Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Reflection: How We Love (2)

To follow up on yesterday's post, my major take-away from How We Love is that my coping mechanism of choice is avoidance.

It took me a while to come to this conclusion. But the fact is, I do a lot of avoiding! It's especially marked when I'm in conflict with my mom. But I do it all the time, which is why I don't have open conflicts with most people. For instance, I can't remember ever having a fight with a friend. A disagreement, sure, maybe a lively discussion--but not a fight. If it starts to look like a fight, I shut up or back down. The conflict just isn't usually worth it to me--the cure feels worse than the disease.

When I do get stuck in a conflict, when the tension can't just be ignored, the urge to get away is overwhelming. I want to walk out of the room, out of the house, spend the night somewhere else, not ever have to think about resolving the conflict or seeing the person whose words or actions are making me feel this way. I want to leave and never come back.

In actuality, though, the most I do is leave the room. And the next morning, things never feel as bleak.

If my tendency to avoid is so strong, why was it hard for me to identify myself as an avoider? I initially thought maybe I was a pleaser (seeking comfort through the approval of others), because I do care so much about making O. happy / meeting his expectations; then I thought I was a vacillator, because one of the markers is feeling, "My partner doesn't want to be as close to me as I want to be to them," and also because the book said vacillators tend to have a hard time identifying their own type. I knew I wasn't a Controller/Victim.

I also figured I couldn't be an avoider. Why? Partly because of the dynamics of my relationship with O., and partly because the portrayal of the avoider in How We Love was so extreme.

The dynamics of my relationship with O.
I recognized immediately I'd had a pattern of avoidance with O. during our dating. I wanted to take the whole relationship slowly, being on my guard against getting too close too soon. I wanted to protect myself by maintaining a degree of distance--after all, we were just dating, I reasoned. Friendship and school come first, then a boyfriend, because boys come and go but friends stay, and responsibilities don't go away just because they're inconvenient. O. on the other hand tended to take a "she loves me, she loves me not" view of the situation, and I believe he felt panicky when I pushed for more autonomy. (Pretty sure he's a vacillator!)

Since we got married, though, I've often been the one feeling too much distance, demanding more of O.'s attention, and pushing for greater togetherness. During our honeymoon, for instance, I felt ignored when O. would stop talking to me or looking at me to look things up on his shiny new smartphone, as if he had disappeared into this black box, into which I wasn't invited. This particular problem was quickly fixed when O. and I discussed it and he promised to be more mindful. Nonetheless, it's a good example of the small things that easily leave me feeling ignored, wanting more time together, better time together, better togetherness. These are not the characteristic feelings of the avoider but of the vacillator.

So I figured I wasn't an avoider anymore. But what I eventually figured out is that I am still an avoider, it's just that I'm not as extreme about it as the book's examples, probably because I had a fairly secure attachment to my parents. I just had to observe myself more carefully and more candidly, and think harder about the key ideas behind the book's somewhat extreme presentation.

The book's extreme examples:
My greatest criticism of How We Love is that it didn't make any concrete mention of less extreme cases. An early chapter discussed what it looks like to have a secure attachment style, but then secure attachment was hardly mentioned in the rest of the book, almost implying that if you are securely attached, you'll never employ the unhealthy strategies that mold the relationships of those who are insecurely attached. How We Love is packed with anecdotes and case studies that paint clear and vivid pictures of what each "love style" quintessentially looks like, but fails to give examples of these negative patterns working in more subtle ways, or to explain whether the securely attached can also fall into these traps. A greater range of examples, or at least some commentary on what a less extreme manifestation of each imprint might look like, would really have helped clarify the ideas for me. Precision! It's key!

I did eventually recognize my own pattern, though, and now it seems obvious. I seriously doubt I would have realized how often I feel like escaping or hiding without reading this book and thinking hard about which love style I tend to fall into. Equally important, I probably wouldn't have realized that not everyone feels that desire to escape in the midst of conflict.

In sum, How We Love has already been helpful to me in seeing myself more clearly and thinking in a new way about my important relationships, especially about my marriage. The greatest insight for me was recognizing my avoidance, but there are some other good take-away points too, such as the following:
  • Comfort is key--we're all seeking comfort (in our different ways) and the provision of real comfort is what changes the dynamic.
  • Comfort comes from being heard and being held.
  • The ability to identify your feelings, to name them and talk about them, doesn't come naturally. I'm blessed to have parents who taught me "soul words," asked me about my emotions, talked me through difficult feelings, etc. O. on the other hand is from a family which, though loyal and loving, does not so much discuss feelings as act them out. I can't expect him to be in the same place as me with listening, asking questions, naming his feelings, etc., when I've had years more practice. That's just setting both of us up for frustration.
  • O. doesn't have to figure out for himself what to ask and how to listen; there are resources--like the lists of questions and of emotions in this book--that can make learning so much easier.

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