Move from Correcting to Protecting

This post is part of my Vital Skills series, a collection of 10 non-negotiable practices we absolutely must hone if we are to craft the loving relationships we truly desire. The word ‘vital’ has been used here intentionally for its dual significance; these skills are not only essential, they are life-giving. The time and energy invested in developing these habits is paid back immeasurably in the connection and aliveness we share with our partners as a result.

Yesterday, I introduced the idea of binocular vision, which Steven Stosny and Pat Love define as the conscious effort to consider our partners’ point of view. Binocular vision sets the stage for a radically new way of handling conflict, what I refer to as a shift from “Correcting to Protecting.” Using this skill, we intentionally move ourselves out of the self-protective stances of control or withdrawal and into a heartspace where we can sense our partners’ attachment distress and take purposeful steps to alleviate it. Because it often goes against every one of our instincts, developing even a rudimentary version of this reflex has the power to completely transform our relationships.

Binocular vision is a prerequisite for the skill of protecting because in order to protect our partners, we have to know when they are in distress. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time our partners are in distress, we are, too! When we are hurt or angry, it is very easy to feel what was “done to us,” and much harder to see that our partner is in pain as well. Thus, our first impulse is not to protect them, but to correct them:

  • Don’t feel that way…
  • Don’t be like that…
  • You ought to…
  • You always…
  • You never…
  • Why do you…
  • When you should be…
  • I hate when you…
  • Grown men don’t…
  • Women aren’t supposed to…
  • A person your age doesn’t…
  • I can’t believe you would…

A monocular perspective keeps us bound up in our own hurt and drives the anxious need to correct our partners so we can momentarily feel better. A binocular perspective allows us to hold both our partners’ and our own perspective so that we can tend to the emotional bond that forms the foundation of our relationships.

Soothing the Primal Panic

If we are going to move from the shortsighted impulse to correct our partners and into the deliberate choice to protect them, we need to know what, exactly, is threatening them. While at times it seems like just about anything can set off a blow-up, the real culprit is not sex, money, parenting, or any of the other countless issues that seem to trip us up. It is the primal panic.

Emotions theorist Jaak Panksepp coined the term “primal panic” to refer to the intense anxiety we experience in the face of separation from a key attachment figure. This response includes a jolt of the stress hormone cortisol and other physiological responses that mobilize us to seek out our beloveds and reestablish a sense of safety. The need for safe emotional connection with precious few loved ones is hardwired by millions of years of evolution, which explains why it is so compelling — and why there is no substitute for a reassuring lover. Because all human relationships follow the dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair, we cannot suppose to love someone without also confronting the  primal panic.

Sue Johnson reminds us that “love is our bulwark, designed to provide emotional protection so that we can deal with the ups and downs of existence.” Emotional safety is (or should be) the standard operating procedure in relationships. The potential loss of the loving relationship and the emotional safety it provides is ultimately what sends us into primal panic. The tripwire for primal panic is a felt-sense of disconnection.

And here is the rub:

While the experience of primal panic is universal, what triggers it is likely different for each of you. 

This is why developing binocular vision is so important.

If we try to understand our partners’ vulnerabilities strictly through our own perspective, we will ultimately dismiss their attachment cries and protests against disconnection as nonsensical. Our lack of response only serves to fan the flames of the primal panic.

It’s so important as to merit repeating:

The attachment cry can only be quieted by a lover moving closer and offering reassurance.

There. Is. No. Substitute.

Without this reassurance, the blow up may calm down, but the struggle will go on. Our partners WILL regain composure, but the next cry will be even more frantic. And if, ultimately, the answer to the question of “Will you come when I call?” is “No,” our partners will grieve what they are not getting. 

Because our partners’ tripwires are usually different from our own, their behaviors in these moments tend look insane to us. If we believe our partner is acting crazy, it’s a good bet that we are using monocular vision. It is important to realize that the reason these behaviors look so desperate and out of control is that they are. The emotional needs informing them are the most powerful on the planet.  If we continue to ignore the emotional needs focusing instead on how ridiculous we feel the behavior is, we will get more of the same. One of the worst things that we do in our relationships is make our partners crazy and then hate them for it.

Notice one example of the shift:

“My partner is acting immature.” → “They shouldn’t act that way.” → Correcting

“My partner is feeling disconnected.” → “I don’t want them to feel that way.” → Protecting

It takes a great deal of perspective to see how the current state of disconnection feeds into the behaviors we don’t like, and to make the conscious decision to move towards our partners in spite of them. It’s also humbling to realize that our attachment protests look equally outrageous from the other perspective! Again, the attachment cry cannot be quieted through rationalization or negotiation, only by moving towards our partners to address the underlying need for closeness.

If we are intentional about our efforts, protecting our partner becomes part of our value system. Values are much more stable than feelings and often serve as a more reliable guide for action.  Later in this series, I’ll talk more about using our relationships to recondition our core values.

Quick Tips

Scan for the “Two D’s”

Sue Johnson notes that our raw spots are often exposed through one or both of the “Two D’s” — deprivation or desertion. Is it possible that your partner feels deprived of something, such as attention, validation, or acceptance? Are they feeling secondary or unimportant? If you can identify what has tripped them up, you’re in a good spot to respond to it.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like our partners want something monumental from us. Part of the reason we feel this way is because when the primal panic kicks in, we’re all liable to begin making objectively unreasonable demands. More often than not, however, there is something relatively low-cost that we can offer to soothe their distress. Terry Real calls these “high-yield investments.” Learn to scan for the reasonable request and practice smart generosity by giving things that are easy to give but mean a lot to your partner.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Pat Love emphasizes the power of nonverbal connection: “Everyone—men, women, myself included—needs to learn that before we can communicate with words, we need to connect nonverbally. We can do that in simple ways, through touch, sex, doing things together. The deepest moments of intimacy occur when you’re not talking.”

Steven Stosny echoes this sentiment: “We need to stop trying to assess the bonding verbally and instead let the words come out of the bonding.” He goes on to say that “when couples feel connected, men want to talk more and women need to talk less, so they meet somewhere in the middle.” Talk about a win/win.

Hang in there

When we protect our partners, we don’t always get the sudden melting we hope for, but our efforts are appreciated even if they cannot be felt in the moment. I’ve seen many a repair get off track because one partner says “Well I tried, and it didn’t seem to matter to you!” There is little value in protecting if you go right back to attack just because you didn’t get the response you hoped for.

Ideally, our partners will respond to our efforts in the moment, but I don’t have to tell you that things are not always ideal. Especially if the level of felt safety is low, it may take some time for our partners to “buy in.” With consistent effort, the relationship will begin to feel safer and more secure, and the lag time between repair efforts will decrease.



Here’s hoping the New Year brings renewed safety and security for you and yours.



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