Topic Progress:

Patterns are Powerful

The way we react to others, especially when we are in an emotionally reactive state, comes largely from strategies and patterns that became deeply ingrained in us when we were young. When we are acting out of emotional reactivity, we tend to fall unconsciously into our old patterns. Previously, I talked about how Donald Nathanson, the affect theorist, describes the styles of behavior we fall back on when we are trying to avoid shame. Another way to look at this — and the way I am going to talk about it here – is as the strategy people use when they feel powerless. When two people are in conflict, they are each in their own shame/fear reaction. In other words, they feel powerless, and they fall back into a patterned way of responding. The way they respond to each other becomes repetitive and unproductive. You can call this repetitive way of relating a “dynamic” or a “pattern.”

Be Conscious of the Dynamic

It is very important to recognize and get conscious about how this dynamic works in order to have the power to rise above it and learn to operate in a way that is more effective. It is also very important to acknowledge our part in the dynamic. What do we do that gets the dynamic going, or keeps the dynamic going? We may feel as though we just respond to what the other person hurls at us. Be aware that even if we feel like we are just responding, the way we respond is part of the dynamic, and we do have control over that. When we are in conflict we often feel victimized by the other, as if we have no power and no control over the situation. This is not true! We do have the power to change the way we participate in the dynamic, even if we cannot change the way our ex engages in the dynamic.

Let’s look again at the four strategies described in the previous chapter: Attack Others, Attack Self, Withdrawal, and Avoidance. Although we may use a combination of strategies, often we fall into one or two more than the others. The way I think about it is that when we feel threatened in some way, if we are not being conscious, we retreat to one of these strategies. It is important to get clear about what these strategies look like so we can recognize them in ourselves and in our ex.

Attack Others is blaming the other. In this strategy, we believe that the other is causing our difficulties, and that if they would just change, everything would be all right. We think we have to work hard at making them change and that we will gain power by changing them.

Attack Self involves demeaning ourselves, or taking the blame onto ourselves, past the point of reasonableness. It is important to take responsibility for ourselves, but this goes beyond that. The idea is that we feel as though the only way to have some power is to belittle ourselves.

Withdrawal involves running away or hiding, either in reality or emotionally. When we are in withdrawal we are hard to communicate with. In this strategy, we protect ourselves from the feeling of powerlessness by not engaging in the things that make us feel powerless.

Avoidance involves distracting ourselves with addictive substances or behaviors, or “puffing ourselves up” so that the feeling of shame is avoided. By puffing up, I mean making ourselves feel competent or superior in some way, so that we don’t feel incompetent or powerless in another area. When it comes to dynamics, we look at what strategy each of the people in the dynamic falls back to and how they interact with each other. In high-conflict divorce situations, at least one person usually falls back to the Attack Other strategy. Without at least one person in that mode, there wouldn’t be conflict. (Of course, combinations of the other strategies can be problematic in other ways, but generally those are not what we are dealing with here.) Here are some common dynamic combinations in high conflict divorce situations.

Attack Other – Attack Other (Both people are blaming the other)

Attack Other – Withdrawal (One person is blaming and one person is withdrawing)

Attack Other – Avoidance (One person is blaming and one person is avoiding)

Can you identify which pattern tends to fit you and your ex? Imagine you are looking at this dynamic as if you are not part of it– as if you’re standing outside of it and seeing it from afar. What does it look like from far away or from up above or from the outside? If you were watching other people in this dynamic, what would you say about it? What would you tell them to do differently?

Now remember, we enter the dynamic the way we do because we feel threatened or powerless. What if we felt powerful? What would we do differently? Remember, we cannot change the way the other person enters the dynamic– we can only change the way we enter it.

How can we change it? Here are some ways we can change the way we enter the dynamic depending on what strategy you’re in:

Attack Other The characteristic of this strategy is to believe that it is the other person’s fault and that in order to feel powerful, you will have to change her. Remind yourself that you cannot change her and that whatever you’re doing at the moment that you believe is going to affect change is not going to work. If you are telling her what she is doing wrong, stop. It will not work.

Withdrawal Notice that you are avoiding dealing with the situation at hand. Think about what you are afraid of and how you feel threatened. Remind yourself that by withdrawing, you contribute to a dynamic in which your ex will continue blaming and attacking. The more you withdraw, the more your ex will come toward you. If you can keep yourself from withdrawing, it will probably help your ex reduce the blaming.

Avoidance The characteristic of this strategy is to avoid the feeling of powerlessness by making yourself feel powerful in other ways, or using substances or behaviors to distract yourself away from the feelings of powerlessness. Most likely you are avoiding your ex in some way which, as in withdrawal, just makes them come toward you more.

Here’s the bad news: it is very difficult to change the way we enter the dynamic because it’s our “default” mode. It’s what we’ve always done, and what we’re used to. It feels strange and even wrong to do it differently. It takes work. It takes consciousness. It takes sitting with some very difficult feelings. The reason we go to our default mode is because we are trying to avoid the feelings of powerlessness, and if we do not go to the default mode, we have to feel our feelings of powerlessness.

But that is exactly what we do, because when we allow ourselves to feel the fear, shame and powerlessness, we will drop into the sadness or grief. Remember that these emotions are more grounded. Once we’re more grounded, we can begin to think of other ways to go about doing what we need to do in order to accomplish what we want to accomplish. © 2012 Alisa Jaffe Holleron