Conflagration or Communication: Shielding Vulnerability

Words can be incendiary. Words can be inviting. Words can be soothing or exciting. Words can be informing or confusing. The power of words fueled by tone of voice and facial expression, highlighted by hand gestures and body movement, can open up a communication or shut it down. Fact or fiction or subjective interpretation, words shared can have long-lasting repercussions. Wars are launched on the basis of words fired across international borders or kitchen tables.

And words can be shields.

Illustration of a heart, protected by a shield from arrows of love, for the Couples Tool Kit post on communication and shields. Credit: iStock/djmilic.

Image Credit: iStock/djmilic.

The worst thing about words is that they often deliver only a piece of the message. When couples engage in words as weapons, rather than an honest communication of feeling, the smoking heat of a hostile tone can camouflage the wounded whimper of hurt or the plea for help that is buried under the bluster. We are a species that tends to believe that fire and brimstone show power and strength. We just hate to be vulnerable and needy. Hate is a strong word and this is a strong drive in our species. It is important to understand that words are often used as shields against the vulnerable softer side of the self, especially when communicating within the most intimate of relationships, the Coupledom.

When a couple engages in therapy, they are involved in a multi-layered process with a witness/facilitator – someone who listens closely to the layers of communication. I am a student of the multi-layered communication. A withering statement of insult is leveled at one member of the Coupledom and received by the other bodily; you can see them flinch. Yet what their voice conveys is a denial of what my eyes see: what their body reveals, and most often, what their partner does not seem to see. The partner hears denial, “No, not me. Didn’t happen that way. I’m not listening.” The partner sees their spouse close off, twist away on my couch, like a wooly bear that’s just been touched. I see the hurt, the flinch, the cover up. The partner sees indifference or gaslighting. Why? So many reasons. But most of it all boils down to managing vulnerability – for both partners.

This retreat, or wall in the face of hostility, also occurs when the partner is crying, weeping, beseeching. Walling-off hostile advance isn’t the only time when a spouse looks away, curls up or shouts back. Seeing tears and hearing sobs often triggers the same response.  A tone of superiority or contempt, withering to the target, can be acting as a shield against taking some responsibility for someone else’s pain. Belittle their pain so you can avoid your own.

Without going into the many theories of human psychological development, it should be clear to every human being that managing emotions in our society is a full time job. At work, school, the playground, on an airplane, in an elevator, in the bedroom, in the sandbox, we work within the parameters of our peer groups, our culture, our gender, to present ourselves to others as being in control of our external world. To achieve this presentation, we apply a lot of pressure on our internal world of emotion to conform to the expectations, as we see them, of the external world. If this seems preposterous, spend one day paying attention to your thoughts and actions; how often do you choose to push down feeling to accomplish a task, in order to move smoothly through a challenging encounter, converse with your spouse or your boss or your child? This behavior starts when we are very young and is reinforced every subsequent day of our lives. Think about panic attacks, anxiety, all suppression of feeling, often over decades, in the service of hiding vulnerabilities seemingly unacceptable to society, to the individual, family or institutions.

Humans develop complex defenses to manage emotional challenges, starting at a very young age. By the time we pair off, these defenses are well in place, often unconscious; a multi-layered arsenal that acts as “protection” against revealing hurt, humiliation, insecurity or fear.

So, as a witness to highly charged transactions between spouses (using spouse as an umbrella term), my job is to locate the layers under the behaviors and ask the spouse to consider for a moment what they are actually feeling when they utter such words, when their body shifts away, when their eyes roll or shut. To pause and take an accounting of what else is happening inside them. There is a chance that they are as emotionally weaponized against their own feelings as at their spouse’s impact on them.

Ignorance is never bliss. It is a blindfold or tear gas to keep us from feeling or knowing or showing pain that we think we cannot handle or will be humiliated by its display. Frequently we have two opposite emotions, and we are conflicted without realizing it. So we show one emotion and hide the other… a dangerous solution which always backfires. If we are scared that we may lose our partner, we feel stronger if we act like we don’t care if we do. “It is up to you.” That masks the fear of loss with indifference. Is indifference strength or weakness? It is all an attempt not to appear powerless.  Yet relying on misinformation is not empowering. Women may rely on moral outrage to counteract the searing pain of hurt and humiliation. Yet this shield may push that wooly bear further into his curl, shamed, scolded and unavailable. These are just a few of the packaged emotions on view in my office. Partners accept the outward performance as the guiding light; in fact, it is merely camouflage, and the light rests behind the curtains, under the layers, within the performer.

Successful couples therapy involves the peeling off of layers of defenses in the presence of the other – the partner. Self-reflection, courage and building trust are the hallmarks of successful therapy. Time is the essential ingredient. Showing up and staying are the required rhythm. Increasing happiness in the shared life is the product.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2019

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