Feeling stuck? Get back on track to your dream marriage

Most couples begin their journey with a dream of marital bliss.

But somewhere within the first two years after saying “I do”, many get stuck and their dream becomes a living nightmare. Or, at best, a dull and mediocre existence.

How does something so good end up feeling so bad? 

It happens when we enter the Power Struggle Stage of marriage. You know you’re in the power struggle when you start wanting your partner to change. “If only you would change, I could be happy.” You start complaining that your needs are not being met. “You could meet my needs if you wanted to. And since you don’t, you don’t love me.” 

And because unconscious reactions are triggered and emotions surface from places we’re not aware of, we begin reacting in ways that are not helpful in our relationship.

For some crazy reason some partners think, “If I cause you enough pain, you will change and meet my needs! Then, we can go back to romantic love.” 

But it doesn’t work. It only gets worse. That’s why about 40% of marriages fail. And of the couples who stay together, about 75% report their marriages as unsatisfactory. These couples are stuck.

So how do we get unstuck and back on track toward the marriage we dreamed about in the beginning? 

Here are six steps that will help…along with an opportunity to enroll in an online course that will take you further, learning all the tools you’ll need.

1. Make a new commitment to pursue your dream marriage

Most things in life don’t come to us unless we go after them. When we get stuck in our relationship it will require a new commitment to get unstuck.

Make a commitment to three things: Reconnecting, Rekindling and Re-envisioning your relationship.

HERE’S HOW THE ONLINE COURSE WILL HELP YOU GO FURTHER.

Week 1: Getting on the journey to your dream marriage

You’ll discover why marriage is the best place to heal and grow and fulfill your life purpose together – no matter how stuck you’ve become. 

You’ll look at four stages that most marriages go through, and you’ll work together as a couple to create your own Relationship Vision statement that will help get you back on course and guide you into the future together. 

2. Learn how to turn conflicts into a deeper connection with your partner

Allowing conflicts to continue without being resolved will drain the life out of any relationship.

The real problem is that unresolved conflicts block your ability to connect.

When we feel connected everything works. When we feel disconnected nothing works. Cortisol which increases anxiety, and unconscious defenses hurls us into further conflict.

HERE’S HOW THE ONLINE COURSE WILL HELP YOU GO FURTHER.

Week 2: Turning Conflicts into Connection

You’ll learn about the Power Struggle Stage of marriage and why we have conflicts as a couple. You will use the Couples Dialogue to turn these conflicts into connection.

3. Discover root issues that are blocking intimacy

You can resolve conflicts but still not feel connected. You must move beyond the symptoms and deal with root issues that cause your conflicts to keep recurring. 

HERE’S HOW THE ONLINE COURSE WILL HELP YOU GO FURTHER.

Week 3: Overcoming Unconscious Barriers to Intimacy

You’ll learn why conflict is a sign you married the right person. You’ll discover what kinds of unconscious forces were in effect when you chose the partner you did, and how there was an unconscious program running in your lower brain that led you to the person best suited to help you heal and grow. You’ll use the Parent/Child Dialogue where you will gain empathy for your partner’s past and learn what to do about the childhood defenses that are blocking your ability to connect. 

4. Rekindle romantic love 

Couples who have endured long term conflict often lose their feelings for each other. Use the Caring Behaviors exercise to rekindle love and reignite passion in your relaitonship.

HERE’S HOW THE ONLINE COURSE WILL HELP YOU GO FURTHER.

Week 4: Reigniting Your Passion for Each Other

You will add to your toolbox this powerful tool called the Caring Behaviors exercise. It will help you and your partner rekindle romantic love and increase safety and connection in your relationship

5. Use conflicts as an opportunity to heal and grow

As conflicts are turned into connection, learn to ask for changes that bring healing and growth

HERE’S HOW THE ONLINE COURSE WILL HELP YOU GO FURTHER.

Week 5: Building a Healing and Growth Partnership

You will look at how your partner’s need for healing becomes a blueprint for your own emotional growth. You’ll learn that buried beneath each relationship frustration is a wish. You’ll use the Change Request Dialogue tool to begin a lifestyle of turning frustrations into requests that help you get the love you want, bringing healing to you and growth to your partner.

6. Build a culture of safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness.

Most of the great relationship tools I teach don’t work…that is unless you work them. It’s easy to start well, have a breakthrough, only to go back to old patterns. Build habits that will keep you feeling connected in a stable and secure relationship.

HERE’S HOW THE ONLINE COURSE WILL HELP YOU GO FURTHER.

Week 6: Continuing the journey to your dream marriage

You will learn how to make the relationship tools you’ve learned a lifestyle. You will learn how to develop the habits necessary to sustain change over time and continue the journey to the marriage of your dreams.

Let me encourage you to join me for the six-week online course, Building the marriage of your dreams.

Click here for more info and to enroll in the Couples Online Course.

Also, if you haven’t already…

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

When marriage conflicts do damage to your children

When Mark and Jennifer had a breakthrough in their marriage relationship, their joy was mixed with all kinds of regrets.

Mark said, “Why couldn’t we have learned these things about our marriage sooner so our kids didn’t have to grow up in a war zone?”

Their happiness was tarnished by thoughts of what constant fighting had done to their children.

Are there things that happened in the past that you regret? Are you concerned about how your mistakes might have affected your children?

Here are some steps Mark and Jennifer took to turn regrets of the past into hope for the future.

1. Keep growing in your marriage

You can’t change the past but you can change the future. You can’t change where you’ve been but you can change where you’re going.

Although you began badly, you can end well.

Although Mark and Jennifer spent much of their marriage in conflict, they did not give up. They found some powerful tools through Imago Relationship Therapy that helped them reconnect and rebuild their relationship.

So they had a breakthrough in their relationship. That’s great, but what about the collateral damage? What about the damage done to their children?

2. Let go of the past

Mark and Jennifer realized they have to let go of their past. They decided to not let their past failures define them.

History is full of examples of successful people who did not let their past define them.

Historical figures like King David and the Apostle Paul had pasts that make most of us look like saints by comparison.

And yet through their faith, they found forgiveness that enabled them to forgive themselves and move on toward monumental accomplishments in life.

When we allow a failure to define us, it limits us all our lives.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It may be a difficult process. But choose to let go of the past.

3. Look at what you have; not at what you don’t have

Jennifer and Mark did not minimize the pain they caused, or the loss of time and opportunities with their kids. But instead of looking at what they don’t have, they decided to look at what they do have. 

A soldier who loses an arm in battle can let that loss define him for the rest of his life.

Or he can look at what he has and ask, “How can I build on that?”

In the same way Mark and Jennifer began to express gratitude for what they have – a marriage that is now on track and an opportunity to change their story.

4. Look to the future with hope

Mark and Jennifer realized the final chapter of their relationship is not yet written.

Though they started out badly, they could end well and have a positive impact on their children.

They were surprised to find that their children still looked up to them. Their children could see the changes in their marriage. They learned it’s never too late to have a positive impact on your children.

5. Extend your healing to your children

Mark used the dialogue skills he learned with Jennifer to talk to his daughter who was now out of college and building her career. He said things like, “I can see how I was into my work too much and was not available to you and your mom during that time.”

She opened up and told him of an instant when she was in middle school and needed help that involved calling a teacher. Mark was busy and told her, “You’re a big girl. You can make that call yourself.”

With tears she told him of the pain she felt at that moment, and how she vowed she’d never ask him for help again.

From that point there was a strain and distance in their relationship. But now, as Mark acknowledging the hurt he caused, there was healing. 

And then a thought came that surprised them both. His daughter said, “You know Dad, that was hurtful. But in many ways it served to make me the independent and self-sufficient person I am today.”

Wow! Healing and acknowledgement of the good that came out of a childhood wound. Can it get any better? 

Healing in Mark and Jennifer’s marriage is being extended to their children. 

Could it be that your children need you now as much as ever?

It’s not too late to give your children a blueprint of what a healthy marriage looks like – not a perfect marriage, but a growing marriage.

Never underestimate the impact changes in your marriage can have on others, especially your children.

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

Frustrations wrecking your marriage? Here’s what to do!

Relationship science tells us that frustrations in your marriage that are recurring and that trigger an intense emotional reaction, come from your past, not your partner.

“Wait a minute! It’s not my past, it’s my partner who is frustrating me!”

Ok, I realize you get frustrated by what your partner does or doesn’t do. But if your reaction is intense and it happens three times or more, science says your partner is only the trigger of  a deeper frustration from childhood.

And, let me guess…your partner sees your reaction as an “overreaction” that not justified.

Am I right?

Behind every recurring, emotionally charged frustration is a deep desire to get something you didn’t get in childhood. 

Here’s how you can turn frustrations into requests and keep them from wrecking your marriage.

1. Engage in the Imago Couples Dialogue

The first step is to make your conversation safe.

Laurel was upset because she felt like her husband Ben left her alone at a party. When she brought it up, Ben reacted to her. As you read on, you’ll see how escalated it got!

The Imago Couples Dialogue  helped Ben regulate his reaction so he could listen to Laurel. It also made Laurel feel safe enough to access information buried deep in her subconscious mind.

2. Identify the root issue

When a conversation is safe you can identify how your frustration is connected to childhood.

Laurel discovered that her “overreaction” was because her childhood wound of abandonment was triggered when she felt Ben was leaving her. 

She had grown up as a single child. Her dad left when she was eight and her mom worked long hours. After school she was at daycare until she was old enough to be left alone at home.

3. Turn your frustration into a request

Buried deep within every frustration with your partner is a wish. A wish to finish what was left undone in childhood. If that frustration can be restructured into a request, your partner can give you the healing you’re unconsciously looking for.

Laurel’s frustration: “I feel like you left me at the party and when I passed by you, you didn’t speak to me. You didn’t even look at me!”

Ben’s escalated reaction to Laurel’s frustration: “What do you mean?! It was a networking party for crying out loud! I was there for business! I wanted you to come along, but I can’t even do my job without you complaining like a baby! When are you going to grow up?!

If they continue to talk like this, Laurel’s wound will continue to be reinjured and the frustration will never be resolved.

Here’s how the Couples Dialogue helped Laurel restructure her frustration into a request.

Laurel: “Last night when we were at the party and you were talking to potential clients, I felt really alone, just like when I was little and came home from school every day to an empty house. What I’m really afraid of is that you don’t realize what being alone does to me and that I’ll always have this feeling of being abandoned.”

Ben (Mirroring): “What I hear you saying is that when I was talking to potential clients you felt really alone. It reminded you of the feelings of abandonment you had when your mom was at work and you were alone in the afternoons. And that brings up a deeper fear that you’ll always feel abandoned. Did I get it? Is there more about that?…

Ben (Validating): “You make sense. Anyone would feel that way given your circumstances.”

Ben (Empathizing): “I can imagine it must feel really bad when you have those deep feelings of being abandoned or forgotten.”

Laurel (turning her frustration into a Request): “One thing that would help me the next time we’re at a party is if you will look for me every 30 minutes, touch my hand, look me in the eye and ask how I’m doing.”

Ben (responding): “I will be more than happy to do that.”

(Big hug!)

If Ben follows through, he will experience growth, and  it WILL bring healing to Laurel! 

That’s how you turn a frustration into a request and keep it from wrecking your marriage!

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

VIDEO BLOG: How to turn marriage conflicts into healing and growth opportunities

Most of us see conflicts in our marriage as bad.

But did you know that conflicts can bring us to new levels of healing and growth we would never experience otherwise?

In the video below, the story of Mario and Rosa shows us how to turn marriage conflicts into healing and growth opportunities.

Take a few minutes to watch the video with your partner…

…and then use the discussion questions below to talk about how you can turn your conflicts into healing and growth opportunities.

https://youtu.be/CJhxjDfJMtA

Discussion with your partner:

  1. What evidence do each of you see that you married your “Imago” match? (To explore further, fill out the “Brief Relationship Workup“, then transfer the info to “My Unconscious Relationship Agenda“. )
  2. Share with each other what needs for healing you see.
  3. In what specific ways will you both need to grow in order to bring healing to each other?

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

How to have the kind of marriage communication that leads to closer connection

Experts cite communication problems as the number one reason marriages fail.

But good communication in marriage is not enough, unless that communication leads you to a closer connection with your partner.

That’s because…

Communication is not really the problem in marriage. Feeling disconnected is.

You can have good communication and not feel connected.

I’m not saying communication is not important, because you can’t connect without communicating. What I’m saying is you can communicate without connecting.

Sometimes you may communicate perfectly and still trigger each other’s defenses.

Whenever defenses are triggered, the space between you becomes negative. Negativity makes a conversation unsafe, and that’s what keeps you from connecting.

So…

Whether it’s criticism in your communication, or a judgmental reaction to your partner’s words, this kind of communication will prevent connection and conflict will be the result.

Talking with criticism or listening with judgment can make any subject a contentious one. And that’s when we blame our relationship failure on “communication problems”.

On the other hand, when you talk in a way that leaves you feeling connected, then you can more easily deal with every problem in your relationship.

The Safe Conversation model (aka The Couple’s Dialogue) is a tool that will help you communicate in a way that leads to connection.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt have defined a Safe Conversation as…

A way of talking without criticizing, of listening without judging, and connecting beyond our differences.

Let’s consider how this can work for us.

1. Talking without criticizing

Janet said to her husband Rob, “You’re going to kill yourself if you keep eating like that! You know that white sugar is poison!”

Communication? There is no question about what Janet is communicating. It’s crystal clear. But what do you think Rob’s response would be to this kind of communication?

He’d probably see it as criticism, and react by judging Janet’s intent as being disrespectful or controlling. Right?

“Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”

And then this reaction would then trigger further frustration on Janet’s part.

“You never listen to me.”

This downward spiral began with a critical comment.

A safe conversation can eliminate that.

You can talk about almost anything if you’ll say it in a respectful way without criticism.

It’s not what you say but how you say it. Whatever it is you’re talking about is secondary.

As safe conversation is like a truck moving produce.  The truck will deliver whatever it’s carrying: wheat, corn, beans or potatoes, it doesn’t matter.

In the same way a safe conversation will deliver any kind of message you want to send: appreciation, frustration, things you want, or things you need from your partner, it doesn’t matter. Like the truck moving the cargo, a safe conversation will deliver the goods.

So what would a Safe Conversation look like in this case?

1) Use “I statements” rather than “you statements”

Instead of saying “you” and then criticizing Rob, Janet could start by using “I” statements to share two things: “what I saw or heard” and “what I felt”.

And then she add any other thoughts or feelings that come to mind.

“When I saw you eating donuts, I felt anxious. My mother had diabetes and died at an early age and I’m afraid of something happening to you.”

2) Watch the non-verbal messages you’re sending

Often, things like a sigh, a glare, or a rolling of the eyes communicate negativity.

It will be really helpful if Janet conveys a soft look in her eyes and speaks in a kind tone.

It’s the non-verbal gestures that actually do most of our communicating.

3) Regulate your own emotional reaction

When Janet speaks in this way, she is working to regulate her reaction and the fear that drives her criticism.

This gives Rob a chance to control his own reaction, and perhaps listen with curiosity.

So, when you’re talking, use I statements, watch your non-verbal messages, and regulate your reaction to what you’ve seen and heard.

These steps will help do a lot to make the conversation safe and thus easier for your partner to listen and connect with you.

The problem may not be that your partner is not listening well. The problem may be that you’re not communicating in a way that can be heard.

Talking without criticizing can help make it safe to talk about even the most difficult issues.

2. Listening without judgment

What’s Rob’s part in this?

Rob stirred the pot by reacting with, “Stop telling me what to do! You’re always trying to control me!”

What if he were to regulate his own reaction for the moment?

You know Janet is really a decent person. What if Rob were to become curious about what feelings are driving her insensitive comment.

The three-part Safe Conversation model is designed to help you do that.

Here’s what it might look like:

Mirror

What if Rob simply mirrored back to Janet what she said?

Mirroring says to your partner, “You matter. What you have to say matters.”

Here’s what that might look like:

“Let me see if I got what you’re saying. You’re saying that when I ate that second donut, you felt anxious. Your mother had diabetes and died at an early age, and you’re afraid of something happening to me.”

Did I get it? (checking for accuracy)

Is there more about that? (curiosity)

Checking to get 100%, and then becoming curious about your partner has a powerful effect, making your partner feel like she or he matters.

The second step is…

Validate

Validation is when you say to your partner, “Although I may see things differently, you make sense.” And then you tell your partner what makes sense about what she or he just said.

“Janet, you make sense. It makes sense that because you experienced such a loss when your mother died, you’d naturally be anxious when you see me not being careful about my sugar intake. That makes sense.

“Does that give you the validation you need?” (always check to see)

Empathize

And finally, empathy is when you feel what your partner is feeling about the issue.

“And I can imagine that you’re feeling really scared. I’ve felt afraid when I thought of losing someone. And that feels really bad.”

Empathy enables you to be present with your partner in the midst of their fears. This enables you to connect emotionally, on a deeper, heart level. This will also bring a measure of healing to the wound that is driving your partner’s fear.

3. Connecting beyond our differences

As Rob and Janet connect, their differences over diet may not change. But empathy will enable them to connect beyond their differences.

You say, well, what if I can’t accept the difference? What if it’s not just an addiction to sweets, but an addiction to say, alcohol.

Then it may be necessary to ask for a change in behavior. But in my experience Rob would be much more open to Janet’s request if they feel connected.

On the other hand, if they continued being defensive and feeling disconnected, the fight would go on and on and on. Right?

What about you?

You too can learn to communicate in a way that leads to closer connection with your partner.

How?

By talking without criticizing, listening without judging, and connecting beyond your differences.

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

Is criticism wrecking your marriage and hurting your children? Here’s what to do!

Here’s how to stop the criticism and begin modeling a healthy marriage for your children.

The first step is to…

1. Regulate your own reaction to criticism.

You can’t control what your partner does to criticize you, but you can control your response to your partner.

And if you’ll do that, you’ll change the whole dynamic of your relationship.

Criticism triggers defenses and activates counter-criticism.

Whenever opinions differ, you’ll tend to criticize your partner for not being like you.

For example:

Wife: “Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until is full so we don’t waste energy.”

Husband: “You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing, they’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”

That’s a setup for a critical reaction and a counter-critical reaction:

Wife: “You never listen to me!”

Husband: “You’re always telling me what to do!”

Can I say it again? You CAN’T control your partner’s choice to criticize you, but you CAN control your response to your partner.

You don’t have to engage in counter-criticism. And when you make that choice, you diffuse the tension, disrupt the cycle, and the whole dynamic of your relationship changes.

So, how do I regulate my reactivity?

Instead of reacting in your default, “critical mode”, respond by “MIRRORING” what your partner says.

MIRRORING is a tool that empowers you to stop reactive feelings in their tracks, and turn your rational brain on with genuine interest and curiosity.

When you mirror your partner’s criticism back to her, you not only hear WHAT she’s saying, but you become curious as to WHY she’s saying it.

Here’s what that could look like:

Wife: “You never listen to me!”

Husband: “Let me see if I’m getting what you’re saying.”

OK, before you say that’s a silly way to answer just bear with me!

That opening sentence becomes a powerful pivot point, enabling you to turn in the opposite direction – from reactive criticism toward interest and curiosity. It helps you turn on your upper brain and temper your lower brain.

“If I got it, you said that I never listen to you.”

Mirroring is about focusing on what your partner is saying with such intensity that you can repeat it back word for word.

Then you ask a question that helps you focus on hearing her with complete accuracy.

“Did I get it?”

This ensures that you hear ALL she is saying.

In the case above, the husband heard the words the wife said, but now he’s inviting her to clarify what she meant with those words.

And finally…

Is there more about that?

This last question puts curiosity in overdrive, and bingo! Congratulations! You’re in “regulation mode”!

Now you’re not driven to react with that ugly counter-criticism:“You’re always telling me what to do!”

And, you have made it safe for your partner to access what she’s really feeling.

When you do that you’ll probably see her re-compensate and say something like…

“Thanks for hearing my concern. What are your thoughts?”

(OK, I admit, it doesn’t always go this smoothly, but your chances are a whole lot better than if you react with your counter-criticism! :-))

Then you’ll find yourself without a ruptured connection, and in a better place to solve the problem.

You cannot be curious and critical at the same time. Your brain can’t run on those two tracks at once. The problem is our reactive neurons move 10 times faster from the bottom up (lower brain to upper brain).

And the moment a conversation becomes unsafe, your lower brain triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline into your system. This causes all the blood to rush from your brain into your larger muscles in preparation for fight or flight.

In this kind of reaction mode, we can’t think straight! In that drugged-up and dumbed-down condition, we tend to do our worst when it matters most!

Mirroring disrupts all that. It gives the top-down neurons a chance to regulate your emotions, and this empowers you to make a conscious response rather than a triggered reaction.

And here’s a BONUS! This process builds new brain pathways, connecting your lower reactive brain to your upper rational brain. So the more you practice it, the better you get at regulating your reactions.

Modern scientific discoveries about brain plasticity tell us that “old dogs” can learn “new tricks”!

As the husband in the example above regulates his own reaction, it not only keeps him from adding to the negativity, it also changes the way his partner responds to him.

Many times that’s how it works. But of course, not always.

Sometimes regulating your own reactions is not enough, because your partner’s reactivity is so intense.

That’s where a second, even more powerful tool comes in.

2. Respond to criticism with forgiveness.

How can I forgive someone when they are attacking me?

Well, what happens when you mirror her criticism? What do you discover?

You discover that beneath your partner’s criticism is cry for connection with you.

Disconnection results in anxiety. Unchecked anxiety is what manifests in criticism. Therefore, every criticism is an unspoken desire for connection.

Knowing this, enables you to “pre-validate” your partner’s feelings.

And then, when you stand tall and forgive her for that criticism, rather than shrinking in shame, or exploding in retaliation, you become her hero!

That’s what happened with Mark and Sunny.

Nedra Fetterman tells the story of her parents, Mark and Sunny, how a simple request changed their whole relationship dynamic in a way that stopped the criticism.

The impact on their relationship was not a surprise. These tools really work.

But the subtle impact this had on their daughter’s marriage, and even their grandson came as a complete surprise!

3. Model for your children a marriage that is “in process”.

The third step is to simply let your children see you growing in your relationship.

Regulating your reactivity, responding in forgiveness, and reconnecting with your partner will help you eliminate criticism in your relationship.

This will become a beautiful example for your children – one they will see when you least expect it!

Watch how all this worked in Mark and Sunny’s relationship in the brief video below. Then use the discussion questions to go deeper with your partner.

The video ends with these words:

“Consciousness is contagious. Love is irresistible. Acts of courage and kindness are never forgotten. You never know who is watching you, or who you inspire. The ripple effects of healing pain are boundless in every neighborhood, in every family. In every moment you have a choice. Each moment is a crossroads. Our culture glorifies the magic of falling in love, but says very little about how to sustain a more seasoned love.” – Nedra Fetterman

Discuss with your partner:

1) How is criticism affecting our marriage?

2) What can we do to regulate our own reactions?

3) Behind every criticism is a wish. How can you turn your criticism into a request from me? How can I turn my criticism into a request from you? 

4) How can we “pre-validate” each others criticism as  a cry for connection, and how can we meet that criticism with forgiveness?

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

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!

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