When Angela and Spencer came to see me for couple counselling, Angela said that she felt so angry and numb with her husband that she did not even want him to touch her. Spencer felt frustrated and rejected. He found it very threatening because approaching her with a hug, a kiss, or rubbing her back were the ways he knew of to get reassurance from Angela that she cared for him. Beneath Spencer’s frustration with her, he was hurt, sad and really worried he would lose her and their marriage would end. Angela had always been his primary ‘go-to’ person and she used to say that he was hers. Now she spent more time talking to her girlfriends and did not share much with him. Angela felt that he didn’t really listen to her and accept her view point when it differed from his.
At this point in their 15-year relationship, Angela and Spencer no longer felt a secure connection with each other the way they once did. They lacked the benefit of knowing, as they used to, that their partner ‘had their back’ and so they no longer felt free to go to one another and share whatever was on their mind. They kept more of their feelings to themselves and talked with each other less. Negative assumptions began to grow.
Partners in a relationship based on mutual understanding and reciprocal emotional support, feel safer and more secure. They work at fully knowing each other. They feel comfortable to be themselves in the relationship. Since one cannot be fully oneself in other situations or in other relationships, their relationship feels special. Secure loving couples grant permission to each other to access whatever is on their mind without reservation.
Stan Tatkin, in his book Wired for Love, describes this idea of mutual understanding and emotional support as being the ‘Go-To Person’ for your partner. Each one believes that their two heads are better than one, or as Tatkin puts it, as having a ‘mind to know mine.’ He says that it’s like having an ‘auxiliary brain’ in your partner in which you can expand your thoughts and get help to find solutions you would never have thought of alone.
How to Become the Primary ‘Go-To Person’ for Each Other in Your Relationship
Tatkin suggests three ways that will give you greater mutual support for each other.
- Make a formal agreement to be available to each other 24/7.
When couples state this formally, this gives more strength and commitment to the agreement and allows any reservations or uncertainties to surface. If you are either a ‘wave’ or an ‘island’ you will need to discuss your feelings about being tethered to your partner in this way. (If you do not know if you are a wave or an island, see my previous article How to Understand Your Relationship Style)
- Develop ‘Go-To’ signals with your partner.
It is important to have clear communication with each other when you need to connect about something of significance. For islands, they may need time to disconnect from their current activity and make the transition to you to give you their full undivided attention. “I know you are busy right now with……, but when you are free I need to speak with you.” Many couples develop a gesture, or a look that means they need to talk about something important. Touching your partner’s back or their holding hand, may help you signal to them that you need your partner’s attention to talk the issue through.
- Accept your need to be connected.
Some Islands have learned in childhood that self-sufficiency and independence are the ideal. Relying on anyone but themselves can be unfamiliar. As they accept the need to connected they learn how being more collaborative has benefits for each person in the relationship.
Since waves have often not learned to trust in childhood, and tend to feel uncertain about relying on another for support, developing that trust will require effort. Secure couples find the burdens of expectation and dependence are far outweighed by the rewards of feeling safe, secure and loved.
Angela (a wave) and Spencer (an island) learned, that to re-create the sense of security in the relationship they had once had they had to work on developing a deeper understanding of their partner and offer emotional support. Spencer began to pay greater attention and to really listen and validate what Angela was telling him rather offering his opinions. Angela tried to be calmer and more patient yet assertive. She developed a softer way of signalling her need to talk to him and gave him room to transition from what he was doing. When he was attentive, she would put her hand on his. When she did this it calmed and reassured him, so he could listen better, respect and accept her ideas.