Tuesday, April 30, 2019


We all are vulnerable in love; it goes with the territory. We are more emotionally naked with those we love and so sometimes, inevitably, we hurt each other with careless words or actions. While these occasions sting, the pain is often superficial and fleeting. But almost all of us have at least one additional exquisite sensitivity — a raw spot in our emotional skin — that is tender to the touch, easily rubbed, and deeply painful. When this raw spot gets abraded, it can bleed all over our relationship. We lose our emotional balance and plunge into Demon Dialogues.

What exactly is a raw spot? I define it as a hypersensitivity formed by moments in a person’s past or current relationships when an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed, resulting in a person’s feeling what I call the “2 Ds” — emotionally deprived or deserted. The 2 Ds are universal potential raw spots for lovers.

These sensitivities frequently arise from wounding relationships with significant people in our past, especially parents, who give us our basic template for loving relationships; siblings and other members of our families; and, of course, past and present lovers. For example, recently when my husband John’s eyelids began drooping while I was speaking to him, I hit the ceiling, enraged. He was tired and drowsy, but it sent me back to days when an ex-partner would fall instantly asleep every time I tried to start a serious conversation. Dozing off was a not-so-subtle form of withdrawing, disconnecting from the relationship. This experience made me hypervigilant — sudden sleepiness signals emotional abandonment to me.

Francois, one of my clients, is highly sensitive to any hint that his wife, Nicole, might not desire him or may be developing an interest in another man. In his painful first marriage, his wife was openly unfaithful to him many times. Now, he goes into total blinding panic when Nicole smiles at his accomplished friend at a party or when she is not home when he expects her to be there.

Linda complains that she really hurts when her husband Jonathan “holds back from telling me I look nice or that I have done a good job. It is like being instantly flooded with hurt, and then I get resentful and critical of you,” she tells him. Linda traces her sensitivity back to her mom. “She refused to ever compliment me or praise me for anything and always told me that I looked unattractive. She once said that she thought that if you praised people, they would stop striving. I hungered for that recognition from her and resented her for withholding it. And now, I guess, I long for that from you. So when I am all dressed up and I ask you how I look, and you just seem to dismiss me, it hurts. You know I need that praise, but you refuse me. At least that is how it feels. I just can’t see straight, it stings so much.”

People can have several raw spots, although usually one is paramount in terms of putting the spin in a couple’s negative cycle. Steve feels a double whammy when his wife, Mary, says she would like to have sex more often. This could be taken as a very positive request. But for Steve, her declaration is a guided missile that demolishes his sexual confidence; his amygdala screams “incoming,” and he hits the floor. Steve reacts to Mary by shutting down and shutting her out. “It’s like I am suddenly back in my first marriage, hearing that I am this big disappointment and getting real anxious about performing in general, but especially in bed.” An echo from his childhood also inflames this raw spot. Steve was the smallest kid in his class, and his dad constantly asked him in front of his brothers, “Am I talking to Steve or Stephanie?” That experience left him feeling that he was not “male enough for any woman.”

But raw spots are not always a reminder of past wounds; they can crop up in a current relationship, even a generally happy one, if we feel especially emotionally deprived or deserted. Raw spots can occur during big transitions or crises — such as having a child, becoming ill, or suffering the loss of a job — when the need for support from our partner is particularly intense, but it doesn’t come. They can also develop when a partner seems chronically indifferent, producing an overwhelming sense of hurt that then infuses even small issues. The failure of our loved one to respond scrapes our emotional skin raw.

Jeff and Milly had a great relationship until Jeff’s best friend got promoted to the job that Jeff had worked so hard for and Jeff fell into a depression. Instead of offering comfort and reassurance, an anxious Milly hounded him to “just snap out of it.” They had found their way through this crisis and back to being close, but the experience left Jeff hypersensitive to his wife’s reaction to any expressions of distress on his part. His sudden, seemingly irrational flashes of anger whenever he thinks Milly is unsupportive soon have her withdrawing into defensive silence and feeling like she is failing as a wife. You can predict what happened next. They got into their Demon Dialogue.

Helen was devastated when she found herself being blamed by a therapist for her adolescent son’s drinking problem. During an assessment session, Sam, Helen’s generally loving husband, echoed the therapist’s viewpoint. Later, when Helen expressed her hurt, Sam got caught up in justifying his opinion, and a series of painful arguments ensued. Helen then decided to put her “foolish” hurt aside and concentrate on the good things in her marriage, and she believed that she had done this.

But suppressing significant emotions is hard to do and often ends up being toxic to relationships. Helen’s hurt begins to leak out. She pesters Sam for his opinion of her every action, and Sam, unsure of what to say, says less and less. Suddenly they are fighting about everything. Sam accuses Helen of becoming more and more like her “paranoid” mother. Helen feels more and more lost and alone.

Jeff’s and Helen’s raw spots are being rubbed, but they don’t see it. Surprisingly, many of us miss the same thing. Indeed, we don’t even recognize that we have raw spots. We are only aware of our secondary reaction to the irritation — defensively numbing out and shutting down, or reactively lashing out in anger. Withdrawal and rage are the hallmarks of Demon Dialogues, and they mask the emotions that are central in vulnerability: sadness, shame, and, most of all, fear.

If you find yourself continually stuck in a Demon Dialogue with your lover, you can bet it is being sparked by attempts to deal with the pain of a sore spot, or more likely, sore spots in both of you. And unfortunately, your raw spots almost inevitably rub against each other’s. Chafe one in your lover and his or her reaction often irritates one in you.

Consider Jessie and Mike, who have done nothing but fight since Jessie’s twelve-year-old daughter moved in with them. Jessie says, “Suddenly, like overnight, Mike changed from this warm tender guy to this tyrant. He gives orders, makes all these rules for my kid. He is screaming most of the time he’s home. He looks just like all the abusive men in my family. I just can’t bear someone yelling and giving orders. No one protected me, but I can protect my kid.”

Mike flips between sad protests about how much he loves his wife, even though she refuses to speak to him for days on end, and loud indignant rants about how he never wanted to become a parent to her impossible, disrespectful child. He goes up in flames when he speaks of how he had pampered Jessie for years and then found that he “doesn’t exist when this kid is around.” Mike recalls falling ill with shingles but Jessie, he says, was too preoccupied with her daughter’s issues to “comfort him.” Smacking each other’s raw spots has trapped them in the Protest Polka.

Tom and Brenda’s raw spots sent them into a different Demon Dialogue, Freeze and Flee. Brenda is obsessed with their new baby. Tom’s attempts to draw some attention his way irritate Brenda, and one night she blows up. She’s tired of his demands, she says, and calls him “oversexed” and “pathetic.” Tom is stricken. Although he’s a dishy-looking guy, he is quite shy and insecure with women. He’s always needed to feel desired by Brenda.

He retaliates: “Fine, fine. Obviously you are not in love with me anymore, and all your stuff with me in the last years has been a sham. I don’t need hugs from you. I don’t need to be with you. I’m going out dancing, and you can just take care of the baby.” He leaves signs around the house indicating that he’s flirting with a woman in his ballroom dance group. Brenda grew up feeling like the plain girl and has always wondered why attractive and successful Tom chose her. Terrified, she withdraws more into the baby. Tom and Brenda barely speak. Constantly protecting their raw spots completely sabotages the loving responsiveness they both long for.

Stopping these destructive dynamics depends not only on identifying and curbing the Demon Dialogues (Conversation 1) but also on finding and soothing our raw spots and helping our lover to do the same. People who have grown up in the haven of secure, loving relationships will have an easier time healing these scrapes. Their raw spots are few and not so deep. And once they understand what underlies their negative interactions with their loved one, they are more able to step out of them quickly and soothe the hurts.

For others, though, who have been traumatized or badly neglected by those they have loved or depended on, the process is longer and more arduous. Their raw spots are so large and so tender that accessing their fears and trusting in a partner’s support is a huge challenge. Kal, an abuse survivor and army veteran, says, “I am just one big raw spot. I crave soothing, but lots of times if my lady really touches me, I can’t tell if it’s a caress or another cut.”

Still, we are not prisoners of the past. We can change for the better. Recent research by psychologist Joanne Davila at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, as well as others, confirms what I see in my sessions: that we can heal even deep vulnerabilities with the help of a loving spouse. We can “earn” a basic sense of secure connection with the aid of a responsive partner who helps us deal with painful feelings. Love really does transform us.
I remember starting a list of things a partner has to do before I commit to marrying them, if I actually do eventually marry someone. One of them was to read Hold Me Tight, which highlights emotionally-focused therapy at the center of relationships. Another was to do the Allison/Luther choreography from The Umbrella Academy. One was to purchase a copy of Spyro, but I've already done that, and I'm halfway through the whole game now, so. At the moment the list ends at two things.

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