In 2014, we explored examples of how interpersonal upsets can regularly occur between and among our friends, spouses, family members, in-laws, and co-workers. Although these upsets are something we all experience, we often have no idea how they occur, much less how to untangle them. To start off 2015, we’ll track a single, initial upset to its eventual resolution within a series of four blog posts, focusing on the complexities of each step in the example and how they manifest within one’s own self and among others.

Tim and Barb, married for seven years, attended a big party and were looking forward to a fun evening together. As soon as they arrived, Tim started downing cocktails and ended up getting very drunk. Later in the evening, Barb turned a corner only to discover him with his arms around another woman. Feeling completely betrayed and unbelievably angry, she immediately left the party and told Tim not to come home. Over the next few days, horrified by his actions and really frightened by Barb’s anger, Tim begged her to attend a couple’s therapy session in order to hear him out. She finally agreed, and Tim scheduled an appointment.

When they arrived at my office, both Tim’s remorse and Barb’s anger were palpable. Tim expressed how regretful he was for his behavior and for hurting her so deeply. Barb confronted him about his pattern of drinking to blow off steam and how he uses getting drunk as an excuse to act out inappropriately. He acknowledged that he loses track of himself when he drinks, and yet felt certain his behavior wasn’t a reflection on her or their marriage. Barb disagreed, adding that she wasn’t sure she could get over his infidelity, regardless of his perspective. Tim’s pledge to repair the damage he caused and his admission that he avoids sharing his feelings openly struck a chord with her. She was emotionally moved by Tim’s openness and newfound willingness to communicate with her, even though she was still feeling very vulnerable and unsure as to whether she’d be able to trust him again. She also expressed concern that maybe their marriage wasn’t as good as she thought it was.

Clinical Considerations
Let’s begin the New Year by exploring a helpful model for understanding what is going on and what is needed to help when things go wrong. “The 4 R’s” are Rupture, Regression, Repair, and Resolution. It is important to realize how getting thrown off balance by an unexpected incident or event (Rupture) can set off a chain reaction of feelings. Barb and Tim have experienced a rupture. In the next blog we will explore Regression - the chain reaction of responses and the disruptive feelings that unfold, often out of one’s conscious awareness. Then in the following blog entries the helpful tools in “the 4 R’s,” Repair and Resolution, will be described. They are the conscious, proactive steps in this model that support secure connections and relationship regulation.

Let’s take a closer look at Barb and Tim’s rupture and identify some of the spontaneous startle events that occurred for each of them. Barb was startled by the sight of Tim’s flirtatious connection with another woman. Tim was startled by Barb’s departure and directive he not to come home. Barb was startled to realize her marriage might not be all that she thought it was.

Ruptures are common in relationships, gay or straight, personal or work-related. Barb and Tim are an example of a rupture which can severely threaten any relationship if not resolved appropriately. Not all ruptures and startle responses are as extreme as Barb and Tim’s and yet their situation, when broken down, helps identify the defining elements of a rupture: an unexpected incident, a spontaneous primitive startle response, and an emotional reaction (from mild to severe). Minor ruptures happen all the time in daily life, with no intention to offend, and these are mostly mild and easy to manage. Yet many people tend to move away from upsetting situations - either by avoiding them completely or by minimizing them and hoping they will blow over. Such avoidance can ultimately cause long-standing difficulties in one’s relationships.

Consider how the various ways one might experience a rupture could correspond to iconic dysfunctional stances identified in the victim/persecutor/rescuer paradigm. In the victim role, one is filled with hurt feelings, disappointment and fear; in the persecutor role one might react first with feelings of anger, exasperation and displeasure that later give way to shame, remorse, and guilt; and in the rescuer role, one feels overwhelmed and wants only to make everything okay again. Learning to recognize and manage one’s typical response to a rupture can allow us to modify the range of disruptive reactions that occur when startled by a disturbing incident or event.  

Subscribe now to follow Barb and Tim as their work continues through the 4 R’s’ in the coming months.