The following article is drawn from the guiding principles of Emotion Focused Therapy, developed by Susan Johnson. EFT views the central problem in a distressed relationship as the loss of secure emotional connection, and the pattern of negative interactions that both reflects and perpetuates this loss.
In her widely read Hold Me Tight: Conversations for Connection, Johnson describes how negative spirals of interaction can be sparked by each partner’s natural vulnerabilities and can exacerbate their sense of isolation.
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We all have raw spots. They are sensitivities that come from our temperament, our personal attachment histories and from negative experiences in our relationship with our partner. They always reflect moments when a loved one was perceived as not responding to our need for loving attachments, and so triggering our attachment fears.
We do not choose to have these vulnerabilities. Our brains respond to signals from our partner in terms of safety and danger because connection with special others is so key to our survival. Being vulnerable comes with the territory in love relationships. The choice is in how we deal with these vulnerabilities.
The more securely attached a couple are, the more they can be open about these vulnerabilities and help each other with them. They learn to soothe each other in their sore places. Each time they do this, the relationship gets safer and trust deepens. If they cannot do this, when these raw spots are touched you’re more likely to get angry or shut down and get caught in the Demon Dialogues. These interactions then make both partners’ raw spots more and more painful and keep the Demon Dialogues going indefinitely.
The universal raw spots are: feeling deprived of contact, comfort, attention and safe connection; feeling deserted when our partner does not respond to our need for closeness; feeling rejected when we get messages that we are disappointed and not wanted. Without a safe haven connection, we all tend to feel helpless.
Emotion is FAST. It moves us in a nanosecond. We have to slow down to even recognize the softer feelings such as hurt or fear underneath our reactions of anger or defensiveness or withdrawal.
When a raw spot but is hit, you suddenly find yourself off-balance and disorganized. Your emotions shift in a dramatic way that often seems to make no sense (especially to your partner). Your responses to your partnership shift, and the relationship dance changes direction.
When a raw spot is hit, we are responding to an attachment cue about the level of safety in the relationship with our partner. Our body responds with alarm, and our mind begins to sort through all the negative possibilities about what this cue means for us and our relationship. We move towards (often aggressively) or away from our partner. Emotions are our internal compass; they tell us what matters and how to move.
Most of us are afraid that if we reveal our raw spots, others will be able to control us, hurt us anytime they wish, or despise us for being vulnerable. The trouble is that our partner cannot respond to our hurts and fears if we can never speak them. To reveal our softest feelings takes courage for all of us.
When universal raw spots are touched, we may react with anger or we may withdraw numbly. When our raw spots our touched, we are — at our core — experiencing deep sadness; fear (even panic) of abandonment or rejection; and shame (belief that we are unworthy). It is not always easy to identify the raw spot underlying the difficult emotion.