They arrive at my office in conflict. He has taken serious umbrage. She is terrified of his umbrage. Wounded and made sick by it. “I am sick of not being trusted,” he says. He is deeply offended.
Ah, yes. There it is: “How dare you!” It doesn’t always (or even very often) come out in those exact words, but I know it when I hear it. It has an energy. A feel to it. I’m very alert to “How dare you,” because “How dare you” is often the smoke under which there is usually a fire. A red flag.
Oh, if your mate lies about his/her mother having cancer to arrange a meeting with another lover, then, yes, I would understand “How dare you!” But, more often, in the regular course of the “normal” breakdowns of marital connection and intimacy, “How dare you” is usually a presentation of umbrage disguising and cloaking something else.
The something else is, of course, reactive ego-defensiveness. And what the ego defends is fear and vulnerability.
I listen to the couple, they who have been married these past six years. After a couple of cautions, then a warning, I have to ask the husband to escort his umbrage out to the waiting room and give us a moment. (Sometimes my job includes shades of elementary school teacher on recess duty.)
When he rejoins us, I say to him, “So, gotta tell you, I’m not married to her. You know her better than I do. But, I was listening to her very carefully while you were gone, and no part of what she is saying sounds to me like an accusation of distrust. It sounds like she’s asking for secure attachment.”
We’re primates, folks. And we’re not happy unless our bonds (attachments) within the troop are secure. We get stressed out and anxious. We spend our lives (especially with our spouses) rehearsing behaviors that promote, reaffirm, nurture and celebrate secure attachments.
If you watch chimpanzees, they rehearse attachments by grooming (combing through each other’s hair looking for bugs), physical play (tickling, wrestling, chasing and rolling around) and making love.
OK, I hope your mate’s hair doesn’t contain bugs, but you get my point.
Here’s a short list of common ways modern lovers nurture and affirm secure attachment:
Touch: We love it. We’re built for it. It soothes us, both to touch and to be touched. In great marriages, people touch a lot.
Common courtesy: Yep, people in great marriages are bent to reciprocity, service and just plain good manners. Common courtesy reminds your mate he/she is first in your thoughts.
Forthright transparency: This is way more than don’t hide, deceive or lie. This is knowing that my mate does have a rightful claim on my comings and goings, my whereabouts, what I do with my time, the identities of my friends, etc.
Public advocacy: Our mate needs to know that, in his/her absence, we are still presenting “We” to the world. That we “stand up” for the primacy of our marriage relationship to all comers — family, friends, colleagues, exes … everyone!
The problem of modern people, I think, is that we’re somehow ashamed of asking for the reassurance of secure attachment. So we ask for it “bassackward.” Around the barn. We encrypt the request in ways our mate is wont to miss. Or worse, misinterpret. I suspect the person asking to reaffirm attachment does often cache the request as an implicit mistrust.
“Who was that on the phone,” sounds to the recipient more like, “So, are you having an affair,” than it does, “Would you please reaffirm the security of our bond and attachment. Tell me again I’m No. 1 in your life.”
“I have an insecure feeling” is in fact NOT the same as “You’re cheating on me, aren’t you?!”
If you’re married, it’s really normal that your mate will, from time to time, find ways of asking to reassure and reaffirm the security of attachment.
Defensiveness, exasperation and indignation are NOT the correct response. Or, as one spouse said to me recently, “The idea of ‘asking for what you need’ doesn’t work in my marriage. That’s always a sure-fire way of getting even less of what I need. Plus, it almost always starts a fight.”
Yikes. Did you really mean, “I really hate it when you ask to be securely attached to me. I prefer relationships without any expectations for secure attachments. Secure attachments really irritate me.”
Because that’s what your mate heard.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.