When Your Partner Runs Out of Gas
Recently a gem reader sent the example below. My guess is that Dan has run out of gas for processing with his girlfriend. That is, he likely has needs for play, rest, joy, and maybe celebration. Take a look and see what guesses come up for you:
My boyfriend, Dan, and I had a semi-cheerful conversation on the phone. Then we meet at a pub. He doesn't really smile, nor look at me or say much. I feel disappointed and resentful that I don't see enthusiasm about his seeing me, so I don't offer enthusiasm to him. We leave the pub, we're both feeling tension. Later, I'm unhappy and ask "Can we talk about what happened". He is tense, won't talk about it, and asked me to "let it go". Instead of honoring his request, I insisted on talking about my feelings. (As I understand from other conversations with him, one of his biggest complaints of me is that I don't let things go.) He doesn't cooperate. The evening ends without connection. The morning after, he is tense and doesn't talk much to me; spends an hour in his room. I say nothing for a while, but feelings of fear and anxiety build. I'm telling myself he doesn't care. An hour later, I finally speak "Would you talk to me" (with jackal thoughts in and out). He says "I don't want to". He asks for a few days apart. I cried and left reluctantly. I felt afraid and anxious, and later said things trying to convince him that I'll change and be less reactive. He tells me he's tired of the negativity that seems pervasive in our relationship.
In the moment that they meet at the pub, our gem reader, let's call her Sara, is hoping for connection and the joy of being together. Her boyfriend doesn't meet this expectation. In the moment of realizing things aren't as expected Sara needs to pause for self-empathy. If she speaks to him directly from her disappointment and resentment, her inquiries will seem like criticisms and demands to him. Dan will hear the message that he can't just be himself with her. He has to show up in some certain way or she reacts.
This is the first critical moment for their interaction. Sara chooses something different in our new imaginary scenario. She takes a few moments to breath, feels her disappointment, catches the jackal talk that is creating resentment, and finally reassures herself that she can meet her needs in other ways even if Dan isn't emotionally available. Honoring and reassuring herself in this way she might have enough space to speak to Dan from a place of acceptance. She might be able to entertain ideas that Dan's mood may have nothing to do with her.
So her check-in with Dan can be more open ended and doesn't carry the intensity of her reaction. It might sound something like this, "Seems like something might be up for you?" Dan, says no and looks away.
Here is the second critical moment of their interaction. As he does this, Sara becomes more anxious. Her anxiety tells her to pull at Dan for connection. The unconscious belief is that Dan can relieve her anxiety if only he would cooperate. While it may be true that her anxiety would lessen if he turned lovingly toward her, this isn't the only way for her to get relief. When Sara unconsciously believes Dan is the only source of relief, she can't resist the impulse to pull at him.
Fortunately in our new scenario, Sara has a moment of clarity. She says, "Okay." and turns back to her dinner. Dan will likely feel a moment of surprise that she hasn't engaged their usual dynamic in which she pulls at him and he pulls away. He might feel the tiniest bit of relief that his wish was respected and then he will likely tense up again imagining she will return to her old ways in a moment.
Meanwhile, Sara is doing the work of checking in with her own thoughts, feelings and needs. Respecting Dan's autonomy in this way seems "unnatural" and she wonders if she is playing a game. If her "Okay." is a tactic to get Dan to respond differently, then yes, she is playing a game. If on the other hand, she comes from a place of respecting where Dan is at while honoring herself, she is honestly engaged.
Hopefully Sara is doing the internal work of asking herself how she truly wants to take care of herself that evening. If her and Dan had planned to spend the evening together and Dan remains mostly silent and looking away during dinner, she asks herself if she has has a way that she can take care of herself and be with him in the state he is in? If she has had a particularly stressful week and is low on resources she may decide not to spend the evening with Dan in his current state. She may realize that in her current state, she would quickly give in to reactivity and they would once more be in their pulling-distancing dynamic.
Let's imagine what both options might look like. She decides to stay with Dan regardless of his silence. At the end of a silent dinner, she looks up and says something like,
"I don't know what's up for you, and it's okay if you don't want to talk. If you would still like to spend the evening together, I am okay with having quiet time at your place. I have a book with me I have been wanting to read, or we could watch a movie. What works for you? Do you need some time to yourself or would you still like to hang out?"
My hope for Sara is not that she masks her caring or emotion here, simply that she demonstrates her own ability to meet her needs and to make space for Dan to choose to meet his without risking her disapproval.
In the second option, she decides not to spend the evening with Dan. My hope for her is that she takes full responsibility for this decision in a clear way. It might sound something like this:
"I don't know what's up for you, and it's okay if you don't want to talk. I notice that I am tired and low on resources. I really care about us, and being there for you in a healthy way. I am guessing that with as tired and anxious as I am, if we continued to hang out, I would likely get reactive, and we would find ourselves in the same old argument. So I am thinking that I am going to do my own thing tonight and take care of myself. What comes up for you hearing that?"
In this gem we have focused on what Sara could have done differently. Next week we will take a look at how Dan could respond from the consciousness and skills of Compassionate Communication.
This week, watch for the pulling-distancing dynamic in your own relationships. Are there any relationships in which you experience yourself on one side or the other? Do some simple observations to create more awareness by answering these questions: In what situations does this come up? With who? What are the triggers? How do you pull on others or distance yourself - verbally, physically, energetically, behaviorally? How does it work for you? What needs are met and which ones are at cost?