How to turn toward your partner when they’re turning away

Using Polyvgal Theory to Improve Your Love

“What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

This thought kept coming back in various forms for my client. It was her worst fear, and her anxiety was roiling because her partner seemed to be withdrawing. Her anxiety made sense. It was her adaptive brain doing a great job trying to keep her safe.

An invitation to pause,

slow down, and deliberately

bolster shared safety.

This will help.

 This fear is so common, so normal, so beautiful really because it was about her desire for connection in spite of her history. After all, she had a lot of experiences feeling unwanted.

And when we’ve felt unwanted—when we’ve been rejected or abandoned—it feels a lot safer to throw up a barrier and keep someone from getting too close. It feels safer not to connect to people or rely on the people in our lives. It feels safer to hide our feelings. It feels safer not to trust. In fact, the fact that she did this might be why he pulled away.

That’s the upside to not letting people in . . . we’ll feel safer in our loneliness. At least they can’t hurt us.

But it’s a hollow safety.

It keeps us from accessing real safety. Deep safety. The safety of being truly seen and recognized and loved, in our mess and in our glory.

Turns out, we’re mammals. And without relationships of love and trust, we literally can’t access our full humanity or our full potential. This is science.

Emotional safety is the fastest route to joy, creativity, and connection. This is how we thrive.

Without emotional safety, we can’t access joy, connection, or our full creativity. We live a diminished life.

This happened years ago, and my client was a hero because she was in the deep work of honoring her history, of tending to her clutching anxiety and listening to its message. Was her reaction a pattern based on her history? Or was she really in an unsafe relationship? Either thing might have been true. She had to suss it out.

. . .

This is the latest science on happiness and connection and being in flow. It’s called Polyvagal Theory. A few tidbits . . . 

When our Social Engagement System is offline, our ear muscles stop listening for human vocal tones and instead monitor for threats, like the low tones of a predator or footsteps behind us. We literally miss what people say. The muscles in the top of our faces are flat. Our voices don’t modulate. We have trouble with eye-contact.

But when our Social Engagement System is activated, we thrive. We absolutely thrive. The muscles in our ears attune to the higher vocal tones of human voices. Our voices have prosody (imagine a folk song or a lullaby). Our facial muscles and the muscles around our eyes are soft and smiling. Our heart rate slows. And our breathing becomes deeper, our out breath longer. We can turn toward each other and be physically closer. We can love.

And we can get to this state with meditation or Pranayama yoga or singing, but the fastest way to access our Social Engagement System is by co-regulating.

It is in the eyes of someone who is looking at us with love. It is in the voice of someone who is speaking tenderly. It is in the gentle touch of our hands together. It is in the presence of someone listening to us attentively. It is when we’re safe enough that our breathing slows, and our heart beat begins to sync with their heart beat (a real phenomenon). And its when we offer these same gifts to others.

Untitled design

We’re mammals. Co-regulation is the key to creating safety. Safety is the key to thriving.

. . .

My client decided to imagine a different question.

“What if I knew he couldn’t resist me?”

This made her grin and roll her eyes.

It was the opposite of what her anxiety has been screaming. She was really asking, “What if I knew I was safe? Who would I be in this relationship if I felt secure? What would I offer my partner? What would I offer myself?”

Now this was a brave question because it was a question about turning toward. What would happen if she felt whole enough to turn toward her partner and expect a positive response?

Just imagining this is a powerful neural exercise. It’s a very different energy. The conversation she imagined having with him became playful and loving, instead of charged with the expectation of disappointment.

It reminds me of the movie I Feel Pretty where Amy Schumer plays a woman who thinks she’s ugly until a brain injury makes her believe she looks like a goddess. When she trusts her lovability, her life fills with people who love her.

My client settled into a peaceful place. “If I knew he couldn’t resist me, I would . . . “ do this and that and say this.

Let me tell you folks, if she had the conversation she imagined, her partner would be walking on Cloud 9. And then she giggled. Her social engagement system was coming back online. Her ability to connect. Her ability to access joy. Her ability to identify with the truth of her enoughness.

She wanted to turn toward him, to believe it was possible he’d turn toward her too. To make an invitation.

And then her anxiety leapt back in.

“I don’t know if I can do it. It sounds so risky,” she said. “I feel so vulnerable. What if he doesn’t respond? It would be awful.”

She was tempted to turn back into the despair she felt before. And it was true. It would have been awful. She would have been devastated if she turned toward him and held her hand out and he turned away again.

It is so painful to be rejected. And the truth is, she was already experiencing that disconnection because she was already believing he didn’t want her and distancing from him. It was already painful.

It was a risk, but it was a risk that gave her love a chance.

Because the truth is she is infinitely safe. Even if that relationship didn’t last, she is a loveable, exquisite being. And over time I watched her settle into that truth and invite nurturing relationships into her life that reflected it.

She was (in the words of Martha Beck) learning to believe the truth, no matter what fear said.

She took a deep breath and decided to trust the peace at her center, the playful place. To give it a go.

When she came back to tell me what happened, she was euphoric. The exact results she was almost too afraid to hope for appeared, only BETTER.

She had the conversation she imagined, and his response was so enthusiastic, so affirmative. They co-regulated together, like happy, connected mammals.

It didn’t have to happen this way. And it would have never happened if she hadn’t let down her guard, given him the benefit of the doubt, and by so doing given their love a chance to deepen.

Being in conversation with someone, whether friend or lover, is an intentional act. It’s an ongoing invitation.

When our intention is to create a loving conversation, our lives become about finding the courage to turn toward each other. And when we act on the safety we intend to create (instead of acting from our worries), we make room for the love that we are to unfold and fill our lives.

When our intention is to create a loving conversation, our lives become about finding the courage to turn toward each other.

It feels like magic because turning toward another is always ultimately about turning toward ourselves.

. . . 

If this message resonates for you, and you want to develop more skill-practice in attachment-based repair, join us on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/officialstorykeeper/ for occasional lives and lots of encouragement. 

For more in depth training and to dive deep into the pursue and withdraw cycle, join our couple’s program:  BUILDING A LASTING CONNECTION.

“What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

This thought kept coming back in various forms for my client. It was her worst fear, and her anxiety was roiling because her partner seemed to be withdrawing. Her anxiety made sense. It was her adaptive brain doing a great job trying to keep her safe.  

An invitation to pause,

slow down, and deliberately

bolster shared safety.

This will help.

This fear is so common, so normal, so beautiful really because it was about her desire for connection in spite of her history. After all, she had a lot of experiences feeling unwanted.

And when we’ve felt unwanted—when we’ve been rejected or abandoned—it feels a lot safer to throw up a barrier and keep someone from getting too close. It feels safer not to connect to people or rely on the people in our lives. It feels safer to hide our feelings. It feels safer not to trust. In fact, the fact that she did this might be why he pulled away.

That’s the upside to not letting people in . . . we’ll feel safer in our loneliness. At least they can’t hurt us.

But it’s a hollow safety.

It keeps us from accessing real safety. Deep safety.

Emotional safety is the fastest route to joy, creativity, and connection. This is how we thrive.

The safety of being truly seen and recognized and loved, in our mess and in our glory.

Turns out, we’re mammals. And without relationships of love and trust, we literally can’t access our full humanity or our full potential. This is science.

Without emotional safety, we can’t access joy, connection, or our full creativity. We live a diminished life.

This happened years ago, and my client was a hero because she was in the deep work of honoring her history, of tending to her clutching anxiety and listening to its message. Was her reaction a pattern based on her history? Or was she really in an unsafe relationship? Either thing might have been true. She had to suss it out.

. . .

This is the latest science on happiness and connection and being in flow. It’s called Polyvagal Theory. A few tidbits . . . 

When our Social Engagement System is offline, our ear muscles stop listening for human vocal tones and instead monitor for threats, like the low tones of a predator or footsteps behind us. We literally miss what people say. The muscles in the top of our faces are flat. Our voices don’t modulate. We have trouble with eye-contact.

But when our Social Engagement System is activated, we thrive. We absolutely thrive. The muscles in our ears attune to the higher vocal tones of human voices. Our voices have prosody (imagine a folk song or a lullaby). Our facial muscles and the muscles around our eyes are soft and smiling. Our heart rate slows. And our breathing becomes deeper, our out breath longer. We can turn toward each other and be physically closer. We can love.

And we can get to this state with meditation or Pranayama yoga or singing, but the fastest way to access our Social Engagement System is by co-regulating.

It is in the eyes of someone who is looking at us with love. It is in the voice of someone who is speaking tenderly. It is in the gentle touch of our hands together. It is in the presence of someone listening to us attentively. It is when we’re safe enough that our breathing slows, and our heart beat begins to sync with their heart beat (a real phenomenon). And its when we offer these same gifts to others.

Untitled design

We’re mammals. Co-regulation is the key to creating safety. Safety is the key to thriving.

. . .

My client decided to imagine a different question.

“What if I knew he couldn’t resist me?”

This made her grin and roll her eyes.

It was the opposite of what her anxiety has been screaming. She was really asking, “What if I knew I was safe? Who would I be in this relationship if I felt secure? What would I offer my partner? What would I offer myself?”

Now this was a brave question because it was a question about turning toward. What would happen if she felt whole enough to turn toward her partner and expect a positive response?

Just imagining this is a powerful neural exercise. It’s a very different energy. The conversation she imagined having with him became playful and loving, instead of charged with the expectation of disappointment.

It reminds me of the movie I Feel Pretty where Amy Schumer plays a woman who thinks she’s ugly until a brain injury makes her believe she looks like a goddess. When she trusts her lovability, her life fills with people who love her.

My client settled into a peaceful place. “If I knew he couldn’t resist me, I would . . . “ do this and that and say this.

Let me tell you folks, if she had the conversation she imagined, her partner would be walking on Cloud 9. And then she giggled. Her social engagement system was coming back online. Her ability to connect. Her ability to access joy. Her ability to identify with the truth of her enoughness.

She wanted to turn toward him, to believe it was possible he’d turn toward her too. To make an invitation.

And then her anxiety leapt back in.

“I don’t know if I can do it. It sounds so risky,” she said. “I feel so vulnerable. What if he doesn’t respond? It would be awful.”

She was tempted to turn back into the despair she felt before. And it was true. It would have been awful. She would have been devastated if she turned toward him and held her hand out and he turned away again.

It is so painful to be rejected. And the truth is, she was already experiencing that disconnection because she was already believing he didn’t want her and distancing from him. It was already painful.

It was a risk, but it was a risk that gave her love a chance.

Because the truth is she is infinitely safe. Even if that relationship didn’t last, she is a loveable, exquisite being. And over time I watched her settle into that truth and invite nurturing relationships into her life that reflected it.

She was (in the words of Martha Beck) learning to believe the truth, no matter what fear said.

She took a deep breath and decided to trust the peace at her center, the playful place. To give it a go.

When she came back to tell me what happened, she was euphoric. The exact results she was almost too afraid to hope for appeared, only BETTER.

She had the conversation she imagined, and his response was so enthusiastic, so affirmative. They co-regulated together, like happy, connected mammals.

It didn’t have to happen this way. And it would have never happened if she hadn’t let down her guard, given him the benefit of the doubt, and by so doing given their love a chance to deepen.

Being in conversation with someone, whether friend or lover, is an intentional act. It’s an ongoing invitation.

When our intention is to create a loving conversation, our lives become about finding the courage to turn toward each other.

When our intention is to create a loving conversation, our lives become about finding the courage to turn toward each other. And when we act on the safety we intend to create (instead of acting from our worries), we make room for the love that we are to unfold and fill our lives.

It feels like magic because turning toward another is always ultimately about turning toward ourselves.

. . . 

If this message resonates for you, and you want to develop more skill-practice in attachment-based repair, join us on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/officialstorykeeper/ for occasional lives and lots of encouragement. 

For more in depth training and to dive deep into the pursue and withdraw cycle, join our couple’s program:  BUILDING A LASTING CONNECTION.

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