Those of us raised in affectionate families sometimes find physical intimacy the easiest thing in the world; it's difficult to conceive of life without it. Feed us with love and we love back, cringe at anger. Some of us develop an allergy to anger to the degree that we'll walk out of films, change the channel on the television when the volume feels too much.
Those who suffered violence in the home, as opposed to peace-love as children, can be conflict-avoidant, too. Others identify with the aggressor and are consciously aggressive. There are many variations here, including one in which two people are drawn to one another, feel they're soul mates because they both grew up in violent homes of one type or another.
But expectations are everything in a relationship, and expecting a partner to be a peace-nik when you want him to be a peace-nik, just because he should, in your opinion, be conflict-aversive, having grown up with so much conflict, doesn't make it so. If you think about it, logically it makes sense that one of the two should be good with conflict, and the other, not-so-good. Laws of chance.
And when that happens, things get pretty wild. Let's pretend the person comfortable with conflict is a guy, and the person who is conflict-avoidant is a woman. (Substitute genders at will).
The assumption on her end is that he gets it, this soul mate of hers, that she's had enough insults or sarcasm to last a lifetime. She's thinking that he, too, doesn't want to raise his voice or hear her yell, that he won't want to behave like his parents behaved. He understands.
Yet he's hardened off, is immune to verbal and physical violence. The continuum of violence is what is meaningful to him. A jab, a joke, a minor insult shouldn't hurt. It's a left-handed insult; or sarcasm, no big deal. A good fight, even, no big thing, nothing to fear; it's something to win.
Whereas she truly could be overly sensitive. Negative communication might hurt her to the degree that she feels re-traumatized. She's already too bruised, can't handle any more bruises, emotional or not.
Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. His refrain. Doesn't she get that?For him it has become something of habit, rising to the offensive under pressure, and it is hard for him to change, even if she has called him on his words, told him how much they hurt.
She's disappointed in him, is the truth, which depresses him. He senses it. She's disappointed that he hasn't changed, for she has said something to that effect on numerous occasions. But she doesn't yell about it, doesn't punctuate in the way that he's used to people yelling when they want to make a point. So he doesn't hear, doesn't respond, and out of nowhere, he spontaneously cuts her with words, especially if he's feeling attacked.
She'll walk away, get some fresh air, won't even say,
You know, Words hit as hard as a fist. Watch what you say.That's the tagline for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, highlights a poster that a patient once stole for me. She took it off a bus. I've had it for thirty years.
This is a simple family therapy. We revisit both childhoods, talk about feelings, explore the intimacy avoidance characteristic of the behavior of both partners.
What's amazing to me is how long some couples endure this pattern without insisting it change. You would think the conflict avoider would explode, at some point, for exploding is necessary, to make the point. It is most typical that a child will bring a couple like this to therapy, will think of some way, act out, carry a symptom. It can take a good while for anger to become the motif of that treatment. The anger management is eventually requested, interestingly, by both partners, and begins with old fashioned insight, psycho-dynamic psychotherapy, reaching into childhood.
Only after that, will the cognitive-behavioral strategies really work, the self-relaxation, the breathing, integrating a positive parent figure, the one we all want to be. There are a host of anger management techniques. They don't work, not until you get to the root and yank it out, because it is primitive anxiety that drives the conflict as well as the conflict avoidance.
You can't really apply a band-aid to the deep stuff is the truth.