Vanessa Knight, LCPC, NCC is a breakout speaker for the 2013 Tapestry Adoption & Foster Care Conference. Her breakout is “How do we stay together when things are falling apart?” To register for her session and the conference visit http://tapestryconference.org. Vanessa was kind enough to write the following article for us:
In his hit hip hop single “Mad,” Ne-Yo (who many of our kids are familiar with, but may sound more like the name of a Disney fish to some parents) sings, “She’s staring at me, I’m sitting wondering what she’s thinking. Nobody’s talking, ‘cause talking just turns into screaming. And now as I’m yelling over her, she yelling over me, All that that means is neither of us are listening, And what’s even worse, that we don’t even remember why we’re fighting.”
These words could be about your husband or wife, they could be about your teenager that seems out of control, they could even be about a toddler who will erupt into an inexplicable meltdown and a parent who momentarily flips.
Adele, whose haunting, yearning voice sings in “Turning Tables”:
Close enough to start a war
All that I have is on the floor
God only knows what we’re fighting for
All that I say, you always say more
I can’t keep up with your turning tables
Under your thumb, I can’t breathe
So I won’t let you close enough to hurt me
No, I won’t ask you, you to just desert me
I can’t give you what you think you gave me
Door-slamming, blaming, critical words, cussing, yelling, meltdowns… leaving the room, silent treatments, negativity, “get over it,” shutting down…. The dances of proximity and distance to other human beings – closeness, refusal and withdrawal – they are what drive our behaviors in nearly every part of life. How many of us can say that we work with a co-worker who needs therapy, big time!? Our sense of well-being, our physical health, the hours of sleep we get at night, nearly every aspect of our lives hangs on the confidence in the most intimate relationships of our lives – particularly the relationship with our spouse.
In adoptive families, often the stress children from hard places bring to the home causes marriages to suffer insecurity, fights, blame, and sometimes, for families to fall apart.
Staying together seems like a no-brainer. The first rule for families taught by the Theraplay (R), attachment-based play therapy network in Chicago, IL, is “Stick Together.” (Rules #2 and #3 are “No Hurts” and “Have Fun”, just in case your brain needed the complete, zygonic effect… Google that one!) But staying together becomes a slippery idea when it seems the place of most of your discontent and unrest is in your own home. Staying together when things are falling apart feels like a sparkly dream, when the reality is your natural, default impulse is to run away and escape the conflict, start fresh, give up, send an adoptive child back, or file for divorce. Whether you are a couple on the brink of divorce because of the stress of adopting a child from a hard place, a teen who rages so violently there are broken mirrors in the house, a child who came to you blank, whom you have never seen shed a tear, the fight and flight behaviors we use to emotionally survive our day-to-day feelings of unrest and pain are universally felt experiences that leave humans with feelings of isolation – yet so many of us feel them on a daily basis. A married couple, sitting side by side on the couch at night after the kid are sleeping, each feeling isolated from the other – they are like two children standing at the edge of a swimming pool, each waiting for a cue from the other that they will both jump in the water together.
The risk is not greater than the reward.
It would seem that if we can just have that one person, that one partner, things would be tolerable. If we could just be understood and connected to our wife, to our husband, we would be able to deal with the kids, the boss, the lack of money. Marital security has been associated in research findings with peaceful, more secure children, general life satisfaction and contentment, decreased mental and physical health symptoms for all families.
We get ensnared in patterns of attack and defend, needing the one we are attacking or retreating from, the one who nurtures and protects us from the storms of life. What’s your weapon of choice? The hardest part of changing the music between husbands and wives is to put down your weapon. But a ceasefire is not the same as a reconciliation. First, we must stop the rapidly moving cycle of dysfunction, slow it down like a freight train slows on its tracks. Then we must feel safe enough to lay new tracks in our brains, new neural pathways that disarm and heal our partners. We must find the courage to admit the shame, vulnerability, fear, sadness and hurt we feel when we are disconnected from our partners. And we must provide our partner with a sense of confidence that when they do the same, we will be a soft place to land, a safe haven – two cats curled in a warm windowsill (I’m a dog person myself, but my dogs tend to stretch out across the master bed, rather than curl up in a small space).
Learning to lay down our fight and flight default responses involves mindful observation of ourselves on a moment to moment basis. Becoming self-aware about our style of being in relationship is like learning to speak a new language, seeing snow for the first time when you’ve lived in Africa, like a dog that cocks his head at an unfamiliar, unrecognizable sound. Just because you don’t know how to not flight or fight in your relationships, just because your spouse or children don’t know any other strategies, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It simply means there is more to be exposed to, there is more to learn. It means there is hope and that no relationship, no human, is beyond repair. For the parent-child relationship, it means we can heal any child. For a marriage, it means that you have the privilege of healing your spouse, and that they have the ability to heal you and bring you to a higher sense of contentment that you may yet to have ever known. There is always hope.