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.
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I’m often on your website learning as quickly as I can! My question is: What if my partner interprets me asking him for what caring actions he would like as an intrusive question?
Seems that there are actions I can do but he isn’t willing or able to “ask” me for any. My guess is that either he doesn’t want to self reflect, doesn’t want to be seen to “need” me, or wants to see if he can “go it alone”. Another idea is that maybe he is reluctant to draw me – a clinger – closer by asking something of me. Seems the most caring action I can do is to model and accept time outs, and to watch the quality of my listening, not interrupting.
It doesn’t feel like time outs are nurturing though.
I have been practicing not giving advice, asking much less (zero questions), saying less, and when he asks me if he should do something I’ve said he probably knows what is best for him. All of this is gentle.
Are these caring behaviors?
Can I work out what are caring behaviors for him by watching for his lizard and seeing when it purrs?
Thanks Very much
Hi Lorraine, and welcome to the world of Clingers trying to show Caring Behaviors to Avoiders. I can share a couple of ideas.
In all the couples I’ve seen I would assign them a week to come up with lists. Clingers would usually fill the page and Avoiders would be lucky to get two. Your guesses about “why” are all fine. Might add my idea that in growing up Avoider no one hardly ever asked them what they would like so they haven’t build a collection of answers. That’s sad, but seem part of their experience. Doesn’t mean your partner doesn’t have things that are Caring Behavior, just means they don’t have much of a list in their heads.
So this is a place where the Clinger has to lead in teaching their partner to become aware of things they like. And it comes with a) intention and b) noticing of Lizards purring.
So I suggest two ideas. One is to notice when your partner is happy, playful, and maybe a bit silly. Note what’s going on and gently or later draw their attention to it. You’re doing the right thing by guessing, but don’t push those guesses on your partner. You know, avoid anything that feels invasive to them. You may end up with a list of items that work, that at some time in the future you’ll get to share about. In the meantime try these ideas.
I recall learning from horse training that horses feel safer with people or things that are below their eye level. So I wondered if my partner (she’s got a Lizard brain just like horses do) might feel cared for if I sat below her level. I tried it, and it worked, and I put this idea on the list.
I recall learning about my tendency to act impatient. I guessed that my wife might feel cared for if I said the phrase, “Take your time. No rush.” It worked so much that the phrase is on the list.
She told me once that her previous husband would never let her drive. So I guessed that she might like to be asked to do the driving. It works. She loves driving. On the list. Small things, but they all work.
Remember your goal is to shift your behavior enough so that your partner feels “Cared For” just by you being there. That’s a journey for a Clinger to achieve.
The other idea is to actually address his Lizard. I found that making my partner’s reptilian brain into a character in our family was a genius idea. That allowed me to say, “My goal is to be a source of safety to your Lizard. What could I do right now specifically to help it?” There are a great many similar phrases I’ve learned to use. Now remember, pointing out to my partner that I think her Lizard is freaking can come across invasive – putting her on the spot. But saying it in some other is pretty easy. “I’m a bit tense right now. Any ideas of what my help make things more relaxed for us both?”
Looking back, this whole project of bringing Caring Behaviors into our relationship was a great joy. Good luck.
Thanks Al. So much to observe and think about. Much appreciated.
So what you suggest is 3 forms of love – my husband’s being a noun, and yours and mine being a verb. But again, in my personal experience, when one spouse in a marriage focuses highly on self-love, they get super charged when they read articles such as ‘love yourself first’ etc etc, giving them a window to constantly validate that self love is utmost important. I am not suggesting that self love does not matter, but I am only saying that unless love is shared, the trans personal skill does not develop. S where is the possibility of feelings even in noun form sustaining? This gets even more validated if an immediate family member or a counselor tells you ‘be very selfish about your feelings.’ If you are considering a divorce at the back of your mind, coz already that spouse is not sharing the love, they get now very convinced if they even loved at all in the first place. They start replaying their memory of relationship with a edited script of their love for the spouse. And from what I have experienced- this editing is usually not in favor of their partner. It is accelerated with resentment, fear. If such is the case, how does one share the idea of ‘verb’ oriented love forms without activating fears? How do words help even though they universally mean the same? – for ex: I can say love, and only mean love. But to my spouse it may sound control or overpowering. It is this grey area I wish to understand.
Hello again, Shar. Your message brought up for me a quote from the song in the King and I, “Is a puzzlement.” People all over the world are puzzled by this.
I think your last line, “It is the grey area I wish to understand” is a wondrous point and works directly toward what makes relationships great. Somewhere I wrote of the three skill sets in life. The first two are all about how to make and fix things. The third are those you need to deal with the “grey areas.” Those areas don’t exist as long as we are solitary and alone. But these areas are “in your face” when you have a partner.
I had to learn ’em well. I think of them as Relationship Skills. An example is how to act peacefully with another person who has different understandings/definitions of ever word we each share. The idea you posited in this line “How do words help even though they universally mean the same?” is profoundly wrong/silly/waste of time – to my way of thinking. How do we adapt and use words when each has as many meanings at the number of people present? My personal growing up around this issue took decades. Now I am comfortable.
Look at your example: You can say “love”. That’s the easy part. What you mean by that term is an extremely complex set of thought/feelings/contexts/histories,etc. that are unique to you at the time. And because it’s a simple term you look past your complexity and think the meaning is simple and anyone can know what you mean. He hears your word, “love”. Again that’s the simple part. Then he tries to make sense of that word using his extremely complex and deep associations and memories around that word – most of which are different from your stuff. Let’s say that you sit there at then end of that specific event of sharing that “word” with about 50,000 different active thinking processes and maybe a half dozen different emotions. And then think what happens if one of you insists there is only one meaning for that word and it is their meaning. All hell breaks loose. One of the cruelest (unintentionally) behaviors of my dad was to insist to a baffled child, “You know perfectly well what I mean!”
Keep trying to figure this out, Shar. The solution is wonderful. Here are some links that might help. Emotional Symbiosis. This is the core delusion, issue. Diversity and Arguments. My wife and I haven’t argued since 1994 when we learned this.
This is a wonderful article to understand how to care, but my spouse feels that his feelings are no longer the same for me after 6 years together(through a lot of ups and downs.) He says we can change our behaviour/ habits but feelings have to come naturally from within. When I looked up this topic, I came across a lot of material that says love is a verb and is action driven. It is a choice we make everyday. Is there any possibility I can communicate this to my husband without disrespecting his thoughts upon his feelings?
Thanks and regards,
Hello Shar, Not sure what the problem is here, but I guess you are concerned about his change of feelings. You’ve been together 6 years so I think it is high time you guys were talking about changes of feelings and probably more or less deep in a Power Struggle. Check out my Map of Relationships
Another thing I think is going on is an experience learning about words. Sounds as if he’s using the word “Love” as a noun describing a state of feelings and you’ve been reading about “Love” as a verb. I learned a long time ago that “Words do not have meanings. People have meanings and use words to try sharing their meanings.” I like the lessons his use of “Love” brings about – tis something that exists, changes and you can’t control, but can appreciate. I like your use of the word, as something that shows intent and leads actions and skills.
I like my definition of “to Love” is to choose to spend energy in the well-being of another or of yourself. I like my idea of “to make someone feel loved” is a wonderful set of skills you do until reliably they feel loved – what I call trans personal skill. You learn what it takes to make ’em feel that way.
This essay is all about the latter use of the words “feel loved.”
Hope this helps.