Wanna know a secret? I spent years of my life convinced I was always right, or at least largely undefensive and mature. (Sorry, husband. Being married to an INTP with a particular kinda baggage probably sucks sometimes.) Even during arguments, I’d sometimes just be quiet, because silence is so damn “regulated” and “helpful,” right? (pats self on back with such controlled dexterity that obvious superiority is conveyed…while smugly distancing from all those uncontrolled cryers and yellers out there. I mean obviously.)
That stubborn, self-assumed, independent, analysis, boys and girls, is what is called “wildly relationally immature.” (share this one with your spouse if it resonates.) And, -GOOD NEWS- anyone can learn and practice ways to be relationally mature, as long as they make the choice to be willing. Take it from the shrink who is finding it impossible to pat herself on the back while typing.
So what does it mean to be “relationally mature?” And what relationship behaviors arise from “relational maturity”?
Before I answer that question, I’ll tell you another secret: If two people come to couples therapy willing to each behaviorally try-out “relational-maturity,” even just every once in a while, that couples therapist has hit the holy grail jackpot of couples, and therapy could be some shitty diluted CBT or just a hodgepodge of whatever’s-clever, and it will STILL be an enormous success. (Yes, getting to the point of willingness to practice “relational maturity,” usually by offering concrete doses of clarity, adequacy, and hope, usually IS the therapy at first.)
Relational maturity means that tough situations (sources of discomfort such as conflict, vulnerability, togetherness, receiving criticism, tolerating time away from one another, navigating different needs and perspectives, etc) are handled intentionally, not reactively. For the most part, a relationally mature person at least attempts to understand and execute the following:
1) You recognize your unchecked fears and beliefs about yourself and others. (Core beliefs: everyone’s got ’em.) Or at least you’ve pinpointed one or two main ones.
Common examples: You kind of assume, probably because of what you experienced in your family of origin or prior relationships, that romantic partners tend to be crazy/unreliable/dishonest/detached/condemning/whatever. You also assume that you are rejectable/abandonable/completely-over-lookable and destined-to-be alone. After-all, past experiences have informed this belief and your own parent proclaimed his/her victimhood of this very reality throughout your entire childhood.
Unhelpful automatic (usually unconscious) beliefs may be formed out of the effects of alcoholism/neglect/abuse/invalidation, whether these scenarios occurred in the previous generation, or even several generations prior. “Automatic beliefs” can be passed down from generation to generation, despite the abuse/invalidation/etc occurring long, long ago; And these expectations can even become self-fulfilling prophecies and repeated-relational-traumas, as one person’s defenses may trigger/heighten the other’s otherwise-dormant defenses (and vice-versa). (Or something like that. Sorry- Can you believe I’m actually trying to keep this simple?!)
2) You recognize the identities that you are trying to protect. (Or you’ve at least pinpointed one or two.)
This one is closely related to both your beliefs about yourself AND the defenses you might have against icky feelings. I decided to give it it’s own category because it’s so important to couples dynamics, yet it’s largely overlooked. Who is the person that you consider yourself to be? Are you the “smart” one? The one “in control?” Or maybe you are the “perpetual victim” or the “giver.” Any strongly-adhered-to identity, that is not open to scenario-dependent flexibility, is usually not so much an identity, as much as it is a defense mechanism. You derive comfort and protection from icky feelings (inadequacy for the “smart one”? The fear associated with personal accountability for the “perpetual victim”?) when clinging to these “defensive identities.” Therefore, they become so strongly-held that when anything or anyone challenges them, they are reactively defended, sometimes at the expense of clarity or connection.
3) You recognize the TYPICAL defenses you use to protect yourself from icky beliefs and identities.
Harville Hendrix would ask, “Are you a minimizer or a maximizer?” I would ask, “Do you shut down/avoid or do you move-toward/escalate emotional distress and/or conflict?”
Allow me to describe dramatic caricatures of the two main defensive categories:
In the “avoidant” corner, we have the spouse who tends to pride himself on his control and stoicism (protected identity). He’s probably a strong “T” on the Meyers Briggs, partly because it defends him against that disgusting thing called “emotions” (therein lies a certain belief about others). He problem-solves to the detriment of empathy (again, this is a nice safety zone, away from his fear of inadequacy or icky emotions), and he may passive-aggressively “please” the other person in a manner that is completely inconsistent with what the other person wants/needs (protecting his identity as a pleaser, of course. Also precluding from meaningful connection, which is emotionally dysregulating as protected identity is “stoic.”). He stands always conveniently by-the-door, completely comfortable with turning the knob at any point that he gets uncomfortable, (independence is his happy-place, where no inadequacy is feared, and he probably judges others as “needy” if they’re not similar). He rolls his eyes on the inside, smugly not escalating the conflict, so that when his spouse becomes enraged with his detachment, he can throw up his hands and say, “What? I didn’t do anything! I am such a victim of your constant dissatisfaction!” He wears a halo to therapy, and desires the therapist to help polish it, as further proof of his protected adequacy. (I can poke fun because, when I don’t check myself, I am totally this profile. God it’s a powerful and safe, but shitty, stance to take.)
In the “maximizing corner,” we have the desperate spouse, who has tried everything to get the other to change. She is mainly a one-trick-pony, her “trick” being her clever voice. She can do angry; she can do sad; she can do despair; she can do appeals to logic; she can do appeals to emotion; she can do criticism; she can do disgust, all at a decibel that her opponent can hear, even with his avoidant earmuffs firmly in place. Because she is fiercely protective of her beliefs about her own invisibility, she will NOT be forgotten or dismissed or abandoned. She fears the therapist will consider her nuts, and is sensitive to any too-aggressive (and abandoning/rejecting) push to change her; After all, it is her SPOUSE who she has been BEGGING and PLEADING and SCREAMING-AT to change, probably for YEARS! And she is right, dammit. And she’s probably also a victim, dammit. (They both are.) But, unlike her partner, she’s saddled with her own anger and pain remaining invisible at best and visciously-condemned at worst.
So anyway. All of these defenses protect us from the icky feelings that arise from our unchecked beliefs while also maintaining our protective identities. And we certainly need to know specifically what our typical method of operations are before we can alter them in-the-moment.
4) You know your barriers to empathy (usually defenses).
Barriers to empathy usually include one of two protective mindsets:
a- I have been hurt so badly by the other person that I will only extend the gift of my understanding when I deem it safe to do so. I will consider it safe only when the other person has changed their ways to behaviorally soothe my core fears and beliefs (about abandonment, adequacy, etc.) AND honor my protected-identity. In other words, “I am not going to understand your perspective until you understand mine because it feels emotionally dangerous to do otherwise.”
B- My protected identity is “being right,” and “being vindicated” is my main goal here, even over healing barriers to relational connection. Therefore, I cannot empathically feel your pain in a meaningful way, until it has been established and noted that my pain is valid, that my perspective viewpoint can be described as “correct.” It would not be “correct” to alleviate your pain before alleviating mine, since my pain is the most “right.” (There are strong theme of “fair,” “justice,” and “deservedness/lack of deservedness” within this mindset.) In other words, “I am not going to understand your perspective until you tell me that my perspective is right, since I believe that it is MORE right.”
5) You have practiced validating yourself (to eradicate paralyzing judgement and even more-desperate defense mechanisms) AND physiologically calming yourself when these beliefs, unhelpful identities, defenses, and barriers-to-empathy arise.
“Emotional dysregulation that leads to reactive protective behaviors” is what gets in the way of constructively engaging in connection and navigating disconnection. Not anything else. THIS.
Someday I want Marcia Linehan, Aaron Beck, and Harville Hendrix to have a bio-manufactured love-child called, “Self-soothe and validate so you are ABLE to think clearly, challenge your unhelpful beliefs, and respond in ways that reveal and meet each other’s emotional needs.”
Now, it is unreasonable to expect that mindful awareness, self-validation, and self-soothing in-the-moment will be immediately easy to implement. Usually, what ends up happening is the following sequence of events: 1) Unchecked story/identity/defense/barrier 2) execution of unhelpful/aggressive/avoidant/crappy behavior that leads to further disconnection and hopelessness, and probably even triggers the other person to further trigger YOU by their defenses 3) awareness and healthy-regret after the storm has passed, along with self-validation, as you are completely understanding how your experiences have informed your beliefs and defenses 4) an after-the-fact post-mortem, mutual apology where-ownership-reigns-and-blame-goes-to-die 4) Developing a concrete game-plan that includes now-heightened awareness and suggested self-soothing for next time. AND THAT IS A PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE AND REALISTIC STARTING POINT. IF YOUR SPOUSE DOES THAT, POSITIVELY REINFORCE IT!! IF YOU DO THAT, GIVE YOURSELF CREDIT! (and if you can’t, go back to the drawing board with checking your beliefs, identities, defenses, and barriers to empathy.)
So, that’s it. Relational maturity is knowing yourself, without judgement and condemnation. It is being willing to attempt to notice when unhelpful beliefs, identities, and defenses arise, and then practicing self-soothing so that words and behaviors are intentional and not reactively protective. And don’t forget, if all of this seems overwhelming, couples therapy is a great way to gain gradual insight and behavior change, one small step at a time!