Last month I promised to write more about physiological self-soothing. Staying calm while in an emotional or heated conversation with those you love can be a very hard thing to do.
If you are having a problem calming yourself in order to talk rationally to your partner, it is best to stop the discussion and have an agreed upon hand signal or words like “ tornado watch,” “ flooding,” or “ I need a break” to acknowledge that you are feeling physiologically-flooded. While in that defensive, panicky position, often the heart rate is elevated, the blood is pumping, you might be sweating.
That physical reaction is your body warning that you’re about to step into a dangerous situation. A spouse’s facial expression or tone of voice can be enough to sound the alarm. All this can take just a second. Often people tell me that when they walk in the door or call their spouse on the phone and hear tension or coldness, they start to feel pressure in their body.
They start an internal dialogue that goes something like this:
At the onset of these difficult interactions, your amygdala, which is a very small almond-shaped neural structure in the brain, starts to fire, and you feel the “fight or flight” urge. But most importantly, there is a perceptual narrowing and focused attention on that word your spouse just said, or the irritable tone with which he or she started the conversation. Bottom line, you stop absorbing the information as you normally would, and the conversation is about to go out of control.
First, name what is happening and the emotions you are feeling. That, in itself, is a powerful tool to calm yourself. At times people tell me, “I can’t stop this, I can’t control my reactions.” That is a self-defeating way to look at the situation. In fact, emotions are chemicals, and they last in the brain for six seconds. Tell yourself you do have a choice to remain calm, compose yourself and collect your thoughts.
Keep practicing. You will appreciate the improvement in all your relationships.Read More
When couples contact me, they sometimes say that they need help with their communication. When I meet with them, I often notice that they do an amazing job communicating with me, colleagues or friends.
In this post I will try to shed some light on an important way couples disconnect from each other and end up stuck: Stonewalling.
Bill, for example, works in management, he motivates his team and communicates with them several times a day. But as Susie approached him today during our session, he felt his chest tighten and his breathing became shallow.
Once Susie started talking about the ways he’d hurt her feelings, he looked down and away. He looked as if he didn’t care.
When I asked him to tell me what was going on inside, he said he couldn’t really explain but that he felt like running away.
On the outside Bill looked frozen and uncaring, but on the inside he was struggling. He couldn’t sort out his feelings or describe them.
When Susie is upset with him, the world seems to stop, and he stonewalls.
So how do we understand this change in communication skills and abilities?
We know people are really listening when they maintain eye contact, nod their heads, or say something like, “I see,” or “I hear you.” The basic message is, “I am listening, I am tracking, I am taking in the information.”
When we analyze videotapes of couples in conflict, however, we notice that one person seems to have arms folded, is looking away and down, is not showing any facial expressions. He or she looks like a stone wall and has exited the conversation.
Research done by psychologist John Gottman has shown that among heterosexual couples having communication problems, 85 percent of the men are stonewallers.
Does this mean that stonewalling is a male characteristic then? Is it biology? No. Gottman studied same sex couples as well, and he found that lesbians stonewall, too.
So stonewalling is not about biology but a role that partners take on in their relationship. And while they are in that defensive, panicky position, their heart rate is elevated, their blood is pumping, they are sweating. And they are having this internal dialogue:
When we perceive danger, our body gets ready to fight or flee. And that makes sense when there is real danger. But when we are talking about finances, or why we forgot to stop at the cleaners, or why we said that thing that came across as hurtful or mean, that impulse to shut down, the need to run, gets in the way of connecting effectively.
Next blog I will write in more length about self-soothing.Read More
When Bill greeted his wife at the end of the day, he could predict how the rest of the evening was going to go.
Her voice was low-pitched and tense, and he knew she was upset with him for some reason.
Anticipating an attack, he reacted defensively. He barely looked at her and stomped away to change his clothes.
In earlier blogs we’ve talked about destructive conversation patterns that are traps for many couples. First comes criticism. Then comes defensiveness. The third step in this toxic downward spiral is contempt.
Let’s go back to Bill and Susie:
She was angry before Bill even walked in the door. Now, when he seemed to pull away from her, she was madder still.
She rolled her eyes. She muttered to herself, “Here we go again. He can’t be trusted. He hates it when I get angry, and he doesn’t even ask why. ”
When Bill reappeared and asked what they were having for dinner, she let him have it. She called him “a self-centered jerk” who worried only about himself. If he cared about her, he’d be home on time. At the very least, he could have called if he was going to be late.
Bill’s fears were confirmed. Susie had only contempt for his efforts to be a good employee. To avoid further conflict, he retreated to his study to check his email. He thought to himself, “I can’t take this stress.”
Susie, meanwhile, was in the kitchen, stirring chicken that was over-cooked and drying out. “What is happening to us?” she wondered. “How can we get out of this rut?”
Susie & Bill found themselves in this spot frequently. They couldn’t resolve their conflicts because they treated each other with contempt.
To break the pattern, focus on the opposite of contempt, which it appreciation. It will take practice, though, to change from a destructive habit to a constructive one.
Here are some tips:
In the past, you were looking for things to criticize. Now focus on the things your partner does right. For example, “Dinner was really fun last night. Thanks for washing the dishes.” Or, “I loved that you took time with our child to go shopping for my birthday.” Or, “Thanks for picking up the clothes at the cleaners. It saved me a trip.” Or, “That outfit looks really sharp.”
Remember that softening your reaction is a choice, and you can make your point more eloquently if you show your partner respect and caring. Be sincere and conversational — not mocking or superior — when you express your need to be heard.
So many arguments seem to start at the end of a long, hard day. Can you relate to what I hear so often in my office?
A couple is sitting around the dinner table, and the husband is telling an involved story about work. Then the wife interrupts.
Wife: “It is unbelievable how you never ask me about my day. Since you’ve been home, all we’ve talked about is you. Don’t you see anything wrong with this picture?”
Husband: “You didn’t ask me about my day, either, I just wanted to share with you. You think you’re perfect, but you’re not. You can’t even balance the checkbook.”
Husband: “Maybe I forgot to ask you about your day, but I do a very good job of making a living and keeping up with our finances. I also gave our son a bath, and I took him to the dentist the other day. Is that not enough? Why don’t you appreciate me?”
People get defensive in one of two ways: They act like innocent victims or they counter-attack. The counter attack is the classic definition of defensiveness; according to Webster’s: resisting or being ready to resist an attack.
I know it is hard not to react defensively, especially when you are feeling attacked by a person who is very important to you. It’s even harder when that person is your partner, and he or she keeps pointing out flaws and acts more like an adversary than a friend. During these arguments, you’re likely to react physically as well as emotionally. Maybe your heart rate increases, you might start sweating, perhaps you’d rather be anywhere but having this fight or talking about your relationship.
Nevertheless, the pattern of criticizing, then reacting defensively, is toxic.
Next month: We’ll see what happens when you can’t get out of the “criticize and defend” rut.Read More
Before I tell you ways to get out of this rut, let me share what I hear in my office almost daily:
Wife: “You are never on time. You say you will be home at 6 p.m. to help with the kids and have dinner with us, but it is 7:30 and you’re still not here. You only think of yourself! Always!”
Husband: “I tried to leave on time but my boss gave me a last-minute assignment that had to be done. And I did come home on time last week, I also stopped at the grocery store and got milk. And by the way, why would I want to come home if this is how I am going to be received?”
Wife: “I hate that I can never tell you how I feel”.
Husband: “You are right about that because everything you say is negative!”
Wife: “And you are selfish! And uncaring! And insensitive!”
Let’s take a look:
The wife wasn’t trying to be mean to her husband. But by the words and tone she used, she did sound as if she were attacking her husband’’s character. After all, she said he was selfish, uncaring and insensitive. The husband responded the way most of us do when we feel attacked. We’re defensive.
At times we all get angry and find fault. But here is a better way to voice your concerns.
There’s a big difference, even if the two words are sometimes used interchangeably. Complaining can have positive results if you follow a few simple rules.
When complaining, use “I” statements as in, “I feel hurt,” or, “I miss you.” Don’t make blanket statements as in, “You’re always late.” Or, “You never think about me.” Describe the situation. And state your needs.
Here’s the wife complaining, not criticizing: “I feel upset every time I have to wait for you. I wish you were here with us. It’s not just that I need your help, I’m much happier when we’re together. So, when something comes up at work, please call me to let me know.”
Do you hear the difference? The wife has expressed her frustration, but she’s also told her husband that she misses him, and she’s given him a path to succeed. The situation is no longer hopeless. In my next blog entry I will focus on defensiveness and its antidote. Stay tuned!
There is a Pablo Neruda poem that begins:
“What’s wrong with you, with us, what’s happening to us?”
I hear those same questions, those same doubts expressed regularly in my office.
It’s only human to wonder, what is love really? And if I haven’t found it with my spouse, will I ever find it?
Over the past 30 years, in a quest for answers to those very questions, I have made the study of relationships my life’s work.
Thank you for tuning into my new blog, and in the next few weeks and months, I’ll look forward to addressing your relationship issues. Just drop me a line and let me know what you’d like to read about.
Liliane talks about a couple things that can help keep the love alive on Great Day Houston. Specifically about talking about expectations in beginning of the relationship and remembering to ask questions and spend time with your spouse.Read More
Having disagreements is a normal part of any relationship. In fact, it can actually bring about greater intimacy if both couples can overcome these hurdles through dialogue and compromise.
Lisa and Bob met after they were recruited to work for a large accounting firm. She was struck by his quick wit and intelligence, and he couldn’t resit her bright blue eyes. They spent long hours together at work, but couldn’t wait to see each other for dinner, drinks or weekend getaways.
“I was totally crazy about him,” said Lisa. “We spent long hours talking bout our hope and dreams for the future, and I knew this was a man I could spend my life with.”
Married for five years, the couple recently had a son. And like many couples, the stress of a two-career household and childcare issues had this once happy couple far from wedded bliss.
Read the rest of the article that was originally published in the Houston Family Magazine.Read More
Bob and Lisa have just hung up the phone after talking with the doctor’s office. They are both elated! They just had the good news confirmed: Lisa is indeed pregnant. After a few years of struggling with fertility issues, their baby is now on the way.
“People are so kind and interested,” she said. “They want to know the due date, the sex of the baby, and what names we have chosen.” She added it was a great opportunity to connect with others especially around such a happy event.
Bob had also been so happy and excited to share this very special moment of becoming a father. He attended childbirth classes and helped decorate the baby’s room.
After months of planning, the big day arrived and the couple joyfully welcomed their new baby. Despite their exhaustion, they felt so happy and connected; they were now a family of three. It was their dream come true.
How do you take care of the baby? How do you bathe, feed, and comfort? How do you start shaping baby’s behavior? What does it mean to be good parents? These were among the many questions that Bob and Lisa struggled with answering.
As the days went by Lisa and Bob were feeling more and more exhausted, sleep deprived, and lonely. Outside attention seemed to fade away. When Bob returned to work, Lisa felt isolated, struggling to take care of her baby. By the time Bob made it home at the end of the day, she was often so exhausted and had very little energy left to spare. They started to fight over small things. Both were deeply disappointed that what should have been a time of great joy was becoming a time of bickering and hostility.
Read the rest of the article that was originally published in the Houston Family Magazine.Read More