Updated: Nov 2
When we feel wounded, we protect ourselves. And that makes relationships tricky.
Today I want to share something incredibly personal with you, that I’ve been working on in therapy recently: the cycle of wounding that I get into with my partner.
Have you ever noticed that you and a partner tend to fight about the same thing over and over, or that every fight plays out the exact same way? Have you ever noticed how certain scenarios can make you suddenly feel upset, out of control, irrational, or like you’re being hijacked?
We all have these cycles when we feel wounded: in our relationships, and in ourselves. One of my therapy goals is to break the cycle my partner and I get into, so we’ve spent a lot of time recently understanding and unpacking this cycle.
Here is what I’ve learned: any time I feel rejected or abandoned, my defensive mechanism flares up– and unfortunately for my partner, my defense mechanism is to get very cold and lash out.
To be honest, this response is something I’m deeply ashamed of (one of the reasons I’ve decided to start talking about it more!), because it’s not at all how I want to show up in the world, but it feels completely out of my control. My body gets stiff and rigid, my face and voice go cold, and I come off as defensive, combative, or angry.
I’m only very recently aware of this response when it happens though, because once I get wounded my whole perspective shifts, and it feels to me like it’s the other person who changes and goes cold.
The moment I feel abandoned, my partner becomes my energy in my eyes. They sort of morph into a grotesque caricature of a villain–they even look different in these moments, all dark, jagged, and dangerous. (Note that this is the exact same mental mechanism that creates body dysmorphia!)
My brain is just trying to protect me, of course, but it does so by turning my partner into someone against whom I must protect myself.
These moments are extremely unpleasant. I hate feeling so scared, betrayed, angry, hurt, and incredibly alone, and I hate feeling my body language go rigid and cold.
But as unpleasant as they are for me, they’re probably even more unpleasant for my partner Drew, because his experience of those moments is that out of nowhere, I turn on him.
Most of the time, the moment that wounds me doesn’t register as anything for him, so he has no idea why, out of thin air, his teammate is treating him like the enemy.
Granted, if I could just tell him in such moments what I was feeling (without being surly or combative), he would respond with compassion and care, no problem. But that’s not how our wounds and triggers work, so… surly and combative it is.
And of course, what happens when Drew feels my hostility? His wounds and triggers get flared up!
So this is the cycle we end up in:
When I feel rejected, I withdraw and lash out. What I desperately want in that moment is closeness, tenderness, warmth, and love– but the vulnerability of what I want in that moment seems absurdly dangerous. After all, my brain is interpreting my partner as a threat, so being vulnerable about wanting love and tenderness in that moment feels like exposing my throat to a coyote. The protective mechanism I developed a long time ago is to withdraw and lash out when I feel threatened, so the other person can’t see, touch, or hurt that tender part of me again.
When I withdraw and lash out, my partner gets defensive. Drew hates feeling like we’re not on the same team, and finds it incredibly hurtful and frustrating when I seem to decide out of nowhere that we’re enemies. His own coping mechanisms rise up when he feels unfairly vilified, so he gets all riled up and starts defending himself.
When my partner gets defensive, I feel even more rejected. I receive Drew’s defensive energy as confirmation that yes, we are in fact enemies, and yes, we are in fact in a fight. So my coping mechanism doubles down: I shove my vulnerability down even further, and focus on winning at all costs.
As you can probably imagine, this cycle continues like this: my wounds and triggers hit Drew’s wounds and triggers, and then his hit mine again. Oof.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Everyone has their own wounds and self-protective patterns, and every relationship has to navigate the pairing of two (or more) people’s wounds and patterns… so even if you respond totally differently than me when you feel hurt or abandoned, you’ve probably found yourself in a similar cycle before, with your triggers bumping up against someone else’s triggers, and things just getting worse and worse.
Luckily, we’re not stuck with these cycles forever. Drew and I have been working to make this pattern less intense, less frequent, and less painful over time, and therapy has been helping me notice, slow down, and start healing my own part of the cycle.
One of the biggest insights I’ve gained from this process is that… people don’t talk about this part of relationships enough!
So today I’m talking about this for myself, because shame requires secrecy to thrive, and this is no longer an area of my life I’m willing to let shame touch.
But I’m also talking about this because I think it’s extremely important that we all be more open about the messy, challenging, and painful parts of being in a relationship with another human.
Otherwise, it’s way too easy to get the impression that nobody else struggles with the things we do, or that we’re doing things wrong. And we all deserve better than that.