Uy, uy, uy 🥵
My anxious-avoidant attachment has been really activated with one of my partners this last month.
They set a clear expectation for me that their availability would be drastically reduced, both physically and emotionally (reasonably so as they were navigating a few big transitions in their life). My brain received this boundary with gratitude - I love having a clear expectation. It really soothes my anxiety. But my body went into survival mode anyway.
All of a sudden, I went from feeling very secure with them to feeling very anxious-avoidant. I fell into familiar patterns - chasing emotional intimacy from them when it was scarcely available. It’s my body’s way of re-enacting the dynamic I had with my mom when I was growing up - trying to drink from a well that was dry and then feeling rejected when I was unable to quench my thirst. My mom was super present physically, but not so much emotionally - which I don’t blame her for. Capitalism systematically under-resources parents by confining them into the nuclear family. Looking back, I understand it wasn’t personal - more like a trauma response.
The universe has a way of repeating cycles until YOU show up differently. YOU are the agent of change that has the power to create new cycles. But they will always repeat until you shape change by showing up differently, yourself. Here, I found myself repeating the cycle of chasing emotional depth where it wasn’t available.
Once my partner was able to move through the big shifts and return to a level of deep emotional connection with themself and, thus, with me - it was time to pause and reflect. This is what I refer to as a relationship check-in. It was clear that we were both feeling disconnected, which isn’t what we wanted. So we set a container to acknowledge what unconscious dynamics were coming up with the intention of redirecting ourselves into alignment with how we want to show up for each other.
I realized I had been holding resentment about trying to drink from a dry well. My partner realized they had been reaching beyond their capacity in an attempt to soothe my unquenchable thirst. That’s not a dynamic we wanted to perpetuate, so we took the opportunity right then and there during the relationship check-in to start showing up differently. To start taking responsibility for our needs.
Normally, during relationship check-ins, be it with a lover, romantic partner, friend, housemate or what have you, I prefer to co-regulate through some form of physical touch. It could be as deep as holding hands while looking into each other’s eyes or as simple as putting my legs over theirs. The skin to skin contact helps my nervous system feel safe. It sends my body feedback that the relationship is not in danger, which soothes my anxiety when we’re confronting topics that expose my insecurities. It feels so incredibly vulnerable to point at my shadow parts (like my mommy wound) together.
I had brought another unconscious assumption into this relationship check-in, expecting my partner to be physically available to co-regulate with me during our conversation. To my surprise, they expressed their need to feel into their own energy so they could stay attuned to their feelings and needs so they could have clarity throughout our conversation. My logic brain totally understood this, but my animal body (my subconscious brain) experienced their boundary as rejection. My wounded inner child came oozing out with nowhere to be contained and no anchor to hold him down. The waves were thrashing around and I felt I was drowning.
I could feel myself shutting down, my chest caving inwards, my head hunching, my breathing getting shallow. I was entering a freeze response. When I feel emotionally connected with my partner, my nervous system communicates to my body that we are safe. Receiving their boundary in this moment triggered a survival response in my nervous system. Fear was ringing the alarms that the health of the relationship was in danger. Code red!
In that moment, time felt like molasses. I was simultaneously witnessing myself shut down, while also feeling physically trapped by the weight of the ocean. By the emotions filling my lungs, consuming me whole. But in that moment (which felt like an eternity), I realized the only way forward was to not only accept their boundary mentally, but also physically. That’s when I hit a turning point. I realized I would need to do SOMETHING to thaw my frozen body, as impossible as it felt in that moment. I would need to find an alternative way to soothe my nervous system, to come back up for air. I made a conscious decision to decline my body’s self defense mechanism with the faith that my partner’s boundary was not actually rejection, but an investment in our relationship.
I pulled out the tool that felt most accessible to me in that moment, something I practice every day. As my child self continued sinking to the ocean floor, my “daddy” self started hugging and kissing my arms. There were so many levels of vulnerability present. First, being witnessed in my survival response, my childhood despair. But, second, being witnessed in expressing physical self affection (which is so taboo in our society) - especially after having felt physically rejected by them.
Judgements flooded my mind - “They’re not gonna find you attractive after this. You look so lonely and desperate. This will be the death of the relationship.”
But that’s the thing about creating new patterns. Often something needs to die in order to create space for something new. The subconscious mind (AKA the animal body) has one job - to keep you safe, to survive. Naturally, when the outcome is predictable the nervous system feels safe - there’s no danger to prepare for. But when the outcome is unpredictable (even when it’s the best possible action for the longevity of the relationship) the brain goes on high alert and prepares the body for threat. When the possibilities are unknown, the survival mechanism feels vulnerable. It prepares for attack.
In this never-ending moment, I realized I would have to surrender my defenses even when my body was communicating the threat of death. If I were to force my partner to take responsibility for my feeling of rejection and abandonment, it wouldn’t align us with the intention for our relationship. If I were to escape my feelings I would be out of relationship with myself and, thus, with them as well. My emotions are not my partner’s responsibility. Instead of accepting my body’s survival response as truth, I chose to allow the bodily sensation of death to consume me whole. To surrender to the perceived threat at hand without trying to protect myself from it, opening myself to the possibility of the death of my safety and the death of our relationship.
The only way out is through.
We laid side by side as I hugged and kissed myself and listened to their compassionate reflections about our dynamic. I overrode my body’s freeze response by forcing myself to take long, deep breaths. My intuition told me to weigh myself down physically so I could feel more anchored. So I sat up and covered myself with handfuls of rocks from the gravel we were sitting on in their garden. I knew it looked weird (meaning out of the ordinary) - it was weird for me, too, in that it was the first time I had ever regulated my nervous system this way. An added layer of vulnerability - being witnessed in trying something new.
By choosing death, I created the possibility for rebirth.
I’m so grateful to myself for showing up with enough courage and self trust to be able to make it to the other side of the conversation without collapsing. I’m so grateful to them for standing in their truth, no matter how uncomfortable it was for them to witness my child self flailing.
This intense moment of mutual discomfort was such a gift to our relationship. By leaning into a temporary moment of discomfort we cleared an opening for new patterns to emerge.
We both could have caved to the discomfort, thus perpetuating the unconscious trauma patterns that brought us into this conversation in the first place. That get in the way of us connecting authentically. But both of us showed up with the courage and emotional resilience to honor our needs. No more overextending themself to meet my needs. No more chasing them down to get something unattainable. By showing up so deeply for ourselves we were already rewriting our dynamic. Bringing it into conscious balance. A rebirth. Growing pains.
I feel secure knowing I can trust them to set the boundaries they need to show up fully to our relationship. Knowing that I can trust their “yes’s” and their “no’s”. That I don’t have to second guess what they need or if they’re building resentment towards me by feeling pressured to overextend themself. They can trust that their needs won’t break me. That there is space for their needs in our relationship. That they don’t need to unconsciously play the role of “mommy” to sustain our connection.
It’s not their responsibility to dance around my emotional triggers and take care of me. That’s the opposite of intimacy. Them taking care of themselves, first, is the biggest gift to our relationship. When they neglect their needs in order to soothe MY inner child, it leaves us both feeling disconnected. Intimacy happens where our needs meet each other in the middle. Win win. Abundance. No need to force, guilt, shame, blame or manipulate in order to feel loved.
Moving forward, we agreed the growth edge for our relationship is for them to voice their needs and hold their boundaries, no matter what emotional reaction it triggers in my nervous system. This means that we must both be willing to allow me to suffer through the short term discomfort in order for us to return to balance. I’m committed to this relationship, which means I’m committed to leaning into that suffering, knowing it’s a long-term gift to both of us.
Trusting each other to move through the discomfort is how we build a foundation of trust, stability and authenticity moment by moment, brick by brick.
This is the purpose of partnership to me - to have the level of trust necessary to feel safe enough to bring our shadows to the surface and rewrite our patterns with intention. Expanding and growing together. Symbiosis.
What a blessing ✨
For many years I have dreamt about having this level of depth, security and authenticity within a partnership. And for many years, my trauma brain echoed narratives that my dream was merely a fantasy that would never actually come true. That deep partnership wasn’t possible for me because I was too burdensome, too needy. That I wouldn’t be safe in a relationship without one of us sacrificing our needs for the other (a toxic narrative of romantic love).
But here I am, in deep awe and reverence of what IS possible. Celebrating the clarity that this partnership is a life partnership. That dreams do come true with patience, courage and commitment. Trust isn’t built overnight. It’s an ongoing experience that is built brick by brick.
Forest facilitates the Love & Liberation Network, an online community of non-monogamous folks removing hierarchies from their relationships and developing secure attachment.
We meet weekly on Zoom to celebrate, inspire and support each other along this courageous path. Community is resilience 💜