How can I stop being so reactive in my marriage relationship?

Is your marriage relationship being sabotaged by outbursts of anger and overreaction?  Does your own reaction drive you to pull away from your partner, causing her or him to feel abandoned?

No marriage relationship can stay connected if one person is highly reactive.

Whenever emotions are out of control, the conversation will never be safe. And feeling connected will not be possible.

Here are three powerful insights that can help us regulate our emotions and help us stay present and connected with our partner.

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1. Our feelings drive our behavior.

Who me? No, never. Not me. I believe you should do what’s right regardless of feelings!

Riiiiight!

I used to be so naive.

But after a few decades of marriage, I discovered this was almost never the case.

Why? Because…

The feelings that drive our actions are almost always unconscious.

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Seems like negativity would always spew out of my mouth whenever my unconscious fear or anger was triggered. And the results were never good.

And this all happened without my even knowing it.

Before I could process anything in the thinking part of my brain (cortex), the critical retort was already out of my mouth and I was in trouble.

Can you relate?

Problem is the neurons triggered from our lower, reactive brain travel 10 time faster than those from the top down. That’s why it so difficult to not be reactive to your partner.

The moment that reaction occurs, the conversation is no longer safe. And the kind of dialogue that leads to connection is not possible.

Here’s how it usually goes down. I learned this from the book, Crucial Conversations.

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The example in the graph is a wife I previously shared about.

She grew up in a home where her father and brothers were engineers, and her mom and sister were nurses. She was the “artistic” one.

Although she was very talented, she always felt “dumb” growing up with all those math and science whizzes.

So now in her marriage,  just a “5-watt” eye-roll from her husband triggers a “1000 watt” reaction.

Ok. I get it. That makes sense. But how do I get control of my emotions and all this overreaction?

The key to controlling our emotions is learning where they come from.

There is something that happens lightening fast between the time we see or hear something and the feelings we create in response.

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We often say, “He made me mad.”  Or, “She upset me.”

The truth is no one can make you mad.

“What? What do you mean no one can make me mad? It happens all the time!”

No, actually, you make yourself mad.

Something happens between what you see and hear and the feeling you create.

“OK. I give up. What is that?”

2. Our “stories” drive our feelings.

The story we tell ourselves, or the meaning we attach to an event is what creates our feelings.

I see or hear something.
Then…I attach meaning to it. I tell a story about it. I interpret it. I judge what motives are behind it. I tell myself whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous.

And this all happens in a flash.

That’s what creates my feelings.

So I do create my own feelings after all…hmm.

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The path to action we take begins with what we see and hear.
Then we tell a story about what we saw or heard.
That story then creates feelings.
And finally those feelings drive our behavior.

When we are in a reactive mode, that behavior takes one of two directions: clamming up or blowing up.

Both of these options destroy any chance of a healthy dialogue, and leave us feeling disconnected from each other.

Sandy says, “Do you have to take your phone whenever we go for a walk?”

What story do I tell? “She’s trying to control me.”

That story creates feelings of anger or fear.

Then like a hailstorm I react. Or like a turtle, I withdraw into the safety of my shell. Yes, I can be a hailstorm or a turtle.

Clamming up or blowing up never gets me what I really want. Only safe dialogue can keep us close and connected.

That’s because my reaction is only the beginning.  

My reaction triggers Sandy’s pain and defenses. If she responds in kind, the conflict is on.

How do I know so much? I’ve lived this scene over and over again. “Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse”.

But I’m learning that if I can catch my story, and hold it tentatively, I can change the feelings I create before there is a reaction and things go south.

Even if my story is true, even if Sandy IS trying to control me, I can confront the issue in a safe dialogue which brings us closer rather than blowing us apart.

Make sense?

In scientific terms, I have to give time for the neurons that move top down from my thinking brain to my reactive brain.

When I stay in my thinking brain, I can master my story and then tell it in a way that doesn’t trigger hurt and reaction.

So what’s the conclusion of all this?

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3. If I change my story, I change my emotions, and thus my behavior.

So what does this look like?

Crucial Conversations gives some great sentence stems that help you turn your brain back on, and keep you curious and present rather than critical and reactive.

Here’s the one I used.

I looked at Sandy and asked myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person like Sandy say that?”

And, as I used this stem to keep my brain turned on, and to become curious about what Sandy was feeling, the answer came.

“Oh yeah, she just wants to spend some uninterrupted time with me. That makes sense. That’s why always being on my phone is a frustration to her. I get it.”

Change my story – change my feelings – bingo! Changed my behavior!

Even with the negative vibes I felt from Sandy’s frustration, this tool kept me from reacting and helped us stay in dialogue.

This is how we can turn a negative feeling into a positive interaction that leads us to deeper connection.

This is how to avoid  spiraling downward into a negative interaction.

And this is how we had a great walk, a great conversation, and ended up feeling closer to each other rather than hurt and angry.

If you change your story, you change your feelings.

Then you can respond in a way that gets you what you want. For yourself, for your partner, and for your relationship.

Try it and let me know how it goes in the reply section below!

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How a husband’s destructive anger was transformed into passionate love

“My husband’s destructive anger is wrecking our family! I can’t deal with his abuse any longer!”

Tears filled Gina’s eyes as she explained what her husband Gary’s anger was doing to her.

This began a 7 step journey that transformed Gary’s destructive anger into passionate love.

Recently, in an argument over how to deal with one of their children, Gary blew up at Gina and put his fist through the wall.

Gary had not previously been physically violent toward Gina or their three children. But there were repeated times of yelling and name-calling.

And now Gary had literally hit the wall. Where was it going to end?

Gina was not only concerned for her own safety, but was really afraid of what this anger would do to their kids.

In our first session, we began a structured dialogue that helped Gary and Gina take seven steps toward dealing with abusive anger.

1. Set a boundary against uncontrolled anger.

It was very important for Gina to say to Gary that uncontrolled anger is not ok. Gina must realize she does not have to tolerate it, and must be empowered to leave the abusive situation in any way necessary. This may include getting a restraining order.

There are cases of emotional and physical abuse where the first step is for the victim to separate from the abusive partner and get professional help.

Gina communicated this boundary in a Dialogue where Gary mirrored and validated her concern.

It was very important that this boundary be communicated to Gary in a safe way. The Couples Dialogue helped him receive and accept it rather than feel judged by it.

In Gary’s case, he was ready to get help, and fully accepted Gina’s boundary.

For Gary and Gina, this act of violence was a wake up call to get help.

Both of them were eagerly seeking change.

They invited me to continue to facilitate this process of transforming anger into passionate love.

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2. Commit to “zero negativity”.

After setting a boundary against violence, Gary and Gina agreed to sign the Zero Negativity Challenge.

This is a pledge to stop all negative comments, criticisms, and uncontrolled expressions of anger.

It is something I ask all my clients to sign whether violent anger is an issue or not.

Because nothing can happen in a relationship unless it is safe.

And it will never be safe if the tiniest bit of negativity is allowed in the space between the couple.

Negativity in a relationship is like putting a drop of raw sewage into a glass of pure drinking water.

Would you drink it even if I assured you it contained only a drop of sewage? 🙂

Of course not! Because, even with a drop of bacteria infested sewage, it’s no longer safe to drink.

In the same way, when a drop of criticism or unbridled anger is deposited into the space between a couple, it’s no longer safe to for either partner to open up to each other.

Going forward Gary and Gina weren’t perfect, but this commitment to zero negativity was a good start down the right path.

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3. Avoid assigning labels to each other.

“My partner is abusive!”
“My husband is a narcissist!”
“My wife has Borderline Personality Disorder!”

Labeling like this produces enough negative energy to keep a person permanently bound in the role assigned to them.

People live up to what we say about them.

It’s important to drop the labels.

And here’s another reason why.

Gary and Gina are just two partners doing the best they can to manage their anxiety.

What do you mean?

When couples feel disconnected, the result is always anxiety.

The human mind cannot handle anxiety for more than a few seconds. To cope we turn it into either anger or depression.

So most people are not what we tend to label them. They’re just trying to manage their anxiety the best they can. Obviously some better than others.

Of course there are true narcissists and there are violent aggressors that are unsafe people period.
But in many cases where a someone claims their partner is a narcissist, it is a label unfairly assigned.

During the Dialogue process, we often find that the “so-called narcissist” is perfectly capable of empathizing with his or her partner. It’s just that the relationship had never been safe enough for that to happen.

We are all self-absorbed until we experience differentiation in our relationship.

It’s the growth challenge of marriage that changes us from self-absorbed individuals into differentiated individuals capable of intimate connection.

In many cases people are self-absorbed because they’ve never stepped up to the “growth challenge” that every marriage presents.

Therefore it’s important not to label.

The Couples Dialogue process helps you reimage your partner as someone who is simply trying to manage their own anxiety the best they can.

Some do it by exploding anger outwardly. Others by internalizing anger and becoming depressed.

4. Listen to anger’s “cry for help”.

As Gina mirrored Gary’s angry feelings, she learned that his anger was a cover for deeper emotions he was experiencing.

Usually anger is not about what you say it’s about. It’s a way to protect yourself from your more vulnerable feelings.

Like the tip of an iceberg, anger can be used to cover deeper emotions that we my not be conscious of.

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Gina and Gary’s big blow up was not really about differences over child discipline. It was about Gary not feeling important in the process.

And at the very core was Gary’s hidden fear of losing his connection with Gina.

As a child, Gary experienced feelings of abandonment from his early caretakers. Unknowingly, he had brought these wounds into his marriage.

When he felt Gina withdrawing from him, his deep fear of abandonment was triggered.

In an unconscious reaction he would then use anger to mask these feelings of abandonment.

This in turn caused Gina to move even further from Gary.

But Chuck, that doesn’t make sense. If Gary wanted to be connected with Gina, why would he yell and punch the wall?

Why do kids throw temper tantrums?

To get the attention of the parent they fear won’t be available to them when they need it most.

Gary was doing an “adult version” of this kind of behavior.

So how does Gina “listen to anger’s cry for help” and begin to understand Gary’s real emotion behind anger?

It was through the structured Couples Dialogue that Gina felt safe enough to listen and validate Gary.

And in the context of that safety, Gary got in touch with the fear of abandonment that was driving his explosive anger.

And then, as we’ll see later, things went even deeper…

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5. Stay present rather than retreating.

As Gina stayed present and listened to Gary, this had a powerful calming effect on him.

It was Gina’s withdrawal that triggered the fear and anger in Gary.

Most every day we walk our dog, Brie, in the neighborhood. There is a cat about a block away that Brie loves to chase. It goes like this.

The cat sees Brie and takes off. When Brie sees the cat take off, she begins pursuit until she reaches the end of her leash. And then it’s all we can do to hold her back. We should have gone to dog training school.

One day the cat saw Brie, and instead of running, he sat down in the driveway and began licking his paw.

Brie was really troubled. And stood perfectly still. Why?

We discovered that Brie will only chase if the cat retreats. If the cat doesn’t run, Brie waits.

In the same way, Gina’s running away was one of the triggers for Gary to pursue her in anger.

A dramatic change occurred when she remained present for Gary. His anger was diffused and he was able to express his fear in a safe dialogue.

Gina was able to empathize with Gary’s feeling of abandonment, and that was when everything changed.

Continuing to be curious in the Dialogue, Gina found out Gary’s hidden fear.

Recently she had became more involved in her work as a school teacher. This meant more social engagement with her coworkers as well.

As Gary saw her having fun with people that had more in common with her than he did, Gary feared that one day she wouldn’t need him and would leave him for good.

So the anger wasn’t about the differences they had in parenting. It was about Gary’s deep fear of being left alone.

Very often the problem you’re arguing about is not the problem. It goes much deeper.

Both Gina and Gary got in touch with the real issue which was Gary’s hidden fear.

This happened because Gina stayed present and curious in the process.

6. Use your anger as a signal to stop and dialogue.

The Couples Dialogue slows things down, enabling you to talk about your anger rather than exploding it.

Anger does not have to be unhealthy. It doesn’t have to turn into destructive aggression.

Anger can be an incredibly useful emotion.

Anger serves as a stoplight – a signal that something is not right and you need to STOP.

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Gary learned to recognize when he was angry by noticing the sensations in his body.

Sensations like a tensed body, clenched teeth, restlessness, or increased intensity of speech were the cues that helped him realize he was angry.

If we can recognize anger before it’s expressed, it can be a signal to stop and use our safe conversation skills to talk about it.

If we heed anger’s warning, it’s possible to return to love and connection. If we ignore its warning, our relationship will suffer.

It’s a choice we have to make.

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7. Channel anger’s energy into passionate love.

Anger and passionate love are opposite expressions of the same energy.

When anger’s negative energy gets redirected in a safe conversation it transforms into passionate love.

Gary took steps to moderate his anger, by talking it out rather than acting it out.

Gina stretched in order to be present with Gary rather than withdrawing and triggering his feelings of abandonment.

What happened as a result?

Anger was transformed into passionate love.

I saw evidence of this in the parking lot of my office after our last session as Gary and Gina stood by their car for what seemed like forever in a passionate hug and prolonged kiss.

As people watched them, I thought, “They have no idea what’s behind this. If they only knew…”

Gary and Gina not only learned to deal with destructive anger, but all of their feelings of love and passion returned.

That’s because anger’s negative energy can be channeled in the opposite direction. And passionate love can be reborn.

It can happen for you as well. If you need help, check out my six-week coaching program. I can take you through the same process that Gary and Gina went through.

I’d love it if you’d share your insights and even questions you may have in the reply section below.

Until next week…

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