Many couples seek my services because they are worn out from arguing about the same things over and over. Frequently, they have tried relationship counseling but nothing changed. Does this sound familiar? Are you getting ready to give up and either keep on living a life of quiet desperation or else walk out immediately? Find some solutions in my eBook Grownup Love: Getting It and Keeping It.
Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD has done research that suggests that there are real solutions to changing harmful behaviors once we understand our brain better. Apparently, the reason we act argumentatively may be attributed to how we were treated in earliest childhood. Dr. Porges maintains that our primary caretakers profoundly affected us. The three most significant components of behavior toward us that cause us problems later in life were: their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
Because these key experiences occurred when we were tiny, we don't really remember much about them. However, negative moments that frightened or threatened us were stored in our brain. In later years, any time we are exposed to someone who acts the same way, looks at us in the same way, or sounds the same, our brain thinks that our childhood traumas are happening again and immediately goes into survival mode: fight, flight or freeze. This is true for all of us... as Mimi and Ken discovered.
Mimi reported that sometimes her husband Ken became terrifyingly enraged over seemingly innocent things she said. They would argue for hours without resolving the issue. After enduring years of these fights, Mimi was fed up. During one of their fruitless encounters she said, "I've had it. I'm out of here," and began to leave the room.
As she walked away Ken said, "Wait! I know what it is. It's your voice!" Mimi was puzzled and replied, "What about my voice?" Ken answered, "It's like my mother's." Ken and Mimi first met after his mother had passed away, so Mimi had never met her. She only knew that Ken's mom was physically abusive when he was growing up and that he had a number of unloving stepfathers.
Mimi realized that she couldn't change the tone of her voice, but once they realized the origin of his behavior she and Ken were able to be on the alert to recognize when his anger might be retriggered by it in the future. When that happened, Ken reminded himself, "I'm feeling angry because Mimi's voice made me feel like a child again. The truth is that she is not my mother and I'm not a powerless five-year-old!"
Another couple, Andrea and Justin, bickered all the time about who was right. It didn't matter whether they were talking about where to go for a vacation or whether Justin bought the right kind of cat food. Sometimes it escalated just short of physical violence. Andrea felt discounted and disrespected when Justin told her that he knew her better than she knew herself. It reminded her of all the times and all the ways that her mother also acted as if she knew best making decisions or taking action without checking with Andrea.
Andrea told me that after graduating from college she became engaged, but her fiancé was tragically killed in an accident. She was devastated. A few years later, she went to visit relatives in another state. When she decided to live there permanently, she asked her mother to pack up Andrea's belongings and send them to her new address.
Although her mother was pleased that she was starting a new life, when Andrea unpacked her things she discovered that her mother had destroyed every picture of Andrea's fiancé! Andrea felt enraged by her mother's behavior. When confronted, her mother explained that she did it because she didn't want Andrea to feel badly. She thought she knew what her daughter needed, but she was terribly mistaken.
When Justin made Andrea feel as if her wants and needs weren't important, or disregarded her opinions, she became so infuriated that sometimes she contemplated leaving him. Even though Andrea loved Justin, he made her feel the same way her mom did. Their relationship suffered even more because her angry responses triggered Justin's early childhood issues, as she unwittingly turned into his unloving violent stepfather when she criticized him.
They had danced around this anger with each other for a long time without being able to understand what caused these fights or how to stop. Once Justin and Andrea understood that aspects of their early parenting experiences had left wounds that remained unhealed, they took steps to change their reactions toward each other. Because they loved each other, they were vulnerable to each other's words, moods, and actions. Therefore, they welcomed my ideas for enabling them to recognize the triggers and learn how to deal with their fights before they escalated.
Here are 3 steps that you can use to improve your love relationship and reduce your persistent arguments.
Step 1. Share your early history
The more you learn about each other the better you can understand what makes each of you tick. Start with your birth. Were you wanted? What were you told about mom's pregnancy and your birth? What was the family like at that time? Did you have brothers or sisters? Who took care of you? Did you have stepparents? Were you adopted? What was going on in the world when you were born: war, poverty, or disasters? What happened in your past that could explain some of your triggers?
Step 2. Make a list
Take time to talk with your spouse about what you habitually argue about. Is there a common pattern? Make note of two or three of the worst fights you have had over the years. As you recall these incidents, try to remember how they made you feel. Some of the emotions Ken remembered were: betrayed, attacked and infuriated. When Andrea thought of her altercations with Justin, she came up with frustrated, annihilated and crazy.
Step 3. Go to the origin
When you and your partner talk about your worst fights ask yourself this question. "How young did I feel when I felt _____(betrayed, annihilated, frustrated) by ______(whoever exhibited those behaviors)?" Fill in the blank with the name of one of the emotions from Step 2. Ken remembered his mother's face when he was 7 and she betrayed him. She sent him away to live with relatives. Andrea recalled something her mom did that happened when she was 8 that frustrated and scared her.
As you can see, our immediate reactions may be our responsibility, but they aren't our fault. Reaffirm your love as you remember that your reactions have been hard wired in your brain, but you have the power to stop them once you recognize the pattern.
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