We easily sense when we feel disconnected in our relationships. But it’s less obvious to decipher why.
For that matter, when we say “disconnected,” we usually mean we crave belongingness and security. We want to feel lovable and capable. Significant to someone. So the first question is why then can’t we let our guards down to let it in?
Disconnected, Meet Your Central Nervous System
Like it or not, our central nervous systems are wired to give our fears and negative filters priority attention. After all, our physical survival used to depend upon it. We can’t risk thinking something is a purring kitten when it might turn out to be a man-eating tiger.
Or can we?
Tigers aren’t really in our lives, yet we still perceive everyday threats by others as if they are. Take for instance, a spouse’s incidental dismissiveness — along with all the other ways we accidentally reject each other. These can trigger our negative emotions and, in turn, our defensiveness.
We go into survival-mode. It’s not our natural inclination to observe and advise ourselves in action, like an “air-traffic control tower”. It takes practice to do so. And, oops, we get less of what we seek. Less connection.
Our Unconscious Modes Of Survival
Again said, we each have a primal, biological need to feel secure, lovable and capable. And, maybe you’re not into hearing all the different renditions of how we play out our bids for power, affection and recognition. But here are two of the most common threats that quickly get us worked up:
(1) Fear of isolation and deprivation
(2) Fear of failure and inadequacy
Fear of Isolation and Deprivation Gets You Disconnected
We are primed to react physiologically to any hint of isolation and deprivation. As an example, think of cavemen days when the female nursed the young in the hut while the male kept watch out on the nearby bluff. If the male was not keeping watch nearby, the females realized the threat of becoming prey to dangerous predators.
Maybe early tribe scenarios don’t resonate with you. It’s not like this essay is written as hotly as a Game Of Thrones episode, though it is why we love watching the series. The dragons! But I digress.
Your Days In A Diaper
So if early tribe scenarios aren’t convincing, there’s always the basic fact that, within the first years of your life, you needed another to feed you and protect you. If they neglected you, you would sense the danger of failing to thrive. To gain care and attention, you would cry.
Add into this, that most of the brain is fully wired by the age of three, before language, while you’re still in those diapers needing a bottle for survival and safety. So our earliest experiences wired our brains to be vigilant about survival — and vigilant about trust.
“Most of the brain is fully wired by the age of three, before language, while you’re still in those diapers needing a bottle for survival and safety.”
Perceived Failure and Inadequacy. Yeah, Disconnected Again.
Then we grew older. We learned how to walk and feed ourselves. The importance of capability. Our brains tuned into warding off failure and inadequacy. We also unconsciously took in how to remain admired by our families, well into our adolescent years, and on and on.
The Difference Between Men and Women’s Disconnected Reactions
Meanwhile back in the science lab, biological studies reveal that a man’s limbic system is primed to react earlier and more severely than a woman’s does to stressors and just plain stimulation.
When measuring the cortisol and adrenaline releases of babies at birth, the male baby’s is higher. Looked at another way, a male baby will need to look away from the mother’s gaze within minutes, or otherwise risk being too flooded with stress hormones. In contrast, a baby girl can gaze back at the mother for quite a long time.
Whatever the differences at birth, one’s socialization and microbiota play a big role. Male or female, a person’s reactivity can become either more pronounced in adulthood or less. Our reactions to perceived threats of isolation or inadequacy happen instantaneously.
Come to think of it, someone saying We need to talk can spike a heart rate, and further studies show that a person may be so disconnected from even one’s own physiological sensors that they’re not even aware their stress hormones are surging. Ever heard the words I’m fine!
I know, how is it that no one ever pointed this out to us before? All this while, we’ve been personalizing other people’s behavior towards us.
The Brain Outside Your Awareness
Nor has anyone really ever pointed out that 80% of our brains’ messaging is outside our awareness. You’ll seldom hear a person say, I feel ousted when you criticize my driving or I want to buy that Gucci bag so I can keep my fear of deprivation at bay.
When You Feel Disconnected, What’s Really Going On?
Though we like to think we are, we are not (initially) aware of why we are really doing what we’re doing — or saying what we are saying. Instead, when our primal needs are threatened, we get annoyed, angry, anxious or depressed. Then, we bicker. We demand. We withdraw. We act out. We rationalize. We intellectualize. We over-do. We tangle up all kinds of defense mechanisms.
At any given time, how does this typically play out? It often goes like this:
First: Fear of Isolation and Deprivation
A slight or major incident triggers one partner to unconsciously feel isolated or deprived of security. His or her reaction is to then get reassurances, though not so effectively.
Because the fear is largely outside of awareness, the efforts to regain connection come across as overbearing demands, nagging, criticizing or controlling. In fact, studies show that other’s will detect our slightly tense voices before we do — if we ever do. And they will react defensively in return. This notion leads us back to what was about to be illustrated anyway.
Then: Criticized & Judged
Hearing even a tone of curtness or irritation, the partner on the receiving end senses a threat, such as being underappreciated or misunderstood. As a matter of course, when we sense someones else’s disappointment or disapproval, we perceive it as an accusation of inadequacy.
And so: Fear of Failure and Inadequacy
Look out, because this implication of inadequacy causes our central nervous system to kick in. If we are not aware of this biology, not only will our cortisol and adrenaline kick in but it will flood us, with an elevated flare of Warning! Tiger & wolves!
By modern standards, there obviously isn’t any real tiger to fight off nor any pack of wolves to run from.
But, if we cannot release our stress hormones through such a legitimate fight or flight, we can only freeze. We stonewall, withdraw, shut down. And if we do attempt to fight, we raise our voices, speak rapidly, get aggressive, and maybe even say things we’ll regret. But, most often, we shut down.
Next: Shutting Down
The more someone shuts down, the more the other feels disconnected and isolated. And that’s right, you’ve got it: even more adrenaline and cortisol kick in.
At this point, most likely —unless someone gave us an earlier memo like this article— we are definitely not exiting the vicious cycle. For instance, we are not slowing down to open up and softly state how vulnerable we feel. That is, what it is deep down in us that we fear, Am I not lovable and significant?
Shot Down & Shut Down. Disconnected Accomplished.
But, wait. The demand-withdraw cycle is just getting started.
In fact, it’s typically so dicey, that the criticized partner begins to defend his or herself by also tossing criticism and accusations. Now, both partners start to stonewall.
Doesn’t even matter who started it, does it? Bottom line, more back and forth of judgment and stonewalling floods us with even more stress hormones. The dynamics get tense and, worse than disconnectedness, there’s eventually a pure kick-ass breakdown in the relationship.
Undeciphered. But definitely disconnected from what we really are seeking and craving. Instead, we’ve created a full onset habit of being shot down and shut down.
There it is: the cold cycle of demand-withdraw.
So, Here’s What You’re Brain Is Unconsciously Saying.
You probably don’t need an example of what your typical fights literally look like. So, let’s bring into awareness what we subconsciously are perhaps saying to ourselves. For ease of reading, let’s call the partners Devin and Jesse.
Devin: My partner is ignoring me. At the primal core, the brain asks: Are you really here for me? If you’d only _______, I would feel reassured, calm, loved, appreciated, grateful, supported…
Jesse: Oh, so I guess the way I love you isn’t good enough. I mean, are you here for me? And, if I do what you want, I am manipulated, taken for granted, exploited, angry, resentful, and still unappreciated…
Devin: Ha! Is that so?! Well, if you loved me, you wouldn’t think that way. You would want to do these things for me. Why wouldn’t you want to? And why do I even have to ask you?
Jesse: Grrr, you really don’t get me do you. It’s all about you. I mean, if you loved me, you wouldn’t insist I do this or do that. You would just love me for me. I can’t ever please you. It’s never enough for you, is it?
Both Devin and Taylor to themselves in silent disconnect: Why can’t you acknowledge how I’m feeling? Why can’t you see that I want your love? And that I do love you and am here for you. You know, I can’t read your mind, about what you really want from me.