By Al Turtle © 2001
Many of the words I use will seem familiar to those who know Imago Relationship Therapy.
This paper is an excerpt from my essay on SAFETY, The Lizard. I use the term “Lizard” to refer to that primitive part of your brain that is the seat of all reactivity. I suggest you read that when you have time.
The quick fix
The easiest thing to do is to somehow increase your Lizard’s awareness that your partner is not the people that they remind you off, or vice versa, increase their Lizard’s awareness that you are not the people they fear. If I react dramatically when you do so-and-so, because it reminds my Lizard of the 2000 times that dad did that same thing, all I do is invite you to clearly distinguish yourself from my dad (in my Lizard’s eyes). Then the next time you do so-and-so, my Lizard may pause a moment and double check, “Is this dad or is this my partner?” Those few seconds of pause can grow and grow over time.
How to do this? It is actually quite easily. I focus on two traits of the Lizard: It is a bit blind, easy to fool, and it loves nurturing. I get you to do something my Lizard interprets as “nurturing” and I get you do to that often. My Lizard begins to see you as both reminding me of “threats” and doing “nurturing” things. Confuse my Lizard! Or I do things that your Lizard interprets as “nurturing.” I do these often. Your Lizard begins to see me as a source of safety – nurturing.
Caring Behaviors – Make the List
Each of you makes a list of things your partner does currently that triggers you to feel “cared-for” or “loved.” The semantics of those words seem to reliably point at behaviors that Lizards interpret as “nurturing.” Next each of you makes a list of things your partner (or any partner) did in the past triggered you to feel “cared-for” or “loved.” Each of you make a list of things you could do that you think might trigger you feel “cared-for” or “loved.”
Now you have a long list of actions that might work.
Remember that the Lizard is pretty blind and it really recognizes actions and repetition. It seems to be completely blind to thoughts, or promises, etc.
Now convert your three lists into just one that only mentions the actions. Just list actions, not how many times they should be done. This is a kind of “do this and I will probably feel cared for or loved – i.e. safer.” Here are some examples:
Bring me a cup of something hot.
Take my arm in public.
Massage my feet with oil. Take 10 minutes.
Give me a greeting card.
Cook breakfast for me.
Call me when you leave work to tell me you are coming home.
Ask me about my day.
There are lots and lots of these. Make sure your list is simple and clear. Now, trade lists and practice. Each of you starts doing, daily, something from your partner’s list. If you are not clear what an item means, ask for clarity.
Put your partner’s list up somewhere that to see, and Practice, practice, practice.
You may learn some things. Your partner may do something from your list that doesn’t work. Just change your list.
Here’s an example. In one couple, a woman put on her list, “Give me a card.” During their early dating, her boyfriend had sent her greeting cards and she liked that a lot. So, like an average guy, her husband went out and bought 24 cards. On Monday he gave her a card. She loved it. On Tuesday he gave her another card. She looked at him “kind of weird.” On Wednesday he gave her a card. She said, “Give me my list, please.” She changed her request to “Give me a card, no more than once a week.” As she tells it, “One card made me feel valuable. But the cost of three cards hurt me.”
The long-term fix
There is a wonderful phrase. “There is a short path that becomes the long way. And there is a long path that becomes the short way.” Listing and doing Caring Behaviors are a nice start. The goal is “To become a source of Safety to your partner’s Lizard.”
I think the principle is to pay more attention to whether your partner’s lizard is panicking than to what they are saying. How about this? Lizard actions speak louder than Words. I have a friend who says that he addresses his wife’s Lizard sometimes more than he speaks to her.
When your partner displays the Lizard behavior of Flee, Freeze, Submit, Fight, stop whatever you are doing. Seek to do things that will calm their Lizard. Only they can know for sure what will work, and perhaps even they don’t know for sure.
Still I believe the best way to go is the following:
1. Hold in your mind (perhaps say this out loud) that it is your goal to become a source of safety to them, their Lizard.
2. Say, “I would like to know what can I do right now, practically, that would help make your Lizard feel more safe. Do you have any ideas of what I can do?”
3. Try to do what your partner suggests. See if it works. If it does, do it again. Remember it as it is probably one valuable clue to bringing safety to the two of you.
4. If your partner doesn’t know what will work, then fall back on giving them time to think. Take a TimeOut, gently. “Let’s take a break for an hour, then. I’ll check in with you in a little bit.” Quiet time that is structured with an ending is very calming. Make sure you take at least 20 minutes off. Make sure you announce how long you will take.
5. Your long term goal is that your partner’s Lizard begins to push your partner to move toward you because you are a source of safety to it.
This is what I have learned.
Good luck. This has been for me, quite a challenge. One time, two years ago, my partner told me, “You’ve done it. You told me you were going to be a source of safety to me. And you are. Thank you.” Hearing that made it all worth it.