When you think of the word survival what picture comes to mind? Mine looks like a lone battle against something that brings me pain, where I am just existing and managing to get by each day and I am certainly far from happiness and peace.
In relationships (and the clue is in the word!), relating through words and body language is our only means of staying connected to our tribe, community and indeed those close to us. We have to be able to relate to belong and feel felt by others.
The problem, particularly in our love relationships, is that many of us in our delicate inner world fear loss of love from our honey so we constantly patrol the boundary around our heart with behaviours that don’t feel good to us or others, when we are upset, in the name of protection.
Imago Relationships International calls our reactive, protective and defensive behaviours our Survival Strategy and between couples it can easily be termed a survival dance as they try to stay safe in the bad times.
Many couples I work with arrive for the first session sat at opposite ends of the couch and a frosty energetic wall as high as the sky, lies between them. Their survival behaviours have created emotional trench warfare and ain’t neither of them budging until the other one makes the effort to go it alone on the long road back to connection and love.
The number one outcome of a relationship survival strategy? Loneliness for both people. It’s a stuck and often really uncomfortable place because you know your behaviour and theirs is less than perfect and the outcome is not connected. It’s isolating and scary.
How does a survival strategy show up?
To define what I mean by a survival strategy first off; it’s any reactive behaviour that initiates words or body language that is defensive, blocking or attacking to your honey in order to make yourself feel better.Often when we get upset we have no idea where the real tender issue lies but it’s often in some deeply ingrained limiting belief such as “I’m not loveable enough” or “I can’t be myself with anyone.”
We tend to habitualise that it’s our partners fault for doing or saying something that pains us but EVERY time it is only about 10% of what is happening in the moment and 90% about the past experiences that have harmed or hurt us.
Survival mode starts with the sensation in your body. Where in your body do you feel it when something goes wrong in your relationship? Mine was often a gut wrenching feeling, usually out of fear that the relationship would end after every row and sometimes I would feel physically sick.In response to the inner sting, the perceived threat puts into action our need to survive this or that row/spat, at our fundamental core. Words and behaviours often rocket to the surface with eruptive force and before we know it we have deployed our defensive behaviour.
What style does a reactive strategy look like?
1) Tit for tatting and not dealing with what’s happening in you or them first and batting off any perceived criticism.
2) Shutting down by heading for the door or just not responding and going quiet.
3) Blocking out bad experiences so you don’t feel them and pretending everything is fine when it’s not.
4) Clinging and being needy. Trying to drag your partner into a deep conversation when they are not ready.
5) Use of extreme behaviour such as physical attacks and violent words, with an intent to control your partner.Survival strategies are normally pattern driven.
My old survival strategy
To help you understand the pattern of your push pull survival, here’s how mine played out.
I would hear or see something that I didn’t like in a previous relationship and I would immediately feel a sense of dread arise from the pit of my stomach. I would react by going quiet for a while and being less available on the phone to let them know something was up. The response from them would be either to try and find out what was wrong or not.
My two reactions:
1) Pull - If they backed off I would tell myself the story that they didn’t care, which would flick a tender place in me that said, “men won’t ever love you.” I would eventually get more afraid that they weren’t going to bother contacting me ever again and so I would send a text to initiate some response. My text would often be threatening the end of the relationship, depending on the severity of my inner angst. I was afraid they would think me odd or mad for getting upset and so I would hope to gain control by controlling the outcome so I wasn’t dumped. Doh!
2) Push - If they came to try and find out what was wrong, I would not give in easily but rather let them fall all over me with gestures and words before my defence would come down and even then a few days would pass before I let them think everything was “normal” again.
Does any of this sound familiar? It feels like utter inner madness but I know all too well, trying to curb or stop the ingrained behaviours of survival is no easy task.Looking back down your love relationship road I am sure you know exactly how your survival strategy operates. You learned it in childhood quite rightly to self preserve when you felt unsafe. You had to survive in parental energy until you left home and that wasn’t always easy for alot of my clients.It’s hard to say how and where in our lifetime we have had impactful and significant experiences that make us flip into survival mode but the “old brain” or brain stem is the place where the reaction to “flight or fight” comes from.
The brain stem’s number one aim is to keep us safe and therefore we are just responding to it. All well and good but over reactive brain stems can be a nuisance in later life in our relationships. Where does your relationship live?If you are in a relationship now or if you can recall a recent one, how much of it is/was spent defending, protecting and reacting? The sad thing is survival behaviour can go on for months or even years and I come back to my main point every time. If you have children what example of love are you giving them?
The conscious relationship as a healer
I am a total convert to the fact that relationships are a ripe bed for healing from the past. I have said it many times in previous blogs because it feels true certainly for Joel and I. Changing old ways takes courage and whole lot of self control and a willingness to find another way. Don’t wait for your partner to make the changes because that’s an outdated way to behave as we head into a new conscious world. It’s down to you!
You - First of all, stop and feel it first. When your honey says or does something that you feel in your body, get curious and find out where it lies. Breathe, take some time out and give it space and before you actually say what’s happening inside of you.Notice that you feel like reacting and instead feel it fully in a place that you feel safe like in your room, out for a walk. Honour yourself by not reacting until you have calmed down. Only then will you be in a better space to talk about what you feel. Explore what you are feeling WITH your partner.
I have many previous blogs on communication to assist you in how you approach communication during tricky patches, but always try and stay open to what is happening in you. In your openness you let your partner into this emotionally walled garden and with them you can start to work in togetherness to release you from the chains that have created your survival strategy.Your relationship will be able to expand to new heights. I promise you! Trust doesn’t come over night but opening into this global human miasm of the fear of loss of love will render it less and less powerful.
Your partner - If your beloved kicks off with reactive behaviour first, stop, take a step back and notice that whatever you said or did has kicked them into survival mode. We all know when our honey is peed off right? We feel it and sense it right away, even in silence.Try not to judge or even utter a word of response because chances are they not in a place to be able to respond effectively. Give them space or asking “What do you need from me honey?” can be very effective.
See my last blog on this very question.Knowing your partner is about to deploy his or her survival behaviour is your indicator to stay present and open and NOT to be dragged into their reactions. Some people complain “Woah, what did I say or do just then?” because in their world they can’t see why such an impact is happening in their partner. This is pretty common but try not to look surprised because each person’s inner world is exquisitely unique and we must honour that difference, not criticise the hell out of it! Allow your honey to own their stuff but gently and with the offer of exploring the “whys” when they are ready.
So my little conscious relationship enthusiasts, that’s enough for today. Always know that I’m here if you want some help with languaging your relationship better or even if you just want to make sense of a current situation. The love you want to experience is only a choice away.
Blessings and love