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Auto-Correct: Our Different Responses to Distance in Relationships

Recently a friend and I had a heartfelt conversation via text during a busy week (yes, heartfelt conversations can be had via text!). At the end of our conversation, she responded with a final signature, “Thank you previous friend!! Xoxo”

Of course, I immediately knew that her phone’s auto-correct feature had assumed she meant “previous” instead of “precious” (one of her favorite words). It’s now a joke between us, often signing off with “previous friend.” I smile when I think back to that text and how in our own relationships we hear through the filter of our past experiences. I know my friend well enough to auto-correct it back to “precious” because that’s how she shows up 99% of the time in our relationship— loving, generous, and emotionally safe. She’s generally responsive, accessible when I need her, and emotionally engaged during deeper discussions. I believe I provide the same for her. Of course….she doesn’t live with me…

Sometimes it is the hardest to hear through the filter of love and concern when the people we are closest to speak to us. We must ask, are we guarded when they draw close, or desperate for them to notice us? How do we know if our relationship is emotionally safe? How we hear other’s communication and experience other people close to us is based on our past experiences in life. For example, how do we experience the people who were in charge of us growing up—were they responsive or unresponsive? Accessible or inaccessible? Engaged when needed or disengaged and nowhere to be found?). How do we know if our partner’s communication is really meant to hurt us or just what we hear through our “auto-correct experiences?”

Like our smartphones, which have a nifty auto-correct feature, our response to emotional communication depends on which auto-correct setting we are on. I believe there are four auto-correct features we can learn during childhood based on our experience of our primary caregivers as children. Are we previous(discarded, ignored, conditionally loved) or are we precious (attuned to, attended to, nurtured, unconditionally loved)?

Those with the avoidant auto-correct setting often experienced rejection, learning that they had to fend for themself. Although they generally feel worthy of love, they will connect very carefully with others. A person with this auto-correct setting receives emotional communication with distrust and often will appear detached, yet internally they will feel the same anxiousness their partner may outwardly show.

Those with the fearful auto-correct setting learn that others cannot be trusted and will inevitably hurt them. Although they crave closeness, they fear it--getting too close might cause their partner to abandon them if they saw their desperate need for closeness. This auto-correct setting welcomes emotional communication, but is skeptical and sure that their partner intends to hurt them.

Those with the anxious auto-correct setting experienced caregivers who withdrew their emotional support when they made a mistake. They learned that love was conditional. They auto correct emotional communication as unreliable and unpredictable and will often appear clingy and in constant need of reassurance (ah, this is my default auto-correct setting—see below).

Those with secure auto-correct setting experienced their caregivers as mostlyemotionally available when they needed them. Their caregivers were mostly accessible, mostly responsive, and regularly emotionally engaged. This auto correct setting receives emotional communication comfortably, does not fear abandonment, and can filter communication through the lens of safety. Much like the example of my colleague and friend’s text above, this person can ask for clarification of anything that might be construed as hurtful, and hear their partner’s communication through the lens of care and concern MOST OF THE TIME (important to note that we all get triggered now and then, even in securely connected relationships).

My husband and I celebrate 23 years of marriage this year. We’ve noticed our own default auto-correct settings. In the beginning, we both defaulted the anxious auto-correct setting which often led us to feel insecure, needing of reassurance, and fearful of abandonment. We are both highly functional—he a successful entrepreneur for 25+ years, and I therapist (and previous stay-at-home mom)—but when our insecurity gets triggered, functionality goes out the window. Then it became a matter of survival—do you love me? Is everything okay?....and the big one, “am I enough for you?” Although we connected anxiously at first, we’ve settled into a more secure setting (lots of therapy—let’s be real, this doesn’t happen like a fairytale). Our default anxious auto-correct setting rears its ugly head now and then but we are able to turn towards each other and find the reassurance we need: “Yes, I love you (even though you forgot to do the laundry and I have no underwear), “Yes, we are okay right now” (tomorrow may be a whole other story but we’ll replay this as many times as we need to) and “Yes, you are enough for me” (nothing funny about this one—just lots of warm fuzzy feelings).

No relationship communication is perfect all the time, but even without a learned secure auto-correct experience, partners can re-learn their auto-correct default, how they get triggered and stuck, and learn to create safe emotional connection when those attachment wounds get triggered (they will get triggered!), repairing previous hurt into precious healing.

Concepts loosely inspired by Safe Haven Marriage by Archibald & Morris-May. Auto-correct settings are the author’s alone and not reflective of the Safe Haven author’s views or material. For more about Kimberly (formerly Sandstrom) McNary, as well as how to create a safe connection in your relationship, please visit www.KimberlyMcNary.

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