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.

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.

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.

controlling-reactivity-in-marriage

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.

controlling-reaction-in-marriage-2

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.

controlling-reaction-in-marriage-3

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?

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!

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.

The Art of Caring Confrontation

What happens to my marriage if I choose to be “nice” rather than honest?

…if I go “silent” rather than confront an issue head on?

Usually there’s an ugly consequence.

Today I’m sharing an amazing tool I call “The Art of Caring Confrontation”.

I always assumed that going silent and being nice is better than blowing up into a raging argument.

I’m not advocating blowing up, but clamming up doesn’t work either.

Why?

Because a healthy relationship requires vulnerability.

And vulnerability takes courage, not just being nice.

I’ve learned that I tend to avoid vulnerability like the plague.

I’d much rather hide what I really feel about something than to confront it in a scary conversation.

Can you relate?

I call it “being nice” rather than being honest.

“I know how sensitive she is. I don’t want to get a reaction.”
“Talking about it only brings up the pain of the past.”
“Sharing how I really feel will hurt his feelings. I don’t want to go there.”

I’m so “nice”.

Really?

Sometimes being nice is just a big cover up job for something I’m too afraid to broach.

What a whimp!

It takes COURAGE with a capital C to be vulnerable.

There is a relationship in my family were we have gone silent for 20 years.

There are things that we do not talk about – and have not talked about for two decades. And stuff we will not talk about for another 20 years, unless something changes.

And that big fat elephant shows up and sits there in the room with us every time we’re together. And no one talks about it.

Oh, there are some people who tell me “Just say it because it needs to be said!” If I did that, it would just trigger everyone’s defenses so that no one would really listen.

So, it’s easier to just be “nice”.

Why? Because it’s too painful to open old wounds.

Wait a minute! Too painful!?

Too painful compared to what? (Now I’m talking to myself again.)

Have I even considered the price of silence?

Evidently I’m willing to suffer a slow death over 20 years rather than facing the pain of a brief surgery that might start the healing process.

For me that’s been the price of silence. And it’s a heavy price.

OK, whew…! I hope there’s some value in that catharsis I just went through.

Now I want to lighten up, and apply this amazing tool to our marriages. It’s a skill you and I can use every day.

I call it…

THE ART OF CARING CONFRONTATION

This is how I’m working against that forceful tendency to go silent in a conflict.

This is how I’m learning to say what I need to say in a healthy way that leads to dialogue.

It’s a skill I adapted from the book Crucial Conversations. It’s a way to be honest while being nice.

It goes like this:

caring-confrontation-2

1. State the FACTS

Start with the facts because facts are less controversial.

Facts are the basis of the story I’m telling that is creating my emotions.

So start with what happened. “This is what I saw or heard.”Facts are what a video camera with sound would have recorded about the event.

2. Tell your STORY

This is my interpretation of the facts. The meaning I’m adding to the facts. The story I’m telling myself about what happened.

Use a sentence stem that goes something like this. “This makes me wonder if…”

3. Ask the QUESTION

A question that invites dialogue. Something like, “Is that what’s happening, or am I missing something?”

Here’s a real life example from Chuck and Sandy’s experience.

CHUCK:

FACTS: “You asked me if I’d be willing to tear out the old tomato vines and I said I would. But then you went and did it.”

STORY: “That makes me wonder if you don’t trust me to do something when I say I will.”

QUESTION: “Is that what you’re thinking?”

At this point I was in control of my emotions because I’m not leading with my “story”. Rather than judging Sandy’s intent I used this process to turn on my curiosity.

And this actually made it safe and got us into a healthy dialogue.

SANDY:

“Sometimes I’m afraid you’ll forget, or you’ll think I’m nagging you. So I went silent and just did it myself.”

CHUCK:

“That makes sense.”

Then we try to be open to a Behavior Change Request.

SANDY:

“Is there a request you’d like to make?”

And this is how Dialogue becomes the means to a real change in the relationship.

CHUCK:

“Yes. It would be help me if you would use your Caring Confrontation skills and talk about it rather going silent and then not trust me. That feels bad.”

SANDY:

“Can we have a do-over?”

Now Sandy is in the game. She’s not going silent. She’s choosing to be honest rather than “nice”. (But honest in a nice way.)

And she’s willing to practice it by going back over it. (We notice our skills get better when we practice them.)

SANDY:

FACTS: “Chuck, when I mentioned the dead tomato plants needed to be removed, you said you’d take them out. After a few days I noticed it wasn’t done.”

STORY: “That makes me wonder if you forgot or you’d changed your mind. And I started feeling frustrated.”

QUESTION: “Can you help me know what’s going on?”

CHUCK:

“Oh yeah. I was planning to do that this weekend. It did slip my mind, but I thought about it the other day and figured I could do it Saturday morning. Thanks for the nudge and reminder.”

Right on, Chuck and Sandy! Issue resolved!

But…in that first round, why did Sandy go silent?

Fear…fear that I would get upset.

But which is harder? Doing the surgery now and having the hard conversation, or letting it fester and become a disease in the relationship?

Can we see how avoiding conflict keeps you in conflict? I’m starting to get it.

Using a skill like The Art of Caring Confrontation opens things up so that we can stay connected and grow and heal together.

Try this out the next time you’re tempted to be “nice” rather than honest.

And share with us the results in the reply section below!

Until next week…

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.

What to do when your marriage partner keeps “leaving the relationship”

I’m not talking about moving out. I’m talking about taking  seemingly innocent “exits” that rob your relationship. 

“Exits” are places where you go to get your needs met outside your relationship.

Things like hobbies, sports, computer games, the kids, work…

or pornography, an affair, etc.

Some “legitimate”, some not so.

Whenever anything becomes a substitute for intimacy with your partner, it can drain your relationship of the energy it needs to flourish.

Does this touch a nerve? Please read on.

In last week’s post, Katie felt like her husband, Frank, was playing way too much golf.

But through the Couples Dialogue, they got to the real issue in their relationship.

Golf wasn’t the problem it was Katie’s hidden fear.

Katie’s hidden fear was  that something would always take her place in Frank’s life.

Their marriage experienced a breakthrough when Frank began to understand this.

Frank began to see all Katie’s “nagging” as simply a hidden desire for more closeness with him. When he finally got that, Katie’s nagging stopped. Fantastic!

But what about Frank? What was Frank’s issue, and how did he contribute to this relationship problem?

Turns out, playing golf was an “exit” from the relationship. It was one of many ways Frank would “leave” Katie when he felt unsafe.

In the counseling process, while Katie learned to turn her criticism into a spoken desire, Frank learned to close the exits that were robbing their relationship.

He began to channel that energy into building an intimate partnership with Katie.

And you can do that too.

Here’s how  to close the “exits” that are robbing your marriage.

1. Identify your unconscious defenses

If you met Frank you would not see any indication there was a problem. He is funny, and outgoing, and well-loved by all their friends.

But as the Dialogue process went deeper, Frank discovered a secret about himself.

Although Frank was super outgoing and a real “people person”, he was terrified of intimacy.

Abuse suffered early in life from his father, and neglect from his mother led to a deeply ingrained belief that intimacy is painful.

The message was, “If you get close to someone, you’ll end up getting hurt.”

Frank learned to survive childhood by keeping a safe distance from everyone.

The first step for Frank was to identify his unconscious defense strategy:

Frank was an “isolator” who would take a convenient “exit” anytime Katie would get “too close”.

2. Identify ways you avoid your relationship

Katie complained that “golf was the problem”, but we saw that golf wasn’t really the problem.

It was that Katie felt like Frank was “leaving the relationship”. Golf was one way he did that.

When Frank quit playing golf on the weekends, Katie was still not happy. Why?

Frank’s “exit” switched to computer games. Again, Katie felt him leaving her.

It wasn’t until these exits were identified that a plan for change could happen.

Katie longed for closeness, but from the very beginning of their relationship whenever she would get too close, Frank would exit.

It was Frank’s  fear of intimacy that kept him on the run.

And there was always an exit to be found!

What about you? What are your exits?

Take time to look at your activities and ask yourself, “Am I doing any of these things in order to avoid my relationship?”

One husband realized that he was staying late at work, because when he would walk through the front door, a wave of depression would come over him. It was real easy to stay at work.

When we are disconnected from our partner, anxiety can make our relationship a real downer. That’s when it’s easy to exit.

So take time to identify your exits.

3. Redirect energy into your relationship

It’s important to not just close the exit. We must also find a way to redirect that energy into the relationship.

The best way I’ve found to do that is by using “Caring Behaviors”.

A “Caring Behavior” is something your partner has expressed to you that makes her or him feel loved.

In last week’s post, Katie made a “Behavior Change Request” of Frank. That request  pointed to a “Caring Behavior” – something that, when done, makes Katie feel loved.

Her request was, “Next month, will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”

When Frank gave up his weekend golf to plan a suprise weekend with Katie, it was a positive experience for them both.

Katie felt loved, and her response made Frank feel like he could move closer to her.

It doesn’t help to just close your exits. You must redirect that energy into the relationship in a way that works for you both. That’s when reconnection can occur.

How about you in your relationship? Perhaps you can relate to Frank?

Is it scary for you to think about giving up something you love on a slim chance that you might be able to make your partner feel loved?

I can relate!

So begin with small steps.

There was wife who would go jogging every day at lunch, and then again after work. She learned that jogging was an exit – a way she was avoiding intimacy.

A small step for her was to continue jogging during her lunch break, but stop jogging in the evening in order to spend that time with her husband. 

She didn’t give up jogging altogether. She just turned some of that energy back into the relationship. They spent time using some of the Dialogue tools they were learning in therapy. It was a step in the right direction.

Small steps…

So closing the exits is not about giving up something. It’s about getting the love you’ve always wanted!

Instead of leaving the relationship, identify your defenses, call your exits what they are, close them, and redirect all that good energy into your relationship.

You’ll be glad you did!

Need help? Reach out to me. I do coaching with couples all over the world through video conferencing.

Also…

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my weekly post in the form below. My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning!

Hindsight is 20/20! What I wish I’d known 38 years ago about mutual purpose

Marriage is supposed to be two people becoming one. Right?

Two people striving for “mutual purpose” in their life together.

But for us it was two self-absorbed individuals both constantly trying to get our own way!

Can you relate?

Our attitude was “You and I are one, AND I’M THE ONE!!”  

And the power struggle began shortly after we said “I do”. 

Today is our 38th wedding anniversary!

As Sandy and I began our anniversary celebration with coffee in bed this morning at 5:40 a.m., she said,

“You should write this week’s blogpost about what we wish we had known 38 years ago.”

“But sweetheart, I’ve almost finished this week’s post. Too late to start over.”

But, as she encouraged me, my thoughts went to one thing.

I really, really, REALLY wish I’d known this 38 years ago.

And so, now I can’t wait to share it with you.

The power of mutual purpose

Before we learned about this tool, we were regularly in conflict over major decisions.

For years, whenever Sandy and I came to cross-purposes, there were three ways we would handle it – none of which resulted in a happy couple.

How not to do it:

1. Compromise

We were told that marriage has to be series of compromises.

What a bunch of bunk!

With compromise you both lose.

Compromise can lead to feelings like, “Being married to you means I have to give up what I really wanted in life.”

Wow. That’s heavy.

But actually, we did it a lot, until we discovered what Mutual Purpose is all about.

Compromise = You both lose. Not good.

2. Bulldozing

This is when one of us wanted something so bad we bulldozed over the other in order to get it.

Guess who did that a lot?

That’s right. I (Chuck) could be the bulldozer. Can you relate?

And what was the result?

The plan would fail and there was a big “I told you so!” Although Sandy never said it out loud.

Or, I would drag Sandy through the mud. Rather than kick and scream about it, she’d become silently resentful.

But either way, as you can imagine, as a couple, YOU LOSE!

You may win the battle, but you end up losing the war!

That’s because, as human beings…

Our feelings of being fully alive come from connection in relationship, not from getting our own way!

Even though I got my way a lot, I often lost that connection.

Big lesson here.

Bulldozing = One person wins and the other loses! Not good.

3. Giving in

Giving in happened when one of us got so tired of the conflict that we said, “OK. Whatever.”

But when you give in, you’re not really vested in the decision forced on you.

The result: Feeling manipulated or coerced. And that means bitter feelings rather than closeness and connection.

Once again we were losing the war.

Giving in = One person loses to let the other one win. Not good!

The turning point

chuck starnes mutual purpose in marriage

We began to experience mutual purpose through Imago Couples Dialogue. The Dialogue helped us begin to see how “other” the other person was.

When you go through that process of differentiation, your relationship is transformed.

And that transformation happens when you make room for the “otherness” of the other person.

That’s when everything changed for us.

Years later the book, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Granny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler helped us put language to this idea of Mutual Purpose.

Here is what we learned to do when we find ourselves at cross-purposes.

1. Commit to Mutual Purpose

The first step is to make a commitment to Mutual purpose.

One person initiates the commitment and the other agrees.

It could go something like this.

“It seems like we’re both trying to force our view on each other. I commit to stay in this conversation until we find something that works for both of us.”

or…

“Hey, if it’s not good for ‘us’, it’s not good for ‘me’.”

In order to do this you have to be willing to think outside the box. You have to shake off the notion that “I will never be happy unless I get what I want.”

That’s the hard part.

Can I dare to challenge myself that there just mighta be a third choice out there – one that works for both of us?

If you do that, you’re on your way.

So, make a commitment to Mutual Purpose.

Now, if you’re thinking what I thought, you’re feeling like “I don’t want to do this because I’ll end up giving up what I want”.

NO!

It’s about getting what you really want! For yourself, for your partner, and for the relationship. It’s called MUTUAL Purpose.

So go ahead and make the commitment.

Because that’s what we didn’t do.

Especially when it came to career moves (more about that and the pain we experienced later).

2. Let go of conflicting strategies

Notice I said let go of the strategy, not the purpose. Hold on to your purpose.

This is where we sort out the difference between purpose and strategy.

PURPOSE is what I really want. STRATEGY is how I get what I want.

On a Friday night Sandy would say, “Let’s go to the beach tomorrow.”

I already had decided I wanted to stay home and work on my home office.

So there we were – at odds. Or were we?

Odds about strategy but not necessarily about purpose.

Going to the beach is a strategy to get something Sandy really wants (purpose).

Staying home and working on the office is a strategy to get what I really want (purpose).

Going to the beach and staying home on a Saturday morning are mutually exclusive. You can’t do both.

Typically what would happen is that dialogue would shut down, and we’d move into one of the unhealthy strategies listed above – probably bulldozing and giving in.

So here’s how to disrupt that destructive cycle.

I ask Sandy, “Why do you want to go to the beach?”

She says something like, “I want to get away, see some beauty, be inspired and spend some uninterrupted time with you.”

My response: “I am fully on board with that purpose. I really want that for you.”

Then Sandy asks me, “Why do you want to stay home and work on your office?”

I say something like, “I really want to clean out the mess and get everything organized so I can feel good about going to work on Monday.”

Sandy’s response: “I’m totally on board with that! I really want that for you.” And by the way, Sandy is all about home organization and order.

So now we’ve discovered our purpose as separate from our strategy.

And we’re now committed to each other’s purpose

So it’s easier to let go of the strategies that are in conflict, and look for a purpose that’s mutual.

3. Synergize a purpose that satisfies you both

Stephen Covey said, “Synergy is better than my way or your way. It’s our way!”

When you look beyond strategy to your purpose, you find that you’re not as incompatible as you thought. Right?

You’re both more than supportive of each other’s desire than you realized. Isn’t that amazing?

It’s when you react to each other that all this clarity is lost. And the fight continues.

How could I not be excited that Sandy wanted to spend time with me and be inspired?

And Sandy always gets excited about making spaces more beautiful and functional.

One way to synergize a purpose is to simply combine purposes. The other is to look for a higher purpose beyond what you both want. More on this second one later.

For Sandy and me this meant combining purposes to make a Mutual Purpose.

4. Brainstorm new strategies to accomplish Mutual Purpose

Sandy wants to go to the beach and I want to work on my office. But we both share each other’s purpose.

So a new strategy would be…

“How about tomorrow morning we head for the beach and spend the day. On the way back we pick up the hardware supplies I need for the office. And then Sunday afternoon we work on my office?”

Bingo! That worked! And we did it all together!

Happy couple!

But what if your purposes are mutually exclusive?

For example, what if your purpose can’t be achieved except at the expense of your partner’s, or in a way that affects your children.

In this case everyone has to let go and honor the fact that the needs of your relationship and your children come before any other aspirations.

By focusing on higher and longer-term goals, you then seek ways to transcend short-term compromises, build Mutual Purpose, and return to dialogue.

But if done right, the end result is even better that what you wanted in the first place.

Why? Because of the close and connected relationship you gain in the process.

Make sense?

The pain of failure and a lesson learned

Hindsight is 20/20 right? Here’s why I wish I had learned this lesson 38 years ago.

There was a potential career move I was especially excited about. One I saw that would lead me toward my own personal dreams.

When I shared the opportunity, Sandy was…well…underwhelmed.

It involved her leaving her friends and community. It involved changing our daughters’ schools. She saw the plan as disruptive, not in a good way.

And looking back, it wasn’t so much that she opposed the move, it was my insensitivity to what this change meant to her that hurt so much.

No wonder she was ambivalent!

But I was determined that this was the “only strategy” that could fulfill my “purpose”.

So I bulldozed and got my way.

While I got opportunities, Sandy gave up a whole list of them.

She’s an amazing woman, always willing to forgive, but the damage was done.

From her perspective, years were lost. And what was so hard was that I didn’t get it. For years I couldn’t see what this did to her.

When we began using the Couples Dialogue I began to see the light.

If we had known about this tool, we could have synergized a Mutual Purpose. And then  I’m confident we would have found a “third way” that worked for both of us.

When you and your partner value each other, and honor the deep desires you both have, SKY IS THE LIMIT!

So that’s one thing I wish I had known 38 years ago.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. So after we lamented it and healed a lot, we are happy about how this lesson is working for us today!

mutual purpose in marriage chuck starnes

It’s our hope that this tool called Mutual Purpose will help you NOT make the mistakes we did!

Here’s to a great relationship established on Mutual Purpose!

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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.

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.

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.

husbands-destructive-anger-transformed-4

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…

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.

husbands-destructive-anger-transformed-6

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.

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…

If you haven’t already, subscribe below to Relationship Resources and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!

What do I do when my husband is avoiding conflict?

I was that husband avoiding conflict!

Here are three powerful insights that helped me stop avoiding conflict, and start engaging in a way that led us to a deeper connection as a couple.

Last week I wrote a personal account about how “Our fights started on our honeymoon! Is there any hope for us?”

The focus was on Sandy’s feeling of abandonment whenever I (Chuck) would withdraw from conflict.

Today’s focus is on how I felt controlled whenever Sandy would be upset about “being abandoned”.

Can any of you guys relate? No wonder I avoided conflict, right?

Here are some insights that helped me do my part to break this unhealthy pattern.

1. Avoiding conflict can activate the childhood wound of abandonment in your partner.

When I pulled away from Sandy to avoid conflict, I thought I was doing a good thing.

I thought, “Fighting is bad.” “Not fighting is good.” So let’s not fight.

I couldn’t understand why Sandy would get so hurt and upset when I was just “trying to do the right thing”.

It was because I didn’t see how avoiding conflict was affecting her.

My withdrawal triggered her feelings of abandonment at the deepest level.

According to Dr. Herb Tannenbaum, when our childhood wounds are triggered…

A five watt stimulus can produce a 1000 watt reaction.

So the first step for me was to become conscious of how my actions to avoid conflict activated Sandy’s childhood wound of abandonment.

You can read more about that process in last week’ post.

2. Avoiding conflict keeps you from getting the love you want.

Why did I avoid conflict?

Because I feared intimacy.

This strategy of avoidance helped me survive a childhood, where I often felt smothered and controlled.

As a child, connection and attachment was not a pleasurable experience.

So, in my adult relationship, I feared intimacy because it was tantamount to intrusion and absorption and control.

And yet what I craved more than anything was that very intimacy I was missing by avoiding conflict.

Wow! Talking about a dilemma!

I craved connection with Sandy. And yet I avoided the conflict that could lead us to that connection.

If conflict is handled well, it can lead you to a deeper connection and to getting the love you want.

We get married because we have found someone who will help us finish our childhood, by healing and recovering parts of ourselves lost along the way.

We know intuitively that this person is the key to feeling fully alive and whole again.

So marriage makes a lot of sense.

The problem is that conflict is what catalyzes the healing and growth that results in wholeness and full-aliveness.

So, if I’m avoiding conflict, I’m missing out on the whole deal.

I realized that Sandy and I did not feel connected. And by continuing to avoid conflict I was settling for less, willing to live in that disconnected state.

And it doesn’t end there. If you don’t address this it will get worse.

The partner who is avoiding intimacy will look for substitutes for that intimacy in things outside the marriage.

Things that bring a temporary feeling of being alive but it doesn’t last.

In my case, I was first driven to pursue my career with passion.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, but when it’s a replacement for the real intimacy missing in your marriage, it always turns out to be an empty illusion.

The more I would seek my full-aliveness in work…you guessed it.

The more Sandy would feel abandoned.

And although she was careful not to criticize, her negative feelings came through.

I just wasn’t measuring up!

And it was true.

What a wife needs most is to feel connected with her husband. And that feeling of connection was not there.

When the glory my career accomplishments faded, I turned to my lifelong love affair with music and my guitar became the new “mistress”.

Then it was my infatuation with road biking

…all good things, but all empty in the end.

When we’re in a marriage that doesn’t feel connected, we look for exits that we think can fill the emptiness and loneliness.

But they don’t really work. And the pattern continues.

Experts tell us that only 10% of married couples report having a truly satisfying relationship.

We were one of that 90% – staying married, but not happy campers.

The 90% settles for either a “silent divorce” where they remain together in agony and in separate lives…

…or they settle for a “parallel marriage” where they are relatively happy together, but most of their needs are being met outside the relationship through things like work, hobbies, social causes, sports, gaming, etc.

This is where we were.

But thanks to Sandy we didn’t settle there!

What did Sandy do? She talked about it.

And I’m glad she did, rather than settling for less.

I so admire her for that. She was able to identify what was missing in our marriage, and that is the reason we are where we are today.

So speak up. But do it in the context of a Safe Conversation so transformation of your relationship can occur.

Our marriage was transformed the day I realized that full-aliveness doesn’t come through all the things I was seeking outside our relationship.

Full-aliveness comes with safety, connection and passion in my relationship with Sandy.

Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, I realized that everything I needed was right here with me all along.

But how did this change happen?

3. The “Commitment Dialogue” helps the “avoider” stay present and heal the one who feels abandoned.

Nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe.

One drop of negativity renders a conversation unsafe and therefore nothing transformational can happen.

Whenever someone withdraws from a conversation, the conversation is unsafe.

Whenever someone criticizes someone (even so called “constructive criticism”), the conversation is unsafe.

And did I say that nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe?

Oh yeah.

Ok, so how did you get to a Safe Conversation that brought about this change in you and Sandy?

The most powerful tool we found is called the Commitment Dialogue from Imago Couples Therapy.

Here’s how it went for Sandy and me.

After I integrated the first two insights I’ve shared above, i.e.,

1. My avoidance was hurting Sandy at the deepest level, not because I was evil, but because neither of us were conscious of the childhood wound of abandonment that was so painful.

2. My avoidance was ripping me off from the experience of full-aliveness in my relationship with Sandy.

I was ready to do…

3. The Commitment Dialogue.

Here is a summary of what happened:

Chuck made an appointment to dialogue with Sandy.

Chuck began with the sentence stem, “One activity I use to avoid connecting with you is…” And I talked about how I withdraw when I feel criticized.

Sandy mirrored using the stem, “What I hear you saying is..” She checked for accuracy by asking, “Did I get it?” And then she remained curious by asking, “Is there more about that?”

Chuck continued with more details that went deeper into his childhood.

BTW: Curiosity helped Sandy regulate her reactive emotions, and made it safe for Chuck to access his feelings.

(As a result, several new insights dropped out of  my unconscious mind, helping Sandy to better see and know the real me. And it helped me to see me too :-).

Can you see how it would have shut things down if Sandy had allowed feelings of abandonment to cause her to react rather than remain curious?

Did I say nothing can happen in a relationship that’s not safe?)

Sandy summarized what Chuck said and then VALIDATED it, using the stem “Chuck, what you’re saying makes sense, and what makes sense about it is…

Then she EMPATHIZED with Chuck saying, “I can imagine that it feels…”

Chuck finished the dialogue by saying, “I’m committing today to keep talking about this with words, rather than acting it out and withdrawing from conflict.”

At this point the new paradigm was integrated, a shift occurred, and Chuck transformed fundamentally into an “engager” rather than an “avoider”.

It’s not perfect, but it is truly a fundamental shift that has changed everything.

Now when I feel criticized or controlled, I’m working toward facing it and talking about it rather than avoiding it.

That new area of growth for me is hard. But it enables me to be present with Sandy when she needs it most.

When I do that, it brings healing for her.

The area of growth for her is learning to communicate her feelings in a safe way with zero negativity.

And of course that means healing for me.

And that makes it much easier to stay present with her and deepen our connection.

The old cycle of criticism and withdrawal is being replaced with one of safety and connection.

This new partnership of healing and growth is a “win-win” to say the least.

Share you insights and questions below…and, if you haven’t already, be sure to…

Subscribe to Relationship Resources below and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!

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Why incompatibility is the basis for a great marriage

Marriage incompatibility can be transformed into an intimate partnership for healing and growth!

Ever feel like you’re married to the most incompatible person on the planet?

You’re not alone. Turns out “opposites” DO attract!

And being opposite can feel like you’re incompatible.

But here’s a secret…

Incompatibility is the basis for a great marriage!

“Ok Chuck, I get it that opposites attract. But incompatibility…the basis for a great marriage? Give me a break! Is this going to be another post where you say the opposite of what we’ve always thought? Like ‘Conflict is a sign you married the right person’?”

I could hear your objections already and you’re not alone.

I googled “relationship compatibility” and found many who agree with you. Countless articles warning you NOT to be in a relationship with someone incompatible with you in areas like…

  • Strict punctuality vs. hang loose “I’ll get there when I get there.”
  • Neat-freak vs. slob
  • Spend-thrift vs. stingy-sourpuss
  • And God forbid you get into a relationship with someone who is not “sexually compatible” with you.

“Experts” are saying that differences like these will make life miserable!

“So don’t commit!  Find someone compatible!!” 

But recent neuroscience discoveries are turning what we thought about the marriage relationship on it’s head.

Think about it:

Each of those differences listed above represent opportunities for healing and growth…but only when those two “incompatible” people are together in a relationship!

Get my drift?

Here are two reasons I’m convinced “incompatibility” is the basis for a great marriage.

1. Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal the past.

Case in point: Nate and Susan.

Nate was a very intelligent, but very quiet young man in my premarital counseling group. When I tried to point out traits in Susan, his fiancé, that foreshadow future areas of conflict, he said, “No way! Those are the things I love about her!”

Nate was sincere, but he was also in the Romantic Stage of the relationship, and was seeing Susan through rose-colored glasses.

Isn’t it cute the way she’s so expressive with her emotions! I can listen to her talk all day.

So why is it that after only a year of marriage he found himself leaving the house because…

She never shuts up!  

hmm??

At some point after the wedding vows, the neurotransmitters that induce the romantic love coma subside.

That’s when we wake up to the fact that we have married someone different from us.

Surprise!

The rose-colored glasses are ripped off. Welcome to the Power Struggle Stage.

So what was going on with Nate and Susan?

Nate had married his “Imago match”.

His what?

Harville Hendrix uses this term, “Imago”, to describe an image you carry in your unconscious “lower brain” (brain stem and limbic system).

And that image consists of…

1) The positive and negative traits of your primary caretakers.

and

2) The disowned, denied, and lost parts of yourself.

Imago Relationship Theory posits that the selection of a romantic partner is partly unconscious, driven by an agenda which is to…guess what?

Finish childhood.

What?

To finish childhood. To resolve the wounds, unmet needs, and frustrations that occurred while growing up.

That’s why we fall in love and marry someone who is like our parents!

Not in just their positive traits, but even more significantly in their NEGATIVE traits.

Now why would I want to do that? That doesn’t make sense.

Did I say that it happens unconsciously?

Those positive and negative traits in your partner feel familiar. This explains in part why you’re drawn to his person and why you fall in love.

But as you encounter the negative traits, old wounds are activated.

Nate had that mysterious quietness that Susan was drawn to.

And when we talked about how his childhood defenses could make her feel abandoned, she was confident that would not happen.

He just won’t. Because we’re in love. He’d never do that.

Don’t you just love the naiveté of the Romantic Stage of a relationship?

But at one point, when Susan felt Nate withdrawing from her, it did activate those feelings of abandonment. And that’s when their conflicts began.

Growing up, Susan’s mom was busy caring for younger twins, while her dad seemed married to his work. And then her dad spent whatever time left over with her brothers.

Her method of coping was to break the rules, act out – anything to get someone’s attention.

So when Nate activated this same feeling of rejection and abandonment by simply pulling away from her, she would become upset and demand to be heard and recognized.

And the more he withdrew, the louder and more controlling she became.
And the louder she got, the more he withdrew.

At that point, so early in their journey, there was no way that Nate could have understood the pain that was driving her.

But during therapy he was able to empathize with Susan, and to see how his pulling away from her triggered those deep feelings of abandonment from childhood.

He realized he was not the source of her upset. He was only the “trigger”.

In the Imago Dialogue process, Susan began making “change requests” of Nate that involved him being present with her during times of conflict, rather than “abandoning” her.

She asked Nate for things like this…

“The next time you feel like leaving the conversation, can we just stop talking, and will you just take my hand, look into my eyes, and just be silent with me for two minutes?”

As he granted those requests, Susan’s wound from childhood began to heal as her longing for connection was no longer being frustrated by Nate leaving.

Our lower brain holds pain from the past in an unconscious state, and also in the present tense (as if the wound happened yesterday).

And the lower brain does not distinguish between individuals. It only apprehends the traits of a person.

So when that past wound is activated by someone similar to the one who wounded you…BUT this time their behavior gives you what you needed, healing is the result!

And your lower brain doesn’t complain, “Well, you’re about 20 years too late!”

No! The love you’re receiving registers deep in your psyche, “Finally, I’m getting the love I wanted.” And it’s healing.

Do you see how your marriage can be an amazing partnership for healing you never even imagined before?

Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal.

Wow.  Sounds simple enough, right?

Hold on a minute.

It sounds simple, but…it was extremely hard for Nate to grant that request.

Why? Because Nate had spent all his years protecting himself from this kind of vulnerability. A step like this was threatening…actually terrifying!

This leads to the second reason I think incompatibility makes for a great relationship.

2. Incompatibility creates opportunities to grow.

What Susan needed to heal pointed precisely to where Nate need to grow.

Nate had never had to be present and share his emotions until he married Susan.

Incompatibility provides an opportunity to grow and recover parts of youself that were lost and never developed growing up.

Nate was drawn to Susan because she was so effusive and free to share her feelings. Something Nate had never developed growing up.

How did Nate miss out on this?

His mother was controlling. So he discovered early in life that one way to maintain a feeling of autonomy around his intrusive mother was to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.

Without this information, she was less able to invade his space.

Nate learned to hide behind a psychic shield he erected as a child to protect himself from an overbearing mother.

He felt smothered by his mom growing up, and now he was feeling smothered by his new wife.

So Nate would respond to Susan’s “intrusions” in the same way – by doing a disappearing act where he could hide his feelings from her.

Susan didn’t realize that when Nate left the conversation, he was only trying to survive his own pain and not trying to “punish” her.

But notice how Susan’s “change request” was a challenge for Nate to begin to learn to stay present and connect emotionally. Something he’d never had to do. Something he’d never developed. But something that he was actually very capable of doing.

Because, in doing this, Nate was recovering a lost part of himself.

So for Nate to provide what Susan needed most (his presence during conflict), required him to stretch. To stretch into behaviors he never learned as a child. And it was not easy.

But through this process Nate began to feel much more “whole” as a person.

So…not only can incompatibility create opportunities to heal, it also creates opportunities to grow.

“But, Chuck,” Nate could have said (he didn’t say it, but many partners do), “That’s just not who I am. I’m not a ‘feelings’ person. I feel like Susan wants to change me into something I’m not.”

I hear that a lot.

This growth challenge is not about changing who you are. It’s about becoming more of who your are.

It’s about recovering those things that are actually in us, but have been walled off by our childhood adaptations and defenses.

That’s why Nate felt more whole as a person after this.

Here’s a super big takeaway:

Your partner’s need for healing will always point to your need for growth. And vice versa.

An amazing thing this thing called marriage!

What about you  today? Does your partner trigger this kind of upset in you? Or do you trigger it in your partner?

Have you felt like giving up on your marriage because you’re “incompatible”?

If what I’m saying is true, the best place for you to be is right where you are.

So stay put. And work toward building this kind of mutual partnership of healing and growth.

And let me help you. I can coach you though through this process online.

Click here for more info about my six-week starter program.

Now let me encourage you to share your responses, thoughts, insights and questions with us in the comment section below.

Go ahead! Don’t be shy! Leave a comment! Others will learn from you! And so will I!

Until next week…

Chuck

Hey if you’re not yet on my mail list, you can subscribe below and receive my weekly posts delivered directly t0 your inbox every Saturday. Actually Sunday if you’re in Australia. 🙂

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