ERP 428: The Dynamic That 80% Of Distressed Couples Face – An Interview With Jennifer Nurick

By Posted in - Podcast June 11th, 2024 0 Comments

Ever wondered why your relationship feels like a never-ending cycle of conflict and distance? In this episode, we delve into the common dynamics experienced by 80% of distressed couples, with a particular focus on the anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

This episode provides actionable guidance to regulate emotions, establish safety, and overcome attachment injuries. Discover a five-stage process for fostering intimacy, promoting personal and relational development. Learn practical strategies to address core emotions, halt escalating conflicts, and pave the way for secure, fulfilling connections. Whether you’re dealing with an anxious-avoidant dynamic or looking to deepen your understanding of attachment, this episode provides valuable tools and insights to transform your relationship.

Jennifer Nurick (Jen) specialises in healing anxious attachment, attachment injuries and childhood trauma. She is a licensed Clinical Psychotherapist, Couple Therapist, Energetic Healer, and author of “Heal Your Anxious Attachment”. She is the founder and voice of Psychotherapy Central. She has been working in the healing space for over 20 years, combining Eastern energetic practices and Western psychotherapy. She offers transformational courses to help individuals and couples heal trauma and build secure long-term relationships.

In this episode

09:32 Jennifer Nurick shares her journey of discovery and expertise in the realm of attachment dynamics.

18:10 The complexities of relational wounds and the quest for secure attachment.

25:01 Therapy as a haven for confronting and processing emotional injuries.

32:48 The unburdening process in internal family systems therapy.

38:09 Navigating attachment dynamics in distressed relationships.

51:33 Healing anxious and avoidant attachment styles in relationships.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Practice acknowledging and naming your emotions to regulate and create safety in your intimate relationship.
  • Use deep breaths to ground yourself and settle your nervous system regularly.
  • Learn about anxious and avoidant attachment styles to better understand and address relational dynamics.
  • Consider starting with EFT to explore and heal relationship patterns.
  • Build an internal model of a secure attachment figure, drawing from spiritual or real-life sources of comfort and support.
  • Work on healing internal wounds by focusing on the inner child and releasing pain through the IFS therapy model.
  • Engage in reparenting exercises to nurture and heal your inner child.
  • Utilize therapy to experience reparative relational interactions and handle past trauma and anxiety effectively.

Mentioned

Psychotherapy Online Course Catalog

Heal Your Anxious Attachment: Release Past Trauma, Cultivate Secure Relationships, and Nurture a Deeper Sense of Self (*Amazon affiliate link) (book)

ERP 423: How to Transcend Trauma (And the Effects Experience in Relationship) — An Interview with Dr. Frank Anderson

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Connect with Jennifer Nurick

Websites: psychotherapycentral.health

Facebook: facebook.com/psychotherapy.central

YouTube: youtube.com/@psychotherapycentral

Instagram: instagram.com/psychotherapy.central

Podcast: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/psychotherapy-central/id1701257974

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Jennifer, it’s such a pleasure to have you. Thank you for joining us.

Thank you for having me on. Jessica. Great to be here.

Yes. I very much appreciate when people can speak to the attachment system, what’s happening for individuals as they’re in relationship, and also the dynamic and what’s happening relationally that people maybe aren’t always aware of. I know attachment has gotten a lot more visibility in the last 10 to 15 years, and just the new science around that. You have a lot to offer in this regard. 

Just before we get diving in here, I want to just hear from you, what you would like people to know about you around what got you interested in supporting people in relationship, for maybe people who aren’t familiar with you. 

What really drew me into the whole anxious-avoidant dynamic was being in a relationship where we have that dynamic. So my beautiful husband has more avoidant tendencies, and I always frame that as that’s kind of his coping strategy. That’s what his nervous system does. When he sees fear or relational upset or danger, his nervous system kind of signals: Danger, danger! And his way is to shut down and to withdraw. The thinking is: I don’t want to cause any more issues, so I’m moving back. My nervous system is more on the anxious end of the spectrum, so when I feel him do that, and it might not even be a big thing. It could be we’re in the middle of a conversation and I see him look at his phone, and then my mind will go to: Is he not paying attention? Does he not want to listen to me? Is he not interested in me, and earlier on, in the relationship? Then I might work harder to maintain connection, so I’m trying to move closer. So it was really that dynamic that got me curious around the whole anxious and avoidant dynamic, particularly that dynamic. 

Were you already a clinician and a psychotherapist? Was this something you already had established in your psychological training?

That’s a great question. I’d done a lot of training as an energetic and spiritual healer, and I still practice in that space. Then I had done a lot of psychotherapy training. Then I already had a Master’s in Applied Psychotherapy and Counseling. And we had no training at all around attachment. I remember somebody doing some research in their final project. But no, we were not taught it at all. So I went down a rabbit hole, and I’ve got quite a big Instagram presence. So as I was really learning about it, I was posting a lot about: “These are the things that I’m learning, and this is how I’m seeing it show up for me, and this is how other people are talking about it. How is it showing up for you?” This was about three or four years ago, and I found that a lot of people were very interested in the topic. So they came on this learning journey with me. Then I had a lot of people seeing me who were turning up saying: “Jennifer, I have anxious attachment, or I’m avoidant. I resonate with those things that you’re talking about. Is there a book that I can read?” 

So then at the time, I started to look for books: Okay, what is there? So some were very academic and dense, and you basically needed to have an academic background to decipher them. Then others would have a lot about what is the attachment issue. So there’d be nine or ten chapters on what is the attachment issue, and then one very thin chapter at the end about how to work with it. So I felt like, well, I’ve been working with it, and I’ve worked with it really successfully, so there are ways. So I thought, I’ll write a book and maybe it’ll be helpful. That was the journey, really. 

As I’m hearing you describe what you were noticing with your husband and the dynamic between the two of you, were you intuitively just practicing better ways of relating and trying to find connection with him, despite the different coping strategies or moves that you would both have? Or were you researching and studying, and then applying your learning? How did that work for you, if you don’t mind me asking? 

It was a bit of both. So I’ve been working with transactional analysis, which is the inner child re-parenting and inner parent model, since my mid-20s. So I’ve done, in my life, a lot of parts work. I’m a trained IFS therapist now, which takes that parts model up to the next level. So I already had a lot of training in how do I help those more anxious parts of me look towards me instead of look towards my partner for validation and reassurance and safety? So I already had that piece and I had been using that. This is actually how I’ve separated the book out. The first part is about internal secure attachment, and because I’m also a somatic therapist, so using somatic, using parts work, and also the spiritual element that I bring into that, finding belonging in the family system with family of origin. Then the second part of the book is about rolling that out relationally, so practical things. I reference Sue Johnson’s work, because like I said before, I’m trained in EFT couples therapy. So really using some of Sue Johnson’s amazing work, a little bit of Gottman work as well, around how do we then work with that relationally. So for me, it was my journey with half inside job and half outside. 

I love hearing you reference this. Because so often, people associate the work, as it relates to attachment and particularly Emotionally Focused Therapy, to be very focused on the safety of the bond and secure functioning, which can appear to be the interpersonal dynamic, the relational skills. But how that fits with maybe some of the inner work? It can sound on the outside as if, it’s just your partner and you and how you’re crafting your bond. But I so appreciate what you’re describing. Because when I remember learning about the EFT model, I was like: Oh, that’s where it is. Because there’s a bit of distilling and understanding the deeper layers in the connecting with the primary emotion, the attachment needs, the attachment longings, which are often not conscious, below the surface of awareness. And when we can come into greater contact with that and just have some ownership of that, there’s a little bit of stability in occupying that space, which is differentiating, which is this ability to do the inner work. 

So it’s both and. I think that it gets confusing for people. I just interviewed, speaking of IFS, Internal Family Systems’ Frank Anderson. He was talking about how we farm out our relational needs or our concerns, or how to work with those triggers. And we want our partner to do the work. But really, he’s like, the U-turn. So you’re really speaking to this so clearly that there’s a real individual piece, and then how we then relate. That’s a game-changer when we can have a little more connection. Is that right? 

Absolutely, you described it actually so beautifully. I want to add in a little bit of context around it being so natural for our more wounded younger part to reach out. Because when we were reaching out for co-regulation, our secure attachment people were external, depending on how secure, how stable, how present they were. It doesn’t matter. 

Free Couple Hugging and Looking into Each Others Eyes on a Field  Stock Photo

“The younger part reaches out for the adult who we are hoping is able to be attuned and present and loving and give guidance and protection, and all that yummy stuff. But the reality is, for about 50% of the population, sometimes that person was able to be there, and sometimes, for different reasons, not. That’s how we get the insecure styles that form.”

So I just want to give context that it’s natural for those younger parts to reach out. And part of that healing that can absolutely be done, and IFS is a fantastic model to do it through, is helping those younger parts look towards what Richard Schwartz calls self-energy; the loving, kind, compassionate. In the transaction analysis model, it’s the loving parent. But it’s the part of self that I like to say, if you see a wounded puppy, I saw one in India recently and one of its legs had become dislocated, the first thing you want to do is slip towards the puppy. “Is it okay, are you okay? Let me take you to a vet, let’s find you some help.” Picking it up in a towel. It’s that part of self that steps forward when somebody is hurting, it’s very tender and warm. So as more parts inside the system meet that tender, warm self-energy, the safer the system starts to feel, and the parts start to look towards us instead of towards our partner. Is that helpful?

Yes, it’s powerful. As you’re describing, it’s been my experience, in my own anxious tendencies, when I’ve been able to do my inner work, my spiritual practice, or even this higher self, or a resource that felt spiritual. It could be a place of reference and resource to offer that attunement, that responsiveness, in this inner child or re-parenting work. I remember Sue Johnson. I did an externship, this was years ago, I think 2000. She was talking about how the spiritual practice could be a way of secure functioning when there’s not a secure person to be relating to, that we can turn towards spirituality. It sounds like the energetic and spiritual part is a big part. Can you speak about this? Because I actually don’t have a lot of experience in training and being able to articulate this.

So it’s building an internal model of a secure attachment figure. So it could absolutely be Mother Mary, or the Goddess Durga, or Kuan Yin, or just whatever you reference as the Divine or God, or my own soul energy, or collective consciousness, or the sun. I guess whatever people would resonate with. But it could also be, and I’ve had a lot of clients find this quite helpful, somebody in their life. Maybe they spent a lot of time at someone else’s house, and that person had just the most amazing mother. Or they had an auntie who they just wished: Oh, I wish that that Auntie could have been my mother. I did a whole piece of work in my mid-20s, where I worked with Mary Poppins as my internal mother, because she had just something about her. For me, she had that kind of: let’s get going, let’s get this done. Quite caring, but quite protective, and good guidance, and a bit magical and a bit naughty and dancing on the ceiling. So there was a while where I used her. I used that character as an internal model, where, combined with my own mother, it actually made quite a nice, complete figure. So it can be done in a lot of different ways. But having that internal reference point can be very helpful, and part of the healing process and something that I talk a bit about in the book.

Thank you for giving some language to that. Because I have found that, and you mentioned this, when one has experienced circumstances, and even many clients I’ve worked with struggle with identifying injury or pain as it relates to the attachment dynamics or what they learned in their upbringing. I mean, even coming from a place of privilege, where they had all their needs met; clothing, food, shelter, friends, maybe even external family was around. They had a lot of things that they were afforded. Yet, the emotional attunement and responsiveness and ability to feel comforted and held during any type of emotional experience was vacant or was non-existent, and it’s sometimes tricky. 

Having said that, I think sometimes these injuries are on a continuum; some are more severe in the way of abuse or neglect, and then others are more relational in the sense of not being responded to or attuned to. Then what my question is, is for someone who doesn’t have a real reference place, that they have either known a lot of pain, trauma abuse, don’t know how to access even a thread, it’s just so terrifying. Where does one begin here?

Yeah, that’s such a great question. One of the best places to begin is in therapy. Because, as you know, what can happen in therapy is you’re held in a way that you weren’t held back then. And what you can experience then is what we call a missing experience, and you can have that relationally. What tends to happen is as that experience is built up in therapy, those reparative experiences actually can be deeply emotional. 

To have somebody listen to you and reflect back to you the depth of your pain, and feel like the person has gone down there with you and not said: “Come on, that’s enough now, or well, I’m just going to leave you alone.” Maybe your parents felt uncomfortable with your pain, maybe they couldn’t sit there with you in it. It can be deeply emotional and touching to have somebody sit with you in there, and have a different experience relating to self. We learn from experiences like that: “Oh, another human can sit with me in the depth of that pain, and I’m not alone in here. Somebody can hold my hand, metaphorically. For the first time ever, I’ve gone deeper down in my pain than ever before, because I felt safer because I was with somebody, and I’ve survived.” 

And the part that’s holding that deep pain has also learned: “Oh, I’m not as terrifying for the rest of the system as I thought I was.” And the rest of the system learns: “Oh, she cut that pain and held it in the presence of the therapist, and we’re all okay. Okay, we haven’t gone out drinking, and we haven’t gone out doing some of the things that we might do that we need to do to numb the pain in the past. We’ve actually sat with it with our co-regulator, the therapist, and we’ve all come alive.” 

Actually afterwards, we feel relieved, because my sense of self has changed, my sense of capacity has changed, and what’s actually changed as well is, the window of tolerance has just widened. So my capacity to surf my own ups and downs, which we’re all going to have, because we’re human, we’re going to surf that nervous system. We’re going to go into hyper-arousal, and we’re going to surf it. My sense of safety and self has just increased. 

So when there’s a lot of trauma sitting in the system, absolutely the best way to work with it, I feel, is to work with a therapist at the beginning to get some of the foundational pieces in place. And what happens then, you’ve probably seen this is your own practice, is we see it rolling out into relationships, where I find clients will come back and say, with no prompting, no homework, nothing: “I had the most amazing conversation with my mother about my childhood, and we both just sat and cried, and we have never spoken about my childhood. Because we want to maintain the relationship, it’s been a no-go zone for both of us. We’ve both just kept this stalemate silence. And for the first time, we both just sat and cried and held each other’s hand.” How was it afterwards? It was amazing. I feel so much more authentic in that relationship now. I feel so much closer to her, and her to me. It shifts the whole relationship. Then that starts happening in intimate relationships, not only with mom, but with partner and with sister. It’s so very powerful, and that’s what I love about this space. It’s why I’ve been in this space since I was 25.

No kidding! Thank you for giving some scope to this and context, and responding to the question. It’s bringing to mind a client that I’ve worked with for a while, and his ability to talk about a very traumatic experience in immigrating. His parents were so overwhelmed, and the story was just impossible, the circumstances. This is years and years and years ago. Yet, what he described is just so much overwhelm, and the way he dealt with that is just doing his best to help be the pleaser, and really over-perform, over-function, being the oldest son. But nonetheless, the overwhelm, and the lack of grounding, the lack of pacing, the dislocation, the lack of feeling connection, all of it was quite immense. 

So to your point, when there can be the ability to have some scaffolding almost, to sit with, be with this overwhelm, this pain or injury, it’s almost like new development, new neural pathways, new system. Once we have a little bit of that framework, we can start to apply it, reference it. I guess this is what I was hearing you say is, in the individual work, we can nurture that and continue to build more repetition in our work. When we notice an activation, we notice fear, we noticed anxiety, that we can turn towards ourselves and start to give that support that now we’ve have new learning around. 

Yeah, absolutely. And we get to know the fear and the anxiety in a whole different way. When we get to know the anxiety, often anxiety is an inner alarm bell going off and saying: Warning, warning, warning! It’s warning us about something. And when we turn towards it, often when we speak to it, it will say things like: “I’m trying to protect you. I was really trying to keep you safe when you were four, and five, and six, and seven, and eight, and I’m still trying to do the same thing. I’m really trying to keep you safe. That thing that just happened there, that looks to me like an unsafe thing.” Remembering what might have been unsafe to a four-year-old, when we were four, is not necessarily unsafe when we’re 40. But that part only has the lens of that four-year-old. It’s kind of its job that it’s been tasked with, is taking care of the four-year-old, so that’s all it can see. It can also be quite a shock when we ask the anxious part, how old do you think I am? Often, the anxious part will say: Oh, you’re eight. Then there can be a bit of updating. Okay, let me update you a little bit. Then often the anxious part will go: Oh okay, you’re 40, you’re here, and things are really different, okay. Even with that, often the anxious part will start to settle down a bit. 

Then how IFS works is, then it’s about going to the four-year-old who’s holding that original wounding, bringing the four-year-old forward, helping the four-year-old to heal and resolve and release. There’s a beautiful energy piece in IFS as well, which I really appreciate. It’s lovely for me, the combination between that inner child work and energy work. They call it unburdening. With my energy background, it’s kind of like, that looks like energy works for me. There’s a lovely energetic piece.

Do you want to say a little bit about that? I know many people might not know what you’re referring to. I know this could probably be a whole podcast in and of itself. But as people are listening.

So part of the healing process at the end, and we call it the exile, but when that part holding the pain has really been witnessed in a different way. 

Free Man Wearing Blue Shirt Kissing Woman in Pink Tank Top Stock Photo

“Often the pain is unwitnessed. Because the adults have been going through so much, because of different factors, often the child has felt quite alone with the pain. And pain will often get processed through if it can be held with some supportive other.”

So when that’s been missing, for whatever reason, they’re holding that pain. And we have this process where me as an adult can sit with the pain of the four-year-old, being held by the other as the therapist. It’s like a softening of that neural network, it softens out. It’s a softening of that part, a holding and a witnessing. Then eventually, we’ll move through a few other pieces. 

But then at the end of this unburdening, where we go to a place, and we usually let the child choose, some kind of sacred place. It could be a beach, it could be a forest, it could be with the ancestors. Then we choose an energy source to release into. It’s always interesting what different parts will choose, and they’ll release into an element. But first, we’ll feel the sensation in the body. So maybe the child described terror. It might be like: Okay, where’s that terror sitting in the body, like chest? Let’s release that into the source. Maybe it’s the river, so they’d be breathing in and releasing it into the river. It’s very interesting to watch, because I’ll just often sit back and let people do that in their own time. When that piece is sifted, I’ll often see them go and shift in their seats. Then we know, okay. Then there’s also this feeling of being abandoned and being left. Where’s that sitting in the body? The gut. Yeah, let’s go there, so then releasing it. So that’s the unburdening process, which in my experience, and for my clients as well, it’s very energetic. It’s the releasing of the energy of the leftover debris by the time we’ve kind of gone through the process and got to that point. 

Absolutely, thank you. Thank you for just giving some description to that. It makes a lot of sense to me, in that, a young one, as you said, the circumstances don’t provide the attunement. That the child is feeling this very intense pain or difficult emotion, and doesn’t know what to do with it. They’re overwhelmed, they don’t have the capacity to know how to navigate it, and so they’re just doing their best to hold on or cope. That gets a little bit, not frozen, but it gets stuck, because there’s not a way to metabolize it or process it or the guidance around it. Then children with their developmental brains, they’re egocentric, so they have a story about it. Then it just further develops from there. So it’s almost like going back and helping reprocess, being able to let go of that holding and unburdening, and just how powerful this healing is. 

When you were referencing the spiritual piece, is that also something, if perhaps a therapist isn’t available, or they’ve got a little bit of understanding of this healing being witnessed and having that space held, that they can use the spiritual piece to help with this co-regulation?

The spiritual piece, in Internal Family Systems, comes right at the end of the process. That’s the last thing that you do. IFS is absolutely something that can be learned. The IFS Institute is in the process of redoing how they’re rolling out their courses. So they’re going to have some courses that are specifically for therapists, and then my understanding is they’re going to have some that are for the layman, because they really want this technique to roll out. A great place to start is No Bad Parts, Richard Schwartz’s book, he has some lovely meditations in there which you can just record just onto a recording device and play it back to yourself. They’re beautiful meditations, it will give you a lovely introduction, especially into the protective system. 

So what I’m talking about is, you’ve already gone through the protective system, and you’ve gone down and you’re with exile. If you have a system that has a lot of protection around it, it can take a while to get through that and move down into the exiles. For my system, it was quite easy. Because I’ve got all that transaction analysis background, I’ve been doing that kind of work for 20 years, so it was easier. But for many systems, there’ll be quite a bit of work with the protective system first. If you can’t, seeing an IFS therapist is the best way to go. Then there’s lots of different energetic practices that could be good to see an energetic and spiritual healer, a highly recommended one, if you look around your area or online. It would help with some other pieces.

Thank you, okay. As we look at relationship and more of these attachment tendencies, and as you described in your dynamic with your husband, can you talk to us a little bit? So one of the things you talk about is: 80% of distressed couples typically have this dynamic where one partner is a little more on the attachment, or the anxious attachment side, and then the other is more on the avoidant side. That’s a high percentage of distressed couples that are falling into that dynamic. Help us a little bit. I know some people might be familiar with that, it almost fits into the classic distance or pursuer. And how that fits when one has a better understanding of their attachment needs and what’s happening on the inside, having referenced some of this individual work. Can you talk to us a little bit about how this would look different in relationship?

So let’s imagine I’m married, I’ve got two kids. We’ve gone away for the weekend. We’re both working a lot. We’ve gone away for the weekend with this agreement. We’re not going to work, and we’re going to really spend time with each other and with the kids. I’m so looking forward to it, and so is my husband. We’ve arrived on Friday night, it’s Saturday night now. We’ve spent the whole day together, it’s been awesome. Then we’re watching a movie together, it’s lovely, and I realize that my husband is not there. Then I think, well, where are they? So then I go upstairs to the bedroom, and he’s on his computer answering work emails.

One response is: “We’ve had this agreement that we weren’t going to work all weekend, and here you are hiding in the bedroom, and you’re answering work emails. This is not the agreement. You’re always doing this. This is what always happens, you’re just not able to separate.” So I come in loud, and the Gottmans talk about this as a harsh start-up. I come in loud, I come in escalated, and my partner’s response to that is defensiveness. Because I’m coming with a really big anything, so his natural response is going to be to defend. “Whoa, okay. I saw I had an email from my boss’s boss’s boss, how I cannot respond to my boss’s boss’s boss? I really need to, it’s really important. It’s literally only been 10 minutes; we’ve been together all day.” So defend, defend, defend. So what’s happened, if you think about it in terms of relational distance, is he’s moved back. He’s taken a step back, because my heat is so hot. He’s stepped back, and my attachment system senses that. So what my attachment system is used to doing is getting louder and escalating even more. I get hotter, he withdraws even more, I get hotter. So my behavior is not getting me, relationally, what I want. 

Another option is, I come up to the bedroom, and I see that he’s on his laptop. There is a part of me that comes in that wants to protest, why are you doing this? I hold that, and this is where parts work is super helpful. There’s a part of me that would like to go in and start doubting him, one way or another. What’s underneath that? So I’m going to drop down into what’s called the core emotion. What’s underneath that anger? I feel really sad, and I feel left with the kids again. I’m doing it all week, and I feel like I’m left again. It’s really that kind of abandonment feeling that I remember feeling, and it’s right in the middle of the heart. Then I think, what’s my attachment need? What do I really need here? I want to feel connected to him. It feels like an ocean between me and him sitting on the bed, when he’s on his computer. I go in and I say: “Oh love, I’m guessing that there’s something really important that’s happening at work that you need to respond to. I feel this deep sadness that I’ve spoken to you about before and this pain of abandonment right in my heart, and I really want us to be connected.” That allows him to give a really different response. So then he might say: “Oh, sweetheart, come here! Let me put my arm around you while I answer the email, it really will be five minutes. But you can read it with me, and maybe you can help me answer it.” “Yeah okay, that’d be nice. Let me cuddle out while you do it.”

Profound difference. I love that you’re saying the relational distance, when one is getting hot and approaching with that harsh start-up, when the other one is trying to defend and protect, but is moving away, turning away. And when one can reveal and show these deeper core feelings, it’s a lot of vulnerability to do that, to take that emotional risk. Yet, what it results to, it usually allows someone to want to respond turn towards and comfort. and however small but having some reference, like you’re saying, you know, told you about or this part of me that I know that I’ve shared before I’m at the end, this part is coming up again. It’s quite different, the result.

Yeah, and you don’t have to share as much as I did. I was doing a whole really safe relationship, where you have experience where there’ll be a reaching back, so I was sharing the full version. But a lighter version could just be: “I’m assuming that there’s something super important, and it makes me feel a bit sad. But I don’t want to get angry, I really want to move toward you. So could I just sit and hold your hand?” Of course you can, sweetheart, come sit and hold my hand.” So it could be a much lighter version. 

There’s different ways that that cycle can be broken. I talk in the book about that when the pursuer shifts the way that they’re behaving, their behavior, by dipping into the core emotions. I also talk about a way where it can be different for the withdrawer. So lots of different ways that it can play out relationally. 

Free Man in Brown Coat  Hugging Woman in Black Coat Stock Photo

“In relationship, we’re always looking at the core emotions and the attachment bond. Because often, those protest behaviors, the escalation, the getting hot, will be coming in out of the unmet attachment need.”

So then we’re having a real conversation. It’s not about have you packed or unpacked the dishwasher. I think we’ve all been in those arguments, where we’re arguing about the dishwasher, but it feels like we’re really not. It feels like we’re arguing about something completely different. That’s where it can be really helpful to dig down to find out what am I making it mean? Because often, I’ve made not unpacking the dishwasher mean: “I do everything, and I’m not cared about and valued in this family system.” When we write those words down and look at them, in 90% of the cases, you will look at those words and be like, that’s exactly how I felt in my family of origin, and that’s a trigger for me, that’s my go-to. Or that was exactly my mom’s experience, and I’m having exactly the same cycle, that’s exactly what I’m feeling.

As you mentioned, that we’re very primed to look for things that seem similar to a previous injury, in a way to protect. So we’re likely going to perceive and interpret through that lens of familiarity, and yet, it could be quite different for the other person. I love that you also give some support to the more avoidant person that might have these avoidant tendencies. Do you want to speak about what that could look like, as far as approaching relationship differently with having a little bit more self-contact with some of these deeper longings or needs?

I work actually with a lot of people with more avoidant systems in my practice, and they are systems that I actually love to work with. There’s something very precious, I find, about the need for the blocking and numbing part. They’re often within avoidance of this very big blocking numbing part, where even withdrawers will often say things like: “When she escalates, when she gets hot, I can’t even think straight.” They can be people who have very high-profile jobs and are very capable mentally, so it can be quite frightening when suddenly my partner looks angry; their face looks angry, their behavior is looking angry, arms are waving around a lot. I register that as danger, and it could be a panicking part. But often, it might be a panicking part for a moment, and then this blocking part will come over, and that part might be very rational. “Well, that’s not logical what you’re saying, that doesn’t make any sense what you’re saying.” It could go very logical. So it can be very protective, actually protective logical parts, that whoosh partner away. And it can be very strong numbing, or even scrambling. “I can’t really hear anymore, nothing is making sense.” 

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“It’s really getting to know those different parts internally, and building up enough safety in the system, where we can dip into it. Maybe there was a moment of panic, and then the numbing came over. So we’ll really slow down those moments.”

Okay, so did she just gesticulate it? Then there was that panic, where was the panic? Really get curious about that. So in therapy, relationally, we hold space for those very little quick sensations, as well as really getting to know that thing is a really big blocking, we’ll call it the blocking part maybe. Maybe that’s what the name of that one is, and we’ll get to know that really well, what its job is, and really acknowledge how helpful it was. Because often in childhood, it was so adaptive and so helpful. But now in this marriage, it’s a problem. And whenever my wife feels that blocking part come, she just kind of goes, what’s even the point of talking to you? Our relationship is about the end, so I need to work with that part. 

I’ve seen people do amazing, amazing work, and also do really deep childhood healing around the exile, so that the blocking part doesn’t have to work so hard. Then the whole system starts to settle, and then the capacity to sit when there’s gesticulation and the emotion from intimate partner starts to arise. This certainly isn’t an overnight thing. Then slowly, there can be a reaching forward in that moment, instead of withdrawing. They might feel the withdrawal come, the blocking, but to be able to put it aside and hold the blocking part’s hand metaphorically, while reaching forward for the partner, which then relationally is a totally different experience. 

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“It’s a different healing process for the avoidant system and the anxious system. I would probably say that everyone’s unique and slightly different. But in general, we’re working with building capacity for the intense emotions, and helping the protective system feel safe enough to experience more and more.”

It can be big, and often with those clients, at the end, we’ll go through all the named emotions at the end. I’ll say, so in this session, you felt, and we’ll go through all the feelings. Often there’ll be a feeling of finally bringing it online and affirming that and holding them safely relationally. Because often, they’ve never been held safely relationally, so having that new experience is huge.

Absolutely, helping organize, helping orient, helping feel that ground, and also having that support to regulate. Then perhaps with enough work, to be able to take a risk to show or reveal. You give some language and example for maybe the person that has more of the anxious tendencies, as one is a little bit more developed or has done some work. Would you like to give an example around what the more avoidant language or example would look like, in an interaction where they’re noticing the block, but also recognizing they can feel the panic? So the protector part and the panic, and also doing something different, having a new move. Would you like to speak into what an example of that would be?

So it might be feeling the blocking part come, and often re-language it a bit like: “Oh hello, old friend. I know why you’re here, you’re here to keep me safe. But remembering, old friend, that I’m 40 or whatever, and that this is my partner, Jill. It’s not mom, it’s not dad, it’s not whoever. It’s Jill. Jill is looking really angry, and I know under the anger, she’s feeling bad probably, because that’s often her core feeling. So rather than address the anger, I’m listing towards the sad part, and it’s safe.” It’s difficult during the moment, especially if the partner is escalated. But it might just be a moment of actually asking for a pause. It might be: “I want to respond, but I just need to work out my own system for a second. Just asking for a pause. So do that, let that part stand aside, just being aware of any other parts that might need their hand holding. 

Then it can be a stepping into the other person’s world. Like, what do I imagine is happening for them? She’s expressing a lot of anger right now about the dishwasher. I’m imagining that underneath that is that sadness around feeling that she has to do everything, so that’s the part that I’ll speak to. “Is this what’s happening for you? Correct me if I’m wrong? Are you feeling that sadness around feeling overwhelmed that you’re having to do it all?” That can often very much break the cycle. Because the partner is likely to say: “Yes, that’s actually exactly what’s going on. That’s really insightful. I wasn’t even aware of that. Yes, exactly.” “I’m so sorry I didn’t do it when I said I would do it. You’re right. Can we do it together now? Or would you like me to do it while you’re doing that other thing?” Yes, that’d be great. It’s a different interaction.

Wow, thank you so much for giving some real fleshing out and being able to help distinguish between some of these elements that are alive in a moment where it can be so charged and intense, and giving some, again, scaffolding to all of this. 

Well, I know we’re winding down our time. Is there anything else you want to say about helping break the cycle? It sounds like in your book, you’ve really provided so much to give people direction and invitation and tools to negotiate this differently, so that they can have a different experience. Is there anything else you want to say before we talk about your book and what other resources you have to offer?

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“The research is really clear that we can work with the insecure attachment styles, with all of them. So it’s not a set in stone thing, it’s a spectrum, and you can absolutely move towards a more secure attachment.”

It can be a beautiful thing to work with in your relationship as well. In my own relationship, it brought more understanding and deeper intimacy into the relationship. I know “conscious relationship” is thrown around quite a bit. But it can bring a lot more consciousness into the relationship, and it can be a place of healing old stuff. Often we know when we’re reacting from wounds, and it can be a place where those wounds can have a reparative different experience, like in therapy. It’s like practicing roller skating. In therapy, we get to practice safely, where we’re wearing all our protective kit. And when we’re in front of our partner, we often feel so naked, so vulnerable. It’s a big risk when we do it with our partner, so that’s a great place to practice. But Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) by Sue Johnson is something that I practice. I see couples in my practice, as well as doing the trauma work. It can be a great place to start as a couple. But just know that healing is absolutely possible. 

Yes, thank you for just speaking to the research and just the therapeutic models that assist in this. Yes, it’s been my experience. In the moment, even in my position of helping support other couples, or just the research I’ve done or the training and been practicing psychological principles for quite some time. And when I’m in it myself, and whatever terror barrier I’m bumping up against, it’s like the very thing I don’t want to say or feels just so scary to do. Yet, it’s the thing that typically can create a new experience that offers an opportunity with safety. Obviously, there’s elements that help that feel safer and more likely to have a positive outcome. But still, the risk that it takes, it’s hard to do, and we’re talking about it. It’s just a deep regard it sounds like that we both have, for the bravery and the courage to enter into this work.

What would you like to share? You have a book, so tell us the name of your book.

Yeah, the book is called Heal Your Anxious Attachment. I thought let’s just make it do what it says on the can. It’s really written for the layman. It’s not for therapists, so it’s not kind of highfalutin. It does reference research. But I really wanted it to be accessible for everyone. The practices in there, it’s not kind of a read overnight and everything is going to change. There’s practices that are offered, and there’ll be some practices that resonate more and some less. The offering is, take what resonates, leave what doesn’t. It comes with 20 downloadable practices, so you can put them on your phone and you can do them over and over again. I’ve got a whole chapter on when your anxiety is triggered in the relationship, with a step-by-step process, which people find super helpful. There’s a whole chapter on co-regulation and self-regulation and getting really curious about what our own systems like for regulation. There’s a whole chapter on re-parenting, meeting being a child, more in the transaction analysis model. There’s a whole piece of somatic, learning to kind of make contact with parts, healing parts in the body and learning to dialogue with them. Don’t know if you know Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing work, it’s based on that. He was the first one to come up with the word “the felt sense.”

I use that all the time. I think I know his name, but I don’t know his work really.

Well, those steps are in the book, I think it’s Chapter Three, to really help to make a reconnection with the body and senses in the body in a different way, which for me, was an important part of connecting with my self-energy. So the book is, I think, very helpful to work with the anxious attachment style. Something just to keep by your bed, keep doing the practices, and being really gentle with yourself. Really gentle, because we have anchored this path for a reason. The invitation is being kind and being curious. 

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for offering what you’ve offered to help give such a comprehensive support, both on how to regulate when that activation occurs, but also just how to do some of this deeper work. It just sounds very comprehensive and resourceful. I know you have a website and you have other things that you offer there. What’s your website?

Our website is PsychotherapyCentral.health. You’ll find I’ve got some short courses around re-parenting and inner child work. I have a more extensive course, Relationship Cycle Breaker, which really addresses some of those cycles. I’m going to have a course around healing anxious attachment, which has been recorded, the video is being edited. So that’ll probably be released in the next month or so. Then I have a practice of a few therapists who work with me, who work with Internal Family Systems and with EFT, and I help clients one-on-one as well. So if you wanted to work with me, you can jump on that website and book in.

Lovely! Well, I’ll make sure to have the link to your website, also to your book. Again, thank you so much for sharing all that you’ve shared with us today.

Thank you so much for having me, and for your insightful questions. Really beautiful questions, I can hear how much wisdom and knowledge you have around all of those topics. So thank you.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching