Why Self Protection often equals Relationship Destruction (and what to do about it)

We are fond of telling our clients that they way we destroy our relationships is that “we protect ourselves out of them”. When we can’t find a way to soothe our own hurts and settle our feelings, we remain reactive, aroused, defensive, guarded, shut down and withdrawn. When we feel threatened we are far more likely to blame or avoid than to self-reflect and engage vulnerably. Over time the intimacy and connection in the relationship gets eroded and ultimately destroyed. Self protection overrides emotional sharing. Clients usually come to us with the vain hope that we will stop their partner from doing the things that threaten them – a disempowered, victim-like stance that is other directed.

In the Developmental Model we deal with this reality by working with three strands – Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience

In order to have a stable healthy relationship you need a secure attachment bond. One where your partner “gets you” (knows you) and you can rely on them to “have your back”. One where you can both seek AND give care, are able to maintain an autonomous self AND negotiate closeness. Exploring this balancing act, explaining the origins and workings of attachment, what a powerful force it is, how protective behaviours can automatically replay when the attachment bond is under threat and what is needed to keep it healthy can be important interventions.

However, often clients are insufficiently able to deal with the challenges of difference, perhaps because of their attachment history and subsequent insecure attachment style becoming activated. As such many clients benefit from learning that differences are inevitable and the conflict generated can raise anxiety. As therapists we have an important job to do to undermine “fairy tale” notions of relationship that lead clients to cry “it shouldn’t be this hard”. Instead they can learn that dealing effectively with difference in intimate relationship is the best way to learn who you really are and what’s really important to you. It is one pathway to deepening vulnerability and intimacy and supports a shift from other to SELF AND OTHER directed focus – the skill of Differentiation.

In order to deal with difference well in intimate relationship most of us have to wrestle with our neurobiology, the tendency of our limbic system to take over under threat. This is where the Neuroscience strand of the Develepmental Model comes in. Offering clients strategies for settling themselves down in the moment is an important part of the therapists role. Persisting and being creative in finding ways that fit for different people is part of the therapeutic challenge. Clients are usually only willing to apply these kinds of strategies if they can see the benefit for themselves and their family. Our skills to engage, educate, motivate and support this journey help liberate clients from self protection behaviors to fostering deeper connection.