“Do I miss those times when I feel close to him, when he makes me feel like there’s no one else in the world? Of course I do. But there’s no way I can tell him that I miss him.”
“He’ll probably just laugh in my face, and then I’d look weak. So of course I’m going to pull away. And the crazy thing is that when I pull away, he nags even more. I just can’t catch a break. This has been going on forever.”
My friends, this vicious cycle of criticizing and withdrawing is extremely common. The bad news is that it can lead to frustration and heartache. The good news is that there’s a way to break the cycle, and that’s through seeking connection.
All people need other people
Sure, it’s scary to admit that we might actually need another human being. From the time we leave our parents’ homes, we’re taught to be self-sufficient. Our Western culture tells us to be rugged individualists, to handle our emotions and our problems ourselves. And yes, there’s always a risk in revealing our “softer” side: the part of us that wants to hold our partner, the part of us that wants to be held. What if we reach for our partner, revealing this vulnerable part of us, and they don’t respond?
In couples therapy, there’s a way to break this vicious cycle. Let’s dig beneath the criticizer’s anger; what often lies beneath is an unexpressed longing. Let’s look at what the withdrawer is really feeling; after endless torrents of criticism, often it’s a feeling of “not being good enough.” Let’s introduce a new cycle of “turning towards each other,” of directly expressing our needs.
Want to know what happens when we do? Despite what we thought when all we saw was the criticizer or the withdrawer, our partner is actually a human being, full of compassion! Our partner will likely be surprised to learn that we really feel as we do. Our partner will likely be touched by seeing and hearing about our struggle, our pain. And what will our partner’s natural inclination be? To embrace us.
So, what happens when we take this risk and seek connection? Invariably we find that our partner will “be there” for us. This is so comforting to know. In the future, when we need them, they will be there. Having experienced this, we’re more likely to “turn towards” our partner, again and again.
Through the brave act of seeking connection, we’ve created a solid and predictable base of support from which we can conquer future challenges – together.
About the Author
Andrew Kushnick is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in San Francisco. He specializes in providing a safe and supportive environment in which you can explore new pathways towards growth and fulfillment.