It’s one of those swinging-door summer days on my backyard patio…a soft background chatter of unseen insects…. my feet propped up on a cushion… watching the ant scurry around the rim of my basil plant… listening to the swallows’ flapping winged chase… and I can almost hear the squash leaves double in size after yesterday’s drenching rain.
There’s a peace settled in my little backyard, as the edges of quiet stretch toward the range of low mountains into the blue mist of my long distance vision. My mind wanders back to my computer on my lap and the SOS distress emails I’ve received from a couple Jack and Jill whose divorce I mediated last year. They were not enjoying a summer day with their feet propped up, as I was. Even a year after they divorced, their attempts to co-parent continue to trigger their ‘destructive dance’. They remain stuck in a vicious and miserable cycle. Their repeated behaviour showed that they kept choosing a negative destructive bond. Where they afraid of the loss of no bond at all? What kept them stuck?
I recall how all communications were rough going. Some bombshell at every meeting… They knew exactly how to trigger one another. Clearly they never learned to soothe the other. Jack might make a snide comment. Or Jill would look over her glasses at Jack with that question mark of a raised eyebrow: ‘What??? He’d snap.’ And their vicious destructive dance of blame … threat… retribution would begin. That is, process of their destructive dance would interrupt the content of the issues at hand: Sell the house? Keep the business? Who pays for summer camp? etc., etc. Until I stopped them each time. This was mediation, not therapy.
I believed they sickened one another; literally, as well as figuratively. Their toddler had frequent chest colds. Their daughter’s asthma blossomed just before that maths test, or her soccer game. Their son fought often with his friends, showing little ability to tolerate small frustrations. Emotional and physical stress was exacerbated by the tension and misery each of them experienced when two parents can not put their kids’ needs first, and who allowed the destructive dance to dominate their relationship and household culture.
Why you are negatively bonded in this destructive dance
I framed for Jack and Jill, as I do here, where and how I believed this destructive dance started. I asked them to talk to their individual therapists, with both interest and genuine curiosity about why they were stuck in this destructive dance.
Where attachments start
I offered them some basic developmental theory. From the moment a baby opens her eyes, she attempts to connect to her caretaker. Through a gazillion interactions, human babies’ brains learn what to expect from their adult caretakers. These interaction patterns become internal expectations remembered, or imprinted, in each baby’s brain. Thus, we all as babies learn to manage our emotional experiences through increasingly complex brain neuro-circuitry called ‘internal working models’ (IWMs).
These IWMs lay the foundation for: (a) how comfortable we feel being close or distance from another person; (b) how we regulate our emotions, i.e., how easily our feelings get aroused, and how well we inhibit feelings as necessary; (c) how our brains assess safety or threat in our environment. IWMs remain relatively consistent from our infancy through our adult lives. Although, because of the brain’s inherent neuroplasticity, we can rewire our neural circuitry. This is the goal in therapy. This is the basis for ‘successful’ mediations too.
IWMs form the basis of our attachment styles, which reflect the predominant pattern of how we bond, or connect, to others. Different attachment styles encode the differing ways we regulate our emotions, and how our brains perceive what is safe and what is a threat in our environment. Here’s where marriage, divorce, and self-knowledge come in. We marry to create a safe trusting partnership so each partner can flourish; divorce when that fails; and, self-knowledge to understand why.
Some of us grew up with caretakers who consistently and reliably responded to our needs as babies, and successfully soothed us when upset. If learned when young, we know how to soothe our partners as adults. Loving adults helped us adjust our feelings appropriately to sounds, touch, or feelings, without becoming overly excited or distressed. They let us know we were lovable and loved, for ourselves, irrespective of our behaviours. We had at least one loving adult to whom we could turn as a safe harbour when distressed, and as a secure touchstone from which to explore our environment. So as adults, we would know how to turn to a partner to ask for, or to offer, a smile, a hug, a joke, any attunement that strengthened a loving connection.
Trust and safety
Thus, we felt generally safe in the world and grew up to be flexible in their ability to experience both intimacy and distance. We can feel close without losing our sense of autonomy and experience leavings without feeling abandoned. This description frames an ideal bonding with a significant other.
No trust, no safety
However, many of us did not experience such ideal early attachment experiences: we did not have such consistent and clear boundaried bonds with our caretakers. Instead, we had caretakers who were inconsistent, unreliable, negligent, maybe scary, or downright mean. Each was some version of unclear, had trouble soothing, or calming us down when upset, or stimulated us in age-inappropriate ways that we could not manage emotionally.
Both Jack and Jill grew up with one or both parents who were inconsistent and or negligent. Trusting another, let alone being empathic, was not something either learned. Thus, as adults they re-experienced in their relationship moments of threat, feeling scared without relief, feeling deep longings without acknowledgement. They did not experience feeling seen or heard for their individual attributes.
They ended up in my office, divorcing. And now their challenge is to understand the unfortunate histories of their early bonding relationships. Without this understanding, I fear they will stay stuck in their destructive dance. Without such understanding and working through, it will be more difficult to separate emotionally from one another – to separate from their futile attempts to change, to repair the other, or to be right. More difficult to help their children feel the security they themselves did not have; more difficult to bond more securely and effectively with new partners.
Such understanding is a doable challenge. Hard, but I’ve seen people do it. They have to really want to change. Staying stuck in the destructive dance is one choice that is familiar. It keeps a bond, a connection, albeit a negative one. For some, a negative, even destructive bond is better than no connection at all. Choosing the road not taken to deepen understanding is a more difficult journey. I dearly hope they choose that one. I dearly hope they will allow themselves summer days in which they can feel safe and quiet with their feet propped up, fully present to the wonders of the world around them, and not haunted and stuck in a destructive dance from childhood patterns.
Dr Joy Dryer is a psychologist/psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City, and Poughkeepsie, NY. wearing three hats: First, as a clinician, Dr Dryer works with individuals, families, and couples (as a PACT Level 2 clinician). Second, she practices as a Divorce Mediator and Collaborative Divorce Coach. And third, she was an Adjunct Associate Professor at NYU and Brooklyn College, and continues to supervise graduate students, and write and speak to the public and at Psychoanalytic and Collaborative Divorce conferences. You can connect with her on Twitter Follow her @JoyDryerPhD
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