Vital Skill #2: Move From Correcting to Protecting
Vital Skill #2: Move From Correcting to Protecting

Vital Skill #2: Move From Correcting to Protecting

In my last post, I introduced the idea of binocular vision, which Steven Stosny and Pat Love define as the conscious effort to consider our partners’ point of view. Binocular vision sets the stage for a radically new way of handling conflict, what I refer to as a shift from “Correcting to Protecting.”

Using this skill, we intentionally move ourselves out of the self-protective stances of control or withdrawal and into a heartspace where we can sense our partners’ attachment distress and take purposeful steps to alleviate it.

Because it often goes against every one of our instincts, developing even a rudimentary version of this reflex has the power to completely transform our relationships.

Binocular vision is a prerequisite for the skill of protecting because in order to protect our partners, we have to know when they are in distress. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time our partners are in distress, we are, too! When we are hurt or angry, it is very easy to feel what was “done to us,” and much harder to see that our partner is in pain as well. Thus, our first impulse is not to protect them, but to correct them:

Don’t feel that way…
Don’t be like that…
You ought to…
You always…
You never..
Why do you…
When you should be…
I hate when you…
Grown men don’t…
Women aren’t supposed to…
A person your age doesn’t…
I can’t believe you would…

A monocular perspective keeps us bound up in our own hurt and drives the anxious need to correct our partners so we can momentarily feel better. A binocular perspective allows us to hold both our partners’ and our own perspective so that we can tend to the emotional bond that forms the foundation of our relationships.

Soothing the Primal Panic

If we are going to move from the shortsighted impulse to correct our partners and into the deliberate choice to protect them, we need to know what, exactly, is threatening them. While at times it seems like just about anything can set off a blow-up, the real culprit is not sex, money, parenting, or any of the other countless issues that seem to trip us up. It is the primal panic.

Emotions theorist Jaak Panksepp coined the term “primal panic” to refer to the intense anxiety we experience in the face of separation from a key attachment figure. This response includes a jolt of the stress hormone cortisol and other physiological responses that mobilize us to seek out our beloveds and reestablish a sense of safety. The need for safe emotional connection with precious few loved ones is hardwired by millions of years of evolution, which explains why it is so compelling — and why there is no substitute for a reassuring lover. Because all human relationships follow the dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair, we cannot avoid dealing with the primal panic.

Sue Johnson reminds us that “love is our bulwark, designed to provide emotional protection so that we can deal with the ups and downs of existence.” Emotional safety is (or should be) the standard operating procedure in relationships. The potential loss of the loving relationship and the emotional safety it provides is ultimately what sends us into primal panic. The tripwire for primal panic is a felt-sense of disconnection.

And here is the rub:

While the experience of primal panic is distressing for both partners, what triggers it for each is unlikely to be the same.

This is why developing binocular vision is so important. If we try to understand our partners’ vulnerabilities strictly through our own perspective, we will ultimately dismiss their attachment cries and protests against disconnection as nonsensical. A lack of response just fans the flames of the primal panic.

It’s so important as to merit repeating:

The attachment cry can only be quieted by a lover moving closer and offering reassurance. There. Is. No. Substitute.

Without this reassurance, the blow up may calm down, but the struggle will go on. Our partners typically regain composure, but if it is not the result of us moving closer to them, or we do not repair, the next cry will be even more frantic. If, ultimately, the answer to the question of “Will you come when I call?” and “Do I matter?” is “No,” our partners will grieve what they are not getting. Protection is the deliberate move to sooth the primal panic and reduce emotional distance

The tricky part about attachment protests is that, because our partners’ tripwires are usually different from our own, these behaviors tend look insane to us. If we believe our partner is acting crazy, it’s a good bet that we are using monocular vision. It is important to realize that the reason these behaviors look so desperate and out of control is that they are. The emotional needs informing them are the most powerful on the planet. If we continue to ignore the emotional needs informing the behaviors, we will get more of the same. One of the worst things that we do in our relationships is make our partners crazy and then hate them for it.

It takes a great deal of humility to honor how the current state of disconnection feeds in to the behaviors we don’t like, and make the conscious decision to move towards our partners in spite of them. It’s also humbling to realize that our attachment protests look equally outrageous to from their perspective! If we are intentional about our efforts, protecting our partner becomes part of our value system. And values are much more stable than feelings.

Compassion: The Most Important Attachment Emotion

The most important attachment emotion is not actually love, it is compassion. Without compassion, we can love our partners all day and still see no need to respond to them. Just look how a little compassion changes things:

Without compassion: My partner is acting immature → They shouldn’t act like this → Correcting

With compassion: My partner is feeling disconnected → They shouldn’t have to feel like this → Protecting

Sometimes, we have to let go of the need to understand our partners fully at the level of thought and shift instead into a place of compassion at the level of feeling. So give it a try. Change won’t happen overnight, but protecting one another will ultimately transform your conflicts by maintaining safe emotional communication.


Eternally protective of you,