09 Aug Part 2 of 3: Really? Some Families Don’t Go into Crisis over Daughters Who Sugar?
Part 2 of 3: Really? Some Families Don’t Go into Crisis over Daughters Who Sugar?
In the second position, a woman who sugars has a new view of causation (a psychological one, not one from high school physics class) and sees the vulnerability created by a fusion-based strategy for emotional connection. What is the alternative to fusion? When a sugaring woman knows the answer and can do it, she has moved to the third position in this arc of psychological growth.
The alternative to fusion—and remember fusion is a strategy for getting one’s emotional connection needs met—is “reliable loving responsiveness.” Reliable loving responsiveness is also a strategy for getting one’s emotional attachment needs met, yet one that does not require agreement in order for there to be emotional connection. Agreement isn’t necessary for emotional connection, because the connection results when a relational process occurs reliably and lovingly. (The short version of the process is: recognizing, validating, and responding to the other’s emotional need to feel attached.) And because the emotional connection doesn’t depend on agreement, individuation isn’t perceived as a threat to the relationship. In a fused family, no one is allowed to be different; in fused families, preventing differentiation is the function of conflict.
Thus conflict—I’m talking about interpersonal arguments—is a strategy for getting one’s emotional attachment needs met. But it’s one that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the conflict is focused on the wrong level of what’s going on. That’s why you’ll notice couples have the same argument over and over and over, even though nothing gets better. They are trying to connect, so they do conflicts, even though having conflicts doesn’t work to make them feel closer. In fact, they feel demoralized and more disconnected instead.
The solution starts with thinking of an interpersonal conflict as having three levels: content, process, and instrumentality. We’re just going to focus on the first two. Fusionists focus on the first level, content. Suppose there’s a couple having a conflict. The content level might be that one person is criticizing the other for leaving dirty dishes in the sink. (e.g., “Should there ever be dirty dishes in the sink?” Or, “Does your leaving dirty dishes in the sink mean you suck?”) It’s the sort of argument they have repeatedly.
The fusionist keeps the argument focused on the issue of the dirty dishes because the fusionist believes the problem is that the other person doesn’t see or doesn’t believe about the dishes issue, with the same feeling, for the same reasons, and with the same intensity, as she does. And when that happens, a fusionist believes her emotional connection is threatened, so she gets more upset. She believes she needs the other person to see things the way she does (in effect, that she’s right) in order to feel emotionally connected.
A sugaring woman in the third position doesn’t do this. Instead of focusing on the content level, she focuses on the process level. The process level is the interplay of presenting and responding to each other’s emotional needs. By this strategy, this is how emotional attachment happens: Not because the two people agree on the content level, but because they know the other will reliably respond lovingly to their emotional needs.
What does this look like in real life? The process starts when someone says to the other either a criticism or complaint. Then the other responds using the loving responsiveness strategy. The reliable loving responsiveness strategy has four steps.
- Step one: Identify. Help the other person identify their own feeling and realize that you are paying attention to their feelings. For example, “While you were talking about the dirty dishes, you’re frowning pretty hard. So I was wondering, ‘Are you angry?’” “When you were saying I suck because I left dirty dishes in the sink, you looked really sad. Are you feeling disappointed or hurt about this?”
- The other person, the criticizer, if less skilled, will recite again the events that led up to the moment, and if so what they’re trying to say is “Yes, and don’t my feelings make sense given what lead up to this moment?”
- If the other person is more skilled, he/she won’t use event-review, but will move straight into elaborating on their feelings, “Yes, I’m really pissed off. This keeps happening again and again and I’m tired of it.” There might be a few cycles of this before the step two.
- Step two: Validate. To validate does not mean to agree with the other person’s account of events or to their view about anything; it just means one acknowledges it makes sense why the other person feels that way, given where they’re coming from. Example, “Yeah, I can tell this is really important to you. So of course you’re pissed off about it.” Or, “Yea, when this keeps happening over and over again, you lose hope. I can see why you feel disappointed or hopeless about this.”
- Note: Step two only works if you do step one. If you skip step one, then step two comes across as being dismissive and invalidating.
- As long as the other person is venting or wants to describe what they’re feeling, keep validating. Eventually you’ll see the tension drain out of the other person. Then it’s time for step three.
- Step three: Soothe. The other person has just opened up by saying he/she feels angry, sad, hopeless, etc. And unless they’re being manipulative, then they are genuinely feeling miserable. Remember the reason the two of you are having this conversation in the first place is because y’all’s relationship matters to both of you; the conflict was a doomed attempt to connect. So what this person realy wants is connection, and you give it by soothing. We adults have the same nervous system as infants, so the same things work: hold or squeeze gently, or stroke slowly, or rock a bit. Pat, pat, pat. Lovingly.
- Step four: Give them hope. The next thing you say is supposed to assure him/her that they can count on you to respond just this way, lovingly, next time too. (That’s what “reliable” refers to.) Say, “I’m glad we talked like this. I feel closer when we talk like this.”
This works, because more important than trying to solve all the conflicts in your relationship at the content level is having such wonderful emotional connection that even though there are unresolvable issues, the relationship is worth it; the relationship is that rewarding, that full of love. If emotional needs are getting met, then the content level of the conflict is so much easier to resolve because it is so much less important.
And notice this: In the reliable loving responsiveness strategy, no one had to agree with anyone’s account of why the conflict happened, or feel the same way about the same things for the same reason. Disagreement and individuation aren’t perceived as threats to emotional connection. So in a family which uses reliable loving responsiveness strategy, if a woman tells them she wants to do sugar, or something else they don’t want her to do, no familial crisis happens. She tells them; they have feelings about it; they tell her in the knowledge she will reliably and lovingly respond to their feelings (maybe they’re scared she won’t be safe; maybe they’re scared this choice means they’ve been bad parents). The focus of the conversation won’t be on the content of whether they agree with her decision. It will focus on the exchange of and support for everyone’s emotional needs to be understood, validated, soothed and assured of connection.
Finally, the reader might be thinking, doing this reliable loving responsive strategy, when the other person is fusionist and upset, is more simply said than done. Yes. True. And a good psychologist can show you the way.