Part I: Heal Your Past to Accept and Affirm Differences with your Spouse
How to allow for differences and stop reliving your childhood, stop arguing, stop being critical, stop being defensive, stop shutting down, stop raging at your partner, and stop being contemptuous with the person you love.
The art of marriage lies in the many properties and manifestations of love. It includes a multitude of skills and abilities. This is the first part of a series of four, outlining four facets of love in a relationship. These four aspects of love are requirements to a successful, happy marriage or committed relationship.
One of the competencies required of us in marriage is being able to love the other person when we disagree with them. We need to be respectful, allow them their individuality, their own sense of self, and provided they are not doing harm, accept their behavior and opinions. When loving someone, we want to affirm who they are as a being.
Sometimes it is easy to respect the other person and easy to be around them. It is easy to be nice, kind, and loving. When we get into experiencing our differences, it can become another matter and the skillsets required to love increase and intensify.
The Art of Marriage is shown in how we handle our differences. We come from different DNA, different families, different cultures, different values, and different ways our parents taught us about love, anger and how to get what we want. These differences may allow for interest and diversity, but they cause a lot of problems in marriage or in any loving relationship. Couples get in trouble with their differences because they often want the other person to think like they do, believe the same way, or have the same behaviors. Often they want to share the same values. They have unreasonable expectations like folding the towels the same, managing the household chores the same, disciplining the children the same, investing the same, and so forth. 31% of the problems in marriage are solvable and the remaining 69% are perpetual. That means we will always have differences, and those differences will come with unsolvable problems no matter who our partner is.
69% of Marital Problems are Perpetual
When we have an easy-going personality or when we understand, are kind and curious, it is easy to accept the differences. We enjoy dissimilarity and differentiation. We’ll look at this later, after exploring the problems that are caused by not managing the disparity with ease. When we have a disagreement or quarrel we are living in the 69% of the perpetual problems in marriage. And that causes emotional pain.
So what do we do? How can we manage this and be happy? And stay in love? And keep the family together? How can we possibly love someone who is so different from us when he thinks it is okay to …?
These differences are the things that drive us crazy. The things that make us angry. The things we argue about. The things we seem ready to fight to the death about. The things that drive us into divorce. Things that drive some to drink and others to cheat and some to domestic violence. And still others to murder.
I believe it is imperative that we understand what happens when we disagree and learn to manage things differently so we keep the love we have and continue to act in kindness and respect. To have a happy relationship we must understand that it is okay for the person we love to think, feel, or act differently from us. Then we can be at peace and experience loving. (Or we can decide our values are too different from theirs and we leave.)
This article is intended to help you understand what goes on when we are emotionally triggered and to help you learn what to do to manage your emotions and respond to your partner’s.
Fight or Flight Response
Let’s talk first about our animal nature. Animals perceive a threat and instantly become ready to fight, take flight, or freeze. Our basic animal nature automatically takes control when we perceive we are threatened. The sympathetic nervous system takes control. The body believes we are in danger and begins to raise our heart beat, puts many normal body functions on the back burner, and pumps cortisol and adrenalin into our brains. We think we are going to die and we respond with a response to survive.
Without thinking, we are ready to fight, to flee and run away, or we become like deer in the headlights and simply freeze out of fear. When this happens, we are not able to get to the thinking part of our brain because the chemicals do not allow it. When we are arguing rather than conversing with someone, we are in the Fight or Flight Response. When we are yelling at our spouse, we are into this. When our partner is in our face saying terrible things about us, we are into this. When our loved one shuts down and refuses to talk – ever – we are in this reactive, unhealthy place. When someone stomps out of the room we are here. When we do this we are like a caged animal. Or we are acting like a two year old having a temper tantrum. Or like a water buffalo in the mouth of a tiger.
The Fight or Flight response is driven from our sympathetic nervous system. This response is our body’s reaction to danger and was designed to help us survive stressful and life-threatening situations. It is natural. Flooding with chemicals when we perceive danger is normal. Flooding happens when we have moved into the sympathetic nervous system and into our emotions. We perceive threat but we experience being misunderstood, wanting our loved one to understand us, love us, and agree with us. The sympathetic nervous system puts us here in Fight or Flight.
We must recognize this normal perceived pattern of danger and stop. We are creating a stress response; we probably are not in real danger. It is perceived. This is just a misunderstanding. We have heard something that is not true. We have interpreted something that is not true. We have the fear, but we are not in real danger. We have a difference with our partner but one of us or both of us has misperceived danger; the animal(s) in us got control. Or the two-year-olds in us got control. Either way, we try to explain it, we know the threat is not real.
In evolution, the stress response was designed to help us survive, but that’s not always how it plays out in today’s world. Our fight or flight response can now be activated from psychological, mental or relationship stress.
We need our sympathetic nervous system to keep us alive when true danger is detected and we need our parasympathetic nervous system to restore and relax us so that our bodies can run business as usual.
The Fight or Flight Response is an important reaction that we all have and need, but it is meant for true danger and stress. Everyone is going to have it in varying degrees for different reasons, but learning to slow down, be aware and conceptualize what is actually happening can help us regain control.
We must learn to stop whatever is coming out of our mouths. We must learn to stop the anxiety we are feeling. We must learn to stop the fear we have. We must learn to stop the automatic sense of fighting we are in. We must learn to turn off the chemicals pumping into our bodies. Stop. To do that, close your mouth. Stop talking. Stop yelling. Stop running away. Stop shutting down. Stop. Take a break. Stop. Take a time out. If your heartbeat is up to about 100, you should close your mouth, leave the room, and calm yourself down. It takes about 20-30 minutes to get rid of the cortisol and adrenalin in your body. Since you can’t get to the thinking part of your brain, you might as well turn off the thinking, turn off the emotion and stop. Soothe yourself. Calm down.
Let’s talk about the causes of this psychologically, besides the fight or flight or freeze pattern. Let’s look how a lovely sweet wife and mother can become a raging banshee in 2 seconds flat! Or a loving husband and father can become an aggressive tyrant in 1 second flat! What causes someone to become an angry person, raging, name calling, saying cruel things they will deny later? Or what causes someone to hit before talking? Or still someone else to shut down and never talk about it again? These reactions are unhealthy. Where do they come from?
- They come from Fight/Flight/Freeze Response
- They come in our DNA
- They come from personality traits and disorders we developed
- They come from trauma
- They come from abuse
- They come from bad habits
- They come from childhood patterns
- They come from any other number of psychological systems…
I’d like to expose some childhood patterns for a bit of understanding:
- Father was strict. Father was abusive. Child became scared. Child was angry. Child argued and defended. Child hid or ran away. Child felt unloved.
- Mother did not protect. Child felt abandoned. Child felt betrayed. Child felt unloved. Child felt at fault. Child felt not good enough.
- Parents had to work long hours. Child felt lonely. Child felt abandoned. Child felt unloved, Child felt scared. Child felt unworthy.
- Parents fought. Child felt anxious. Child felt fear. Child was angry. Child was helpless. Child felt trapped. Child felt hopeless.
- Uncle raped. Child felt scared. Child felt unworthy. Child felt unloved. Child felt full of rage. Child felt hatred. Child felt responsible. Child felt shame.
- Mother controlled. Child felt trapped. Child felt hushed. Child felt unfree. Child felt anger. Child felt not herself.
- Parents wanted child to do better. Child became perfectionistic. Child felt controlled. Child felt driven. Child felt unreal. Child felt unloved. Child felt shame. Child felt rage.
The scripts from childhood keep running in our minds forever. We do not learn how to turn them off easily. There aren’t enough books to teach us how to turn off the scripts. Therapy helps us turn them off. Self-help is a good assistant. Spiritual lessons help to guide us. But those tapes, scripts, stories, feelings, memories are with us, indelible in our minds.
When we find someone we love and begin to live with them, our tapes get turned on. Our scripts begin to play out. Our lines get triggered and we start to play the roles of our childhood. Maybe we are like Mom. Maybe like Dad. Maybe like our younger afraid version. Or maybe like our younger angry version, full of shame, self-degradation, feeling unlovable, defensive and angry. Stop.
We must stop the scripts from playing out. They may get triggered until the day we die, but we must not allow them to continue playing. We must not allow them to play out with the person we love the most. We must not allow them to play out with our children and continue passing on the script to another generation or two, or three…
How to Gain Control and Process Your Reactions
Are we ready to talk about how we turn these tapes or scripts off? How do we stop our bad behavior? How do we learn to be understanding and loving with our spouse? How do we stop the wars that have gone on for eternity? How do we become a peacemaker in the time of battle? How do we control our own behavior? Stop. We must love ourselves and we must love our partners. We must have the awareness to realize we are not threatened and the person to whom we are talking is not the enemy. This person is your sweetheart, the person you love more than anyone else. You must stop the disrespect, get yourself under control, and be a loving person to your spouse. NOW.
How do I do that, you ask?
- GET IN THE ATTITUDE OF ACCEPTANCE AND FONDNESS: Let’s get in the right attitude to understand this complicated issue of any close relationship. We know that negative emotions are important. We also know that no one is right. Acceptance is crucial. And focusing on fondness and admiration helps to accept the other person’s perspective.
- SUGGEST OR ASK TO STOP AND TAKE A BREAK: When you are your partner are disagreeing, and you become emotional, you can feel your heartrate going up, you can feel your emotions increasing and you notice your anxiety on the rise. This is a good time to stop and sooth yourself. If one of you is getting louder, ask them to stop, or suggest that the two of you be kinder, slow it down, reconnect, wait until later, take a break etc. The idea is to not let the conversation escalate. Try deescalating and ask your partner to do the same. If that works, take a break and talk later when both of you are calm and able to keep things in a conversational tone and attitude.
- TAKE A TIMEOUT: If it does not work to ask to soften or calm, take a break. No matter what the other person does, you take a break. Use the word “Timeout” to get your partner to realize you are calling a timeout so you can both sooth yourself, stop the flooding of emotion and you are agreeing to come back to it later. A timeout is best used for 20 minutes to 24 hours. It is best to agree on a time to commence the conversation – later, tonight, tomorrow morning, tomorrow after work, etc. Decide on a time or decide later. Please know that a timeout requires you to go back into the game and complete it. Often couples stop the argument but never go back to the conversation. That builds even more anger, and resentment can build for years before people learn how to do this.
- SOOTH YOUR EMOTIONS: Something to do during the timeout is first of all, do not think about the topic right after you stop. The flooding will continue if you keep thinking about the topic and run the argument through your head. The idea of a timeout is to stop and calm down. Take the opportunity to sooth your emotions. Soothing is an activity. Discover what techniques help you lower your heartbeat and get the emotions managed. Some good examples of soothing activities include listening to soft music, watching the birds on the patio, breathing slowly, playing a game, cleaning out a dresser drawer, taking a walk around the block, going to the gym and working out, petting the dog, reading a good book… It is important that you find what works for you and then do it when you are challenged and taking a timeout.
- SET ASIDE THE PRESENT DISAGREEMENT AND FIND WHAT TRIGGERED YOU: When you are calm and can think straight, it is helpful to think about the precedence and significance of your dysfunction or upset. That would be your past upset, not what you and your partner were disagreeing about. Think not about the subject of the disagreement but about you. What triggered you? What caused you to begin to lose control? What set you off? What got your goat? Sometimes your partner may have said something that triggered your emotions. Perhaps it was something that was nothing at all? Perhaps something that you thought you heard? Perhaps it was similar to something from childhood? Perhaps you had a familiar feeling, like being unappreciated, unloved, not good enough, bossed around, or…?
So, in the quiet of your recovery, after your soothing, think about what triggered you. What was the trigger? Without going into the argument that just happened, stop. Set the present time argument or disagreement with your spouse aside. Put it on the shelf or in a holding pattern to come back to later. Okay, what was the trigger? What happened or was said that upset you?
- DISCOVER YOUR FEELINGS: After finding the trigger, what was the feeling you experienced? Perhaps it was hurt? Afraid? Unloved? Irritated? Angry? Misunderstood? Controlled? Confused? Like you can’t win? Defeated? Hopeless? Any of the countless feelings… Once you have pinpointed the variety of feelings going on inside of you, think, is this familiar? Is this emotion something I have felt a lot? Did I feel this growing up? Was this a familiar feeling from childhood? Or from earlier adult life?
- EXPLORE THE STORIES: Move your thinking into the stories you have about these feelings. What may have happened in childhood that created feelings like the ones you just experienced? There may or may not be a common theme about the topic of the disagreement. But look at the feelings. What is common about the emotions and see how the trigger brought up emotions that really are about or from childhood. Usually, there is a misunderstanding with your spouse. Your partner said something about present time but your reaction emotionally is about past time – childhood, or perhaps other adult relationships. What are all the stories you have about things happening in the past that created similar feelings? What are the stories you have about experiences with your parents that created similar feelings? The kinds of things that happened with childhood friends or siblings? Or others? These stories usually have nothing in common with the present time disagreement with your spouse. Only the feelings are similar.
Note that the feelings from the present time disagreement with your partner are the tip of the iceberg in the Iceberg Model of emotions in communication. The real depth and intensity of feelings come from childhood experiences not yet worked through. These triggered feelings and stories bring out of control emotions and anxiety, causing us to fight or shut down. This lower, larger part of the iceberg is what prevents loving and respectful communication. We can have real conversations when we stay out of the iceberg and communicate as kind, mature adults who are open and vulnerable with our spouses.
a. When my husband said that I did something wrong, I felt attacked, unappreciated and like I couldn’t ever do anything right. I felt like a failure. I felt defensive. I felt misunderstood and unloved. Stop. I felt like that in childhood when my mother criticized me. I never vacuumed right. I didn’t iron correctly. I struggled with fractions. I felt unloved, unappreciated, misunderstood and like a failure. I could recall hundreds of stories. So my upset and anger was really about me and my mother, not really much about me and my husband. The tip of the iceberg of my anger might belong to my husband. The rest of the iceberg of anger belongs to my mother.
b. When my spouse told me not to do his laundry, I felt controlled. He always has to have the power. He’s telling me what I can and can’t do…I felt controlled, angry, unappreciated because I always to the laundry. I felt like a failure, I must be doing it wrong. I felt contrite and guilty. Stop. Those were feelings I felt all the time with my mother. She was always telling me what to do. No one in our family could have any power. She always got it her way and none of us ever won with her. And she berated me until I felt guilty and not a good person.
c. When my wife told me I worked too much and should learn to take some time off to enjoy with her, I was furious. First I felt fear and then I exploded. I felt unappreciated for all I do. I felt afraid she might hit me with the frying pan she had in her hand. I felt like cowering. I felt like a coward. I felt controlled. I felt terrified. And I felt like I could hit her. I felt rage. All these at about the same time, flashing back and forth. Stop. I was right back in childhood with my dad telling me what to do, not appreciating all the work I did and beating me for any infraction he thought he saw. He beat me daily. I grew up in fear and felt shame and defeated. The resentment is so deep I instantly go to that rage whenever I am criticized or perceive I am being criticized or experiencing contempt.
d. When I hear negative feedback, I feel I am being falsely accused. I explode in defense of myself because my mother always had to be right, therefore, I was always wrong. That is the script I have been undoing, healing, and rewriting during my adult life. What is yours?
- HEAL CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES AND LOVE YOURSELF: Most often these explorations into childhood end with people not feeling good about themselves. This is the time to love that inner child in you that didn’t get enough love in these moments with parents. This is your opportunity to heal something from your childhood and abandon the fear and anger and sense of not being good enough. Tell the inner child how wonderful he or she is. How good her behavior is, how strong he is, how hard their effort was.Let those inner children know how loved they are. Tell yourself, “You are loveable. I love you.” And continue that daily until you really believe it and it feels true. Have a sense of loving your inner child on a regular daily basis. You might even want to dialogue with your inner adapted child and your wise adult. Or rebellious teenager and wise adult.
When you understand the things that trigger you, discover the emotions or feelings you experienced, and finally connect those feelings to the stories from childhood that shaped you into these kinds of misinterpretations about you, you have the key to the misunderstandings with your spouse. You have the key to your reactions. You have the key to your anger. You discover the story about your pattern of continuing to live in your childhood script. Nearly all emotional outbursts or shutdowns are about the past. They get triggered by something in the present with your spouse. This healing process allows you to know that you are a loveable being filled with goodness and the ability to learn successful communication skills. Then you simply get better at stopping your reactions, taking ownership of your behaviors, demonstrating new behaviors, and peace and happiness are restored to the relationship.
- HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE PRESENT TIME DISAGREEMENT: After you have explored your own problems in the disagreement, you can then take a look at the present time issue that you and your spouse are having. Now you are ready to have a conversation about whatever you tried earlier but got triggered and flooded with emotions. Now you can take the topic off the shelf or land that issue that you put in a holding pattern. Now you may be capable of hearing and talking about the differences or items as two adults without the childhood reactions.
- Handling our differences in marriage is an art
- 69% of marital problems are not solvable
- When it is not easy to communicate and you disagree with reactivity or shutting down, work on yourself
- The Fight or Flight Response is natural and normal
- Choose to have an attitude of acceptance and fondness
- Stop talking until you resume a kind, loving conversation
- Take a timeout
- Sooth your emotions
- Examine what triggered you
- Discover your feelings in the present time disagreement and how they were like childhood
- Explore the stories from childhood which created similar feelings
- Learn how you are repeating the script from your childhood
- Love yourself
- Have loving conversations with your spouse managing your emotions
Explore the stories. Learn about yourself. Heal yourself. Love yourself.
When you use this technique abundantly you change your responses to the triggers. You understand the history of your feelings. You recognize and manage the same pattern coming up in your script over and over. The result is you’ll diminish the effect and shorten the script. Eventually, as you eliminate or reduce the script, your spouse will understand and accept that the original present time disagreement was primarily about you and your parent rather than much about the two of you. It becomes easier for both of you to love yourselves and each other. You find it easier to respect the differences. Your understanding and skills allow you to live the love you feel for each other. It is the art of marriage.