When your partner hurts you, you usually know what it was they did that upset you. But do you always know why that action is so upsetting? No, at least not according to Dr. Sue Johnson in her book Hold Me Tight. Conversation Two of Hold Me Tight explores the issue of “raw spots,” or sensitive areas created during loving relationships that cause us to lash out, shut down, or run away whenever they’re “rubbed.”
How the Past Hurts Us
About halfway through Disney’s The Lion King, Simba is at a crossroads. His old friend Nala has begged him to come back and save the starving pride by taking his place as king of Pride Rock. Simba refuses because he doesn’t think he’s worthy of the position. His connection to his father’s death haunts him, and he is too ashamed to return home. However, after a conversation with the shaman baboon Rafiki, he changes his mind.
Simba: I know what I have to do. But going back means I’ll have to face my past. I’ve been running from it for so long.
[Rafiki hits Simba on the head with his stick]
Simba: Ow! Jeez, what was that for?
Rafiki: It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.
Simba: Yeah, but it still hurts.
Rafiki: Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.*
Rafiki’s parting line sums up Johnson’s views on “raw spots” in her book Hold Me Tight. Raw spots are how the past wounds you now. In the present, they’re triggered whenever you feel you cannot emotionally access your partner for comfort or attention, or when you feel emotionally abandoned. (Johnson 113)
Why Are You Freaking Out?
Consider Tammy and Ron. Ron likes to tell a lot of stories about high school. He was a big-time athlete in multiple sports, dated the cheerleader, and enjoys reliving his “glory days.” However, each time he begins a story, Tammy freezes up or leaves the room. She fears Ron will eventually begin talking about his high school sweetheart, which dredges up memories of the affair they are working to put behind them. Ron’s tales of high school victory are Tammy’s “raw spot.”
Like most people, Tammy doesn’t even realize her raw spot’s been rubbed. “We don’t even recognize that we have raw spots. We are only aware of our secondary reaction to the irritation– defensively numbing out and shutting down, or reactively lashing out in anger.” (Johnson 101) This is because raw spots are often created without our realizing. They can begin in childhood, created by a critical parent, or later by a neglectful romantic partner. Either the way, their negative behavior conditioned you to anticipate certain actions when given a particular cue. In this instance, that Ron dated such an attractive girl in high school reminds Tammy of the woman he cheated on her with, and makes her afraid he will be unfaithful again.
However, to best determine how to address your raw spots, you must become vulnerable– a “weakness” shunned by most adults, as Johnson says. (110) As Tammy opened up in counseling, she began discussing how her mother bemoaned her “plain” daughter, and compared her to other girls who competed in their small town beauty pageants. Growing up, Tammy watched the prettier, popular girls get asked to dances while she stayed home. Now, every time Ron mentions the high school cheerleader girlfriend who stays forever youthful in his mind, Tammy shuts down, feeling she could never compete.
The counselor invited Tammy to think about what she experienced physically and emotionally the last time her raw spot was rubbed.
“I wanted to run. I felt like I couldn’t possible stay in that room,” she recalled.
“What were you thinking?” the counselor asked her.
“That I’m not pretty enough for him, and all the people listening to him must be wondering why in the world a hotshot like him ever settled for me,” she said.
As Tammy demonstrated, raw spot triggering begins with a physical reaction, transitions to a mental process, and finishes with the person preparing for the next move– in Tammy’s case, leaving the room. (Johnson 106)
Sharing With Your Partner
The best way to heal raw spots is by addressing them with your partner, Johnson says. Once you begin to talk about your feelings, accept that they’re normal, and understand why you’re experiencing them, they often become easier to confront. You must also remember while addressing your partner’s raw spots that just because you think your behavior isn’t a big deal doesn’t mean it’s not hurtful to your partner. Do not take the attitude that they should just “get over it.” This is similar to the situation in Romans 14, when Paul had to remind the believers that it was OK that people had different “rules” (such as eating meat sacrificed to idols or choosing to abstain). It wasn’t their place to legalistically dictate such insignificant matters. You don’t get to decide whether your partner has a right to be hurt by your behavior.
Talking about things your partner does that upset you can make them easier to analyze and may even take the edge off. Talking about them does not make them go away, but it’s a start. After Tammy finished, Ron admitted he had no idea his stories upset Tammy. He’d been working hard to regain her trust after his infidelity, and he didn’t want to jeopardize that. He usually sat quietly while she talked. She came so close to leaving him during the affair that he was terrified she’d finally decide to go through with it if she got upset enough. However, his reluctance to constructively contribute to the discussion wasn’t helpful. “Generally in love, sharing even negative emotions, provided they don’t get out of hand, is more useful than emotional absence. Lack of response just fires up the primal panic of the other partner.” (Johnson 115)
To guide Tammy and Ron’s discussion, the therapist suggested they both think of a time when they told their partner they’d been hurt, and the partner responded in a way that made them feel close. The counselor asked them to remember what their partner did that made them feel supported. After, the therapist asked them to think about a time they’d gotten in a fight. What did they do during the fight? Why do they think they reacted that way? Was it something they’d started doing during a past relationship to get a loved one’s attention or to diminish that their partner was rejecting them?
As the counselor guided Tammy and Ron into a discussion about their emotional vulnerabilities, he asked both of them (without blaming each other) to think about a time their partner did something that left them overwhelmed by insecurity. “That time I left the party during one of your stories and spent the rest of the evening in the car. It was like you didn’t even care I was upset,” Tammy said.
“I wondered why you’d left. But I was so afraid of causing a fight, I didn’t want to ask,” Ron replied. The counselor advises them to use this situation as a guide for future instances of vulnerability. Instead of allowing hurt feelings to fester, confront them without lashing out at each other. This is the only way to discover each other’s raw spots, and to figure out how to avoid/heal them.
Dealing with raw spots is difficult because you have to acknowledge your own vulnerability and be reminded that your partner cannot actually read your mind, which leads them to sometimes hurt you. But, as you are reminded in 2 Corinthians and Colossians, growth is possible, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come… seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Colossians 3:9-10 ESV) Remember to seek the Lord as individuals and as a couple, because he can help you overcome your flaws.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16 ESV)
*Dialog taken from The Lion King’s imdb.com page
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Stressed female” by David Castillo Dominici
“Couple Sitting Of The Couch Having Problems In Their Relationshi” by David Castillo Dominici
“Happy Couple Sharing Red Wine” by imagerymajestic