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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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…

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Our marriage fights began on the honeymoon! Is there any hope for us?

This was our story!

But we learned that with the right skills you can turn a marriage with conflicts into a relationship with a deeper connection!

That’s because conflict is a sign that something new wants to emerge in your relationship.

Something that will bring healing, wholeness and deeper connection.

And sometimes that sign shows up as early as the honeymoon!

That’s what happened to me – and my wife Sandy!

Recently someone said, “Chuck, your posts are pretty good, but have all these insights worked for you in your own marriage?”

Wow! Did you have to go there?

I admit it’s always easier to talk about something than to do it.

So can I just brush this question under the rug? As my readers, you’ll never know. 🙂

Except that I just told you!

Maybe this is an opportunity.

An opportunity to go where I wouldn’t go otherwise. And open up and share some things I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ok, let’s do this!

For years, Sandy and I have been on a journey in our own marriage.

That journey is from an unconscious and reactive relationship to a conscious and connected relationship.

For us this means…

– Moving from blaming and defensiveness to empathy and connection.

– Realizing that behind every criticism is a desire not expressed.

– Realizing behind every angry outburst is a desire being expressed but not heard because of the way it’s delivered.

– Realizing that behind every withdrawal from conflict is a fear of being controlled or smothered.

We are still working on it, moving from the Romantic Stage – through the Power Struggle Stage – into the Mature Love Stage and World Impact Stage.

The Romantic Stage

It all began with two people madly in love – Chuck and Sandy.

I’ll save you the sappy details but we were IN LOVE.

I took her to Ernie’s in San Francisco for dinner.

Then to the “Top of the Mark”, Mark Hopkins Hotel for drinks.

And while looking out over that beautiful city, I asked her to be my wife.

She said “yes”! And I was the luckiest guy on the planet.

The Power Struggle

Most couples see signs of the Power Struggle anywhere from two months to two years after the wedding vows.

Our power struggle began on the honeymoon. That’s right.

As a matter of fact on the day after the wedding.

Sandy had given me a beautiful watch as a wedding gift – a battery powered, electronic watch.

One of the first of it’s kind. I’d never had one before.

Problem is, there was no instruction manual.

So I spent the first couple of hours “the morning after” (yes, the first day of our honeymoon) trying to set it up (yeah, I know.).

To me this was normal. Not doing anything wrong here.

Except for one detail. I was married now. Not alone. And we were on our honeymoon for cryin’ out loud!

Now that I’m married, it’s not really cool to just do what I want, without any consideration for the other person in the room.

But how was I to know?

As Sandy tried to communicate her disappointment to me, I immediately felt attacked.

Feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me.

So I pulled away from her – literally withdrew from the conversation.

This really upset her and I had no idea why or what to do.

It was horrible!

Even though we “coped” and moved on, this tragic episode began a pattern that would last for years.

I’d get lost in my world (work, hobbies, whatever). Sandy would feel abandoned.

She’d express disappointment. I’d pull away further.

That would trigger more feelings of abandonment, resulting in more expression of disappointment, which would cause me to…well you get the idea.

Not good!

Welcome to the Power Struggle!

All she wanted was a close connection with me. That’s what marriage is supposed to be, right?

Like many couples we struggled to cope with this pattern.

But it always costs when you merely cope with a problem rather than dealing with it.

The price we paid for years was the insecurity of an unstable connection that could be easily ruptured.

Two precious daughters were born, as we continued to do the best we could.

What we didn’t realize is that both of us had brought our childhood wounds and defenses into our marriage.

Unconscious pain from childhood that drove me to abandon ship when criticized,

and that drove Sandy to criticize when abandoned.

The Breakthrough

I’ll save you all the gory details. But it was fight after fight. Silent-standoff after silent-standoff.

Literally “second verse same as the first – a little bit louder and a little bit worse.”

over and over…and over again.

But a breakthrough came when we began practicing Imago Couples Dialogue. The therapy I now use with couples every week.

The process slowed us down in a way that helped regulate our emotional reactions.

And that gave us a chance to see each other – things about each other we’d never seen before because of all the defenses.

Then we began to embrace our differences, and empathize with each other.

And we began to see how our childhood dramatically affected our relationship.

Sandy grew up in an amazing home. She was SO attractive. And so was her family. It was like the family I never had.

Her parents did a great job.

But even with great parents, all children experience wounding at some level.

It’s inevitable.

When Sandy was 2 ½ years old her mom had twins. Both infants suffered with colic. And both mom and dad were consumed by the need to care for them.

Some of what Sandy needed was lost in the process.

Her mom was amazing. And dad too.

But no matter how good you are as parents, wounds happen to our children in ways we’re not aware of.

This feeling of abandonment surfaced many times later growing up.

Once when her older brother got to stay out much later with his friends on Halloween. And got SO much more candy.

And she remembers another time waving goodbye to her older brother as he and his friends drove away for a ski weekend at Tahoe.

Once again she felt left behind. And left out.

Experts say that approximately 90% of our upset comes from history. 10% is related to the present.

The Dialogue help me see that the pain that Sandy felt on our honeymoon was not just because of me.

I was not the source of her pain, only the trigger.

chuck starnes relationship coach
Chuck and Sandy at Waikiki Beach

The Mature Love Stage

Here’s what we learned that helped us move from the Power Struggle to Mature Love.

1. A childhood wound of abandonment can be activated when your partner disconnects from you.

For me to “leave her” for a watch brought back all that pain from childhood.

Am I worth being taken care of? Am I worth pursuing? Am I more important than a watch?

2. Healing comes when you finally get what you needed in childhood from your intimate adult partner.

Sandy wanted me to choose her. To be close to her. To be enamored with her, not a watch (even thought she gave it to me.).

Even though that didn’t happen then, it happened later.

During one of the Dialogue’s she made a change request.

In a moment of safety and empathy she made this request.

“The next time you feel like pulling away from me will you make an appointment with me to dialogue and tell me about the feelings that make you want to withdraw.”

It was a stretch for me. But when I did it, it brought healing.

It was amazing how granting this change request helped me overcome the force of my own adaptations and stay present with her.

And when a change request like this is granted, your lower brain, where all your memories and pain and defenses reside, is not going to say in that moment,

“We’ll you’re about 20 years too late!”

No! It’s going to say,

“Finally I’m getting the love I always wanted!”

And healing is the result.

3. Growth comes to the one bringing healing.

That would be me.

I can’t tell you the feelings of wholeness I experienced as I stretched and grew in to this kind of behavior Sandy was asking for.

Staying present with her was VERY hard because all I felt was anger and fear and wanting to run!

My strategy from childhood, which helped me stay alive, was not going down easily (I’ll talk more about this next week).

It literally called me to access a part of myself that I had lost and never developed growing up.

And the feeling of wholeness was something wonderful like I’d never felt before.

So what about you?

Did your fights start early on like us?

Is it hard to understand why you fight?

Does your partner’s reaction seem extreme?

Join us on this journey toward healing and wholeness.

Get the skills you need to turn marriage conflicts into a deeper connection and passion together.

If you haven’t already…

Subscribe to Relationship Resources by entering your name and email below, and receive my posts with free resources delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning.

Also, in the reply section below, would you tell your story of when the power struggle began in your relationship and what you did about it?

Until next week,

Chuck (for Sandy too!)

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

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What to do when childhood defenses sabotage your relationship

Couples fight for one fundamental reason: they bring their childhood defenses into their relationship.

The way you learned to adapt and survive in childhood can negatively impact your adult relationships…even if you had really good parents.

To one degree or another we all bring our childhood into our relationship…

…and it happens UNCONSCIOUSLY. 

And it usually happens in one of two ways.

Either you’re a “HAILSTORM” or a “TURTLE”.

Recently one of my clients said, “When we argue I blow up! And then he does a disappearing act! It always leaves me mad, and then feeling guilty like I’m the one who screwed everything up! “

This woman is in a relationship with what we call a "MINIMIZER”, represented by the TURTLE, who withdraws into his shell when conflict occurs.
She is what is known as a “MAXIMIZER”, depicted by the HAILSTORM, insistent and intrusive. Often these two marry each other (though not always).

In the Romantic Stage of the relationship, those wonderful pleasure chemicals that cause us to fall madly in love with each other, also blind us to many sobering realities about each other.

And in this intoxicated state, the Hailstorm is drawn to the Turtle and vice versa.

And then after some time together (2 months to 2 years),  the drugs wear off, the Power Struggle Stage begins, and these same two people begin to drive each other crazy!

Can you relate?

(Keep in mind that these roles are not gender stereotypes. Maybe you see yourself in this, but the roles are reversed. In my example, he was a Turtle and she was a Hailstorm. So for that reason I’m using “he” when referring to the Turtle, and “she” when referring to the Hailstorm.)

The Turtle and Hailstorm represent two common childhood defense strategies. 

Growing up, these two may have experienced similar kinds of wounding, frustrations, or unmet needs, but each learned a different way of coping. 

Each developed a strategy that helped them survive childhood.

Problem is, that same strategy is now sabotaging their adult relationship.

Are you seeing yourself in this?

If you find yourself living with a Turtle or a Hailstorm, you can overcome barriers to intimacy by taking time to identify the unconscious childhood wounds driving your reactions, and by consciously choosing to respond differently.

The best way I’ve found to do that is through the Imago Dialogue process. If you’ve read my posts, you are probably familiar with the process.

But if you’re not familiar with Imago Dialogue, I’ve embedded a video below with a great explanation by the founder of Imago Therapy himself, Harville Hendrix.

But before you watch it, please read on…

If you are a “Turtle”, you are driven by an unconscious fear of conflict that causes you to disconnect emotionally.

Even though you crave connection with your partner, at the same time you resist that very connection, because deep down you fear the pain of losing that connection.

What??! What are you saying, Chuck?

I’m guessing you learned to avoid intimacy very early on, rather than facing your fear of losing it through rejection or abandonment.

Does that describe you?  There are very good and logical reasons for that, and I don’t have time to go into detail about it. But here are some general insights.

If you grew up in a home where anger was not allowed, or you had to shut down when people got angry, you probably still tend to check out when there is conflict. 

That’s how you survived in the past. 

And no one should feel judged for that!

Problem is…and I’ll say it again…

…that strategy will not work in your relationship today!

Did I say that already?

Withdrawing from conflict is like using a gun with a silencer – killing the relationship without detection.

You say, “Hey, I’m just trying to be nice and avoid a conflict.”

I get it. 

But your withdrawal not only frustrates your partner, it triggers her deeper childhood pain

That is why you are probably seeing an even greater “Hailstorm” effect when you pull away.

Am I close?

Alright, hold that thought about the Turtle. 

What about the Hailstorm?

If you are a “Hailstorm”, your unconscious fear drives you to explode outwardly in an attempt to get what you need.

You may have grown up in a household where you had to “get louder” in order to get others’ attention, and you probably learned to face conflict and push and shove, so to speak, until you got what you needed.

Is that you? Generally speaking?

Again, this helped you survive then. So no one should judge you.

But, in case I haven’t said this before:-) it doesn’t work today!

It doesn’t make your Turtle partner feel loved and safe.

Trying to force your partner to be present with you will only cause him to withdraw further into his shell.

Ok, so what we’re doing doesn’t work. I get that. 

How do we deal with these defenses and reconnect with each other?

I’m glad you asked that question!

Here are FOUR STEPS that will help you get beyond your defenses and reconnect with your partner in a close relationship of mutual healing and growth.

To keep this post from becoming a book in itself, I’ll take you through the Dialogue process with the Hailstorm mirroring the Turtle. 

But in real life there should be ANOTHER ROUND OF DIALOGUE where the Turtle then mirrors the Hailstorm.

Got it? Ok? Is that fair?

My hope is that you’ll get the idea and can go further on your own with both you and your partner talking and mirroring through each step with each other.

1. Mirror the frustration.

As a Turtle, when you check out emotionally, it triggers her feelings of rejection or abandonment. That withdrawal on your part energizes her as a hailstorm.

As a Hailstorm, when you crowd your partner, it triggers his feelings of being smothered. That aggression on your part energizes his retreat into the shell.

Mirroring can help you disrupt this pattern.

As a Turtle, you will have to regulate your emotions in order stretch forward and be present with your partner.

As a Hailstorm, you will have to regulate your emotions in order to dial it back and make it safe for your partner to stay present.

Together agree to an “appointment” where you both will take turns, one talking the other mirroring

Mirroring is simply repeating back in your own words what you heard your partner say.
Mirroring helps you stay out of your "reactive brain" by turning on your "curious brain".
Mirroring says to your partner, "You matter, and what you think and feel matters to me."

Here’s an example of what the whole dialogue process might look like with the Turtle talking and the Hailstorm mirroring. 

TURTLE: “When I was asked three times about fixing the front gate, I got really frustrated.”

(Notice how he didn’t use “you” language. As in, “You’re always nagging me.” or “You’re so demanding.” He used non-accusatory “I” statements.)

HAILSTORM: “What I heard you say is that when I asked you three times about fixing the front gate you got really frustrated.”

“Did I get that?” (check to be sure. If not, keep mirroring.)

Then ask,

“It there more about that?”

TURTLE:Yes. I felt like I was being controlled, and I felt like nothing I do is ever good enough, so I just avoided you and did something else for the rest of the day.

HAILSTORM: “What I hear you saying is you felt controlled and like nothing you ever do is good enough. So you didn’t work on the gate, but avoided me and did something else.

“Did I get it?

“Is there more about that?”

Staying curious and making it safe for your partner like this allows him to begin to access what’s going on in his unconscious mind. 

Seriously, things you have never seen, and things that even he has not been in touch with, begin to surface when dialogue makes the conversation safe.

Suddenly he’s conscious of something…

TURTLE: “Yes there is more. This reminds me of when I was little and my mother would force me to play the piano for her guests. And even though I would do it, I never felt it was good enough.”

Now you’re both in touch with something not seen before.  You’re seeing the SOURCE of your partner’s reaction.

And as the one mirroring, you naturally begin to “re-image” your partner, to see him, not as someone intentionaly trying to hurt you and abandon you…

… but rather, you see him as someone who, is himself, hurting and scared of being shamed and controlled.

You mean a strong, grown up man like him can feel scared of being shamed and controlled by the woman in his life?

Before the dialogue brought them to this place, I’m confident if you had asked him about his fear, he would have reacted and said something like,

“Who me? I’m not afraid of anything.”

So many people say that at first, but when you use the dialogue process to “check under the hood” you’ll find that his whole life is being driven by fear.

Fear he’s not conscious of.

The dialogue helps uncover this so that you both understand each other at a deeper level.

This process of seeing your partner’s reality transforms the relationship.

Remember you can't be curious and critical at the same time. Stay curious and your emotions will stay regulated.

It’s haarrrrrd! but you can do it!

Now go to the next step with the Turtle continuing to talk and the Hailstorm now VALIDATING.

2. Validate the feelings behind the frustration.

After summarizing what you partner said, validate him by saying something like this.

“You make sense. And what make sense about what you said is…”

Finish that sentence so that your partner will feel heard and validated.

It might look like this.

HAILSTORM: “You make sense. And what makes sense is that when you experience that feeling of being controlled, and when you feel like what you do is not good enough, you pull away from me. That makes sense.

“Especially because when you tell me how your mother demanded from you and you never felt good enough, it’s easy to see how you would feel the same thing when I become anxious and demanding.”

Then ask,

“Does that validate your perspective?”

Wait for an affirmative answer.

Validation says to your partner, "Although I may see it differently, you make sense."

This will help your partner feel safe…

…while, at the same time establish that the two of you are different. 

Different needs, different experiences, different ways of dealing with conflict.

This differentiation is an essential process if you two are going to connect.

Now the third step.

3. Empathize with your partner's fear, anger, pain or joy.

After validating your partner, EMPATHIZE with him by looking past what he did, and focusing on what he felt

In our example it would go something like this.

HAILSTORM: “I can imagine how you would be angry when you feel controlled and unappreciated, like nothing you do is good enough. That must really hurt and feel bad.”

Then ask,

HAILSTORM: “Is that what you felt?”

Wait for the affirmation and amplification he gives.

Empathizing says to your partner, “I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy. I’m present with you in that feeling.”

When you have validated your partner, then and only then will you be ready for the final step. It won’t work without the transformation that occurs with empathy.

4. Grant your partner's deep desire buried underneath the frustration.

Now we ask the Turtle to make a “change request”.  

Buried underneath every frustration is a desire not expressed.

By MIRRORING, VALIDATING, and EMPATHIZING, your goal is to make it safe enough for your partner to get in touch with the unconscious desire that lies buried beneath the frustration.

And then to form it into a request.

A request that, when granted, will bring HEALING to him, and GROWTH to you.

Healing, because it represents for him what he’s always longed for but never received.

And growth because, in granting it, it will stretch you, and cause you to grow and discover a part of yourself you lost along the way.

Make change requests specific and measurable. 

Don’t ask for your partner to do something from now until eternity. 

Just ask regarding the “next time” you encounter another potentially frustration experience.

So when the Turtle is invited to make a request, it might look like this:

TURTLE: “The next time you ask me to do something, would you first tell me two or three things I’m already doing that you appreciate?”

Embedded in this kind of change request is a powerful formula for healing (for the Turtle) and growth (for the Hailstorm).

And it sets the whole trajectory of their relationship toward wholeness.

But remember it won’t work unless you effectively process steps 1-3 first.

Does this make sense?

I hope so. If not, put your questions in the reply section below.

Wait a minute!

WHAT ABOUT THE HAILSTORM?

Doesn’t she get to talk and have her Turtle mirror, etc.?

Well yes of course!

So…

Why don’t you sit down right now with your partner and try this out.

And begin with the HAILSTORM talking and the TURTLE listening!

Then let us know below how it goes in the reply section below.

And of course if you get into trouble contact me and I’ll help you. Check out my coaching program here.

No matter where you are in the world I can help you through a powerful video conferencing platform.

But for now it’s ok to “try this at home”. 

Go for it! Begin this powerful dialogue asap!

Don’t let childhood defenses sabotage your relationship!

You can do this!

Until next week,
Chuck

Here is the video of Harville Hendrix’ brief explanation of Imago Dialogue. Watch it and learn more about its power to transform a relationship.

Comments please! Let me know your thoughts. Post them below!

Thanks!

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