In 1958, Psychologist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin – Madison had a question. Are parents ruining their children by coddling them (Spare the rod and spoil the child) or are humans born with a need for comfort? Harry wanted to know how intrinsic is the need for comfort. While now controversial, he tested this idea on rhesus monkeys by separating them from their mothers at birth and placing the babies in cages with either a Comfort Mother – a fake mother covered in soft cloth – or a Food Mother – a cold wire mother replica with a bottle of milk. His experiment found that the babies chose the comfort mother over the food mother.
The Harlow monkey experiment would launch decades of researchers to continue to fill in the blanks around comfort – how it develops, its importance and what happens when it’s lacking. The area of research, called attachment, plays a pivotal role in why couples fight and is in our #2 spot – Comfort Choices.
Most people naturally move toward things that are comfortable and away from things that uncomfortable. I hate stretching, it causes immediate discomfort. I naturally tend to avoid it even at the risk of injury or a greater pain later after playing a sport. Now notice I chose comfort by not stretching. I did not “choose” the pain of the injury which came later. Given a choice, we tend to choose comfort even though it may result in a greater unchosen uncomfortable outcome later on.
A child with a securely attached relationship with primary caregiver (close comfort and emotional attunement) will feel more comfortable, as an adult, with emotional vulnerability.
In conflict couples move toward the comfortable choice:
A partner will distance themselves relationally and emotionally from their mate in order to protect their pain when it is the most comfortable option because they are not able to find comfort in themselves and/or experience it from their partner through the resolution of their conflict. This distancing comfort choice is often witnessed as either shut down, anger or compliance.
So how can conflict continue if it’s uncomfortable?? Because it is not the least uncomfortable choice.
Like stretching versus the sports injury, many couples in conflict avoid the pain of their vulnerability and the partner’s pain because it’s the most uncomfortable of an array of uncomfortable options. What is comfortable for conflicted couples is defending their position and protecting their emotional pain; even though this avoidance often produces an injury – a worse pain later – the pain of disconnection.
By working with an IFS therapist like Kimberly Lee, couples change the uncomfortable to comfortable through a re-experiencing or re-enactment of the conflict they have in their daily lives.