Wife (taking her seat): I think I’m done.
Husband (looking confused): With what?
Wife: The marriage. I think I’m done with the marriage… It’s not working.
Wife seemed as stunned as Husband by her opening comment. No one said anything for several moments.
Husband: It worked at one time…
It’s not the way their couple’s counseling session usually began.
Husband rarely gets reactive. What was different was Wife’s lack of reactivity.
Not that she wasn’t feeling anything. Wife’s emotion was palpable. She was somehow containing her feelings and expressing them at the same time.
Wife: Yes, in the beginning, it did work. I felt like I could talk to you and it mattered how I felt. But it stopped.
Husband: That’s not true… Of course, it matters how you feel.
Wife (turning to me): This is why I can’t talk to him. I say how I feel and then he negates it.
The Classic Marital Impasse
Marriage researcher John Gottman calls it the “classic marital impasse” — A wife seeking connection from a withdrawn husband.
Until now, this couple’s impasse took an all-too-common form. Like most marriages, it’s the wife who is more likely to sense when things are off, bring up stuff, and put it on the table. The husband often has more tolerance for putting up with stuff and sweeping things under the rug.
So when Wife brought stuff up, Husband preferred to not deal with it. The less responsive Husband became, the more reactive Wife got. What does it take to get your attention?
Eventually, Wife began to believe that only an emotional earthquake would register on Husband’s marital Richter scale.
Wife: When I’m upset, he ignores me. You know what happened the last time he saw me crying? He walked into the other room. Then he went outside and started cutting the grass. Unless I’m crying hysterically, it doesn’t seem to register.
Wife: If I try to talk to him about something that bothers me, I get one defensive maneuver after another and we get nowhere. But what’s even worse is when I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall. No reaction. Eventually, I may start yelling, but even that’s not enough. I have to be yelling at the top of my lungs to get a reaction.
And yet, here was Wife demonstrating a newfound ability to self-administer the very antidote recommended by Dr. Gottman: Calm down and speak up non-defensively.
Wife: It’s not that I don’t love you…
Husband (interrupting): That makes no sense. How can you love someone and not want to be married to them anymore?
Wife: I need basic human connection and it hurts too much to not get it.
Wife (continuing): I need to do something different… Now.
Husband (after a long pause): What comes next? Are you moving out?
Wife (shrugs): I’m not planning on it. I just know I don’t want to live like this anymore.
When The Body Relaxes, The Mind Follows.
When Wife was crying hysterically or yelling at the top of her lungs, we can be pretty sure that the prosocial, problem-solving part of her brain (the prefrontal cortex) had gone offline. That leaves at the controls only the amygdala, an ancient, reptilian part of the brain.
An “amygdala hijack” can be scary to witness in your partner. It’s also scary to experience. There’s a tsunami of feelings in your body and your brain gets flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals.
Either way, it’s scary because it’s a reminder that there’s an animal component to our human nature. The amygdala is the animal part of our brain and it’s wired for only one thing: survival. We’re talking raw emotion, red alert reflexes, and hair-trigger instinct.
Since your amygdala doesn’t have the circuitry for reason, restraint, and problem-solving, don’t bother trying to download it. You’ll just get an error message.
Feelings First. Solutions Second.
Your reptilian brain may not be able to process thoughts very well, but it’s a champ at processing sensations. A simple grounding, felt-sense experience has the power to put your amygdala at ease and get your prefrontal cortex back online.
Avoiding or shutting down an amygdala hijack can start as simple as breaking eye contact, taking a drink of water, or leaving the room. The idea is to give yourself a chance to calm your body and reengage your rational mind.
Think of it this way: Feelings first, solutions second.
There are amazingly simple ways to do this, but in our mind-worshipping culture, they’re easy to overlook.
Here’s how to get started: Instead of trying to shut out or shut down the feeling, meet it.
1) Give your body something to feel.
Your amygdala is programmed to pick up on and process sensation, so give it something it can easily and quickly process. Give yourself a visceral experience that is grounding and calming, one that will immediately register in your instinctual brain. It’s like when your mom held the four-year-old you when you fell down and skinned your knee. The physical contact (holding you) and emotional contact (comforting) helped you calm down and recover.
Several months earlier, I introduced Wife to some simple ways to experiment with the calm down part of the marriage researcher’s mantra.
Like most of my clients, Wife had the usual this feels weird, I don’t like it initial reaction to “woo woo” thirty-second practices like these:
- Feel the connection of your feet to the ground.
- Gently press your palms onto the tops of your thighs.
- Wiggle your toes and notice the sensation.
- Make a gentle fist. Gently cover and hold the fist with the other palm.
Fortunately, Wife was game (probably out of sheer desperation). We tried several variations until she found ones she could “tolerate.” I let the results speak for themselves and she was hooked.
It may sound simplistic, goofy, or hokey, but research shows that a small moments, many times approach is the most effective way to retrain your brain to break bad habits and form better ones. Like calm down and speak up non-defensively.
In brain speak, experimenting with small moments of new behaviors grows new neural connections in the brain. And doing it many times reorganizes the neural circuitry so it becomes the new default mode network.
2) Unabashedly acknowledge the feeling.
Once Wife had some grounding practices in place, she was better able to process the feeling without being overwhelmed by it. We added in simply noting the feeling.
That hurt. This feels awful. Keep it simple: This sucks. Use short phrases and feeling language. I’m disappointed. This is painful. This internal noting process allows you to absorb the feeling, like a damp cloth soaks up a spill.
Acknowledging the feeling gave Wife a way to hold it with a tiny bit of detachment. This ability to meet the feeling head-on without being overwhelmed by it was not only comforting, it was also empowering. It put Wife in a position to act on what she was feeling with a better chance of being heard.
Coming To Terms With What You Can And Can’t Change In Your Partner.
Wife had evidently learned enough about how her mind works to translate it into doing something different, something better. Calming down was making it easier to speak non-defensively.
An unanticipated side effect? It put pressure on the marriage. Wife’s personal growth spurt was now putting pressure on Diamond-in-the-Rough Husband to up his game. Could he catch up with her behavior change?
If you’re in a committed relationship, sooner or later you will face the inevitable reckoning: Coming to terms with what can and can’t be changed in your marriage.
As a couples counselor, my job is to help you figure out if you’re in a solvable state of gridlock or if there isn’t much you can do about your differences, at least for now, or maybe ever.
Along with a focus on solving problems and getting happier, there’s another inconvenient truth: Making peace with what’s not going to change. Or starting to consider other options.
An often overlooked option is a decision to look for personal happiness, regardless of a difficult or less than ideal marriage. It usually means developing more emotional independence from your spouse.
Instead of moving out, you lean out.
Instead Of Moving Out, Lean Out.
Taking more control over creating your own happiness will obviously be good for you. But it’s not entirely selfish. It may also be contagious. If you get happier, your partner may get happier, too.
The idea is to make your own happiness enough of a priority that you go for it in an “I count, too” way. That may include sometimes going on anyway, even when you’d rather have your partner join you on the journey.
Does leaning out put you at risk of moving into parallel lives and therefore put the marriage at risk? Yes, it can. I don’t recommend it as your opening move when your marriage is under stress.
Here’s the flip side: Going for happiness in ways that depend less on your spouse can take some pressure off a partner with limited capacity for intimacy. You may feel less disappointed in your partner and, in turn, your partner may feel less put upon or defensive.
You’re taking a risk that by leaning out in some ways, you may discover other ways to lean in.
Renegotiating The Terms Of The Relationship.
Wife’s decision to lean out didn’t take the form of becoming withdrawn and cold. No one moved out. Husband and Wife continued coming to counseling sessions.
Wife: A lot of our talk time is me being a good listener while you talk. If I didn’t elbow my way into a conversation…
Husband: Well, then that’s what you need to do…
Wife: Believe me, if I hadn’t trained myself to do that more, we wouldn’t have made it this far.
Husband: So what’s the problem?
Wife (continuing): It’s exhausting. I need you to do your part to help balance out the talk time. Ask me what I think sometimes.
Husband: I don’t need to be asked. If you have something to say, why don’t you just speak up?
Wife: Not everyone is like you… You’re very confident. You just march right into the room and start talking about whatever’s on your mind. You’re a really smart guy and your stories and observations are very interesting.
Husband (grinning): I know…
Wife: The thing is, I’m not looking to always be entertained. I want someone I can talk to, have a give-and-take conversation with.
Husband: If you knew I was this way, why did you marry me?
Wife (ruefully): I thought I could overcome it. I thought you’d change! (laughs).
Husband (laughing): I see…
As the interaction continue to unfold, I couldn’t help but think, “You go, girl. You may just save this marriage. And your diamond-in-the-rough husband may just let you do it.”