Standing in Quick Sand
How many times have you found yourself in a discussion with your partner that suddenly turned sour and you don’t really know how you got there? You’ve said or done something that set them off and you are not sure how it happened, it’s just that suddenly you are standing in quick sand and sinking deeper by the second. Now, of course, you want to dig yourself out, but everything you try just pulls you in deeper. At this point your heart is racing, you are sweating and unsure of what to say or do. Your partner is behaving like a wounded animal and you don’t have a clue how to fix it. Sound familiar?
Well, it should sound familiar because we all do it. We all have times when our communications do go as we intend and we find ourselves battling a battle that we don’t understand. We don’t know what started it and we sure as heck don’t know how to stop it. Sometimes divorces result from just such interactions!
All of us have our moments. All of us have certain things that set us into a survival mode that leaves us feeling isolated, terrified, angry, hurt, or just plain depressed. This survival mode feels personal, as if our partners deliberately intend to wound us in our most sensitive places. Momentarily our partners may lose sight of who we are and, yes, say or do something to deliberately hurt us, but unless our partner is a psychopath, they don’t go into the conversation with the intention of hurting us. So why is it we so often find ourselves in the quick sand?
Human beings are animals. We have an old part of our brain (old in the evolutionary sense) that reacts in a primitive manner to any hint of perceived threat. We can’t really help it; our reactions are part of our brain function. The more insecure we feel in a relationship, and the more important that relationship is to us, the more likely we are to be triggered into this primitive reactivity. The set of behaviors triggered by our brain chemistry are pre-programmed into us from our ancestry to increase our chances of survival in the wild.
Lauren and Stan had been married for over 20 years, yet they had never established trust. Their “old brain” was still behaving as if their partner were a threat to them. Lauren’s mother was depressed and her father was an angry, frustrated man who raged at and physically abused his children. As a result, any time Stan expressed his frustration with anything that Lauren did, she accused him of being abusive. She shamed him and withheld sex from him. She believed herself to be protecting her children. Her old brain kicked in and she went into what I now call “Self-Protector” mode.
Her attacks threw Stan into his own “Self-Protector” mode. She would snap at him… He would be forced to withdraw into a protective angry shell.
I couldn’t understand how their marriage had lasted so long. Once Lauren was able to understand how she had thrown Stan into the role of her father, and that she was in an old brain reactive mode because of her abuse history and not because of Stan, she was able to relax her angry stance. Stan was fearful of expressing any feelings to her because of her past rages, but when he saw her pain as she talked about her father’s abuse, he softened to her. He was then able to let her see how her raging at him had affected him, and she could actually let herself have empathy for him. It still took some time before she could trust him enough to let him discipline their children, but she did. He was able to have empathy for her fear and distrust instead of seeing it as being about him.
Our old brain is particularly active if we have abuse in our childhood history. Our survival instincts had to take over in that event when we were little. Then when anything reminds us of what happened before (i.e. disciplining children) we are emotionally triggered back into our old brain survival instincts.
Lauren and Stan were lucky enough to learn this before Lauren died of cancer two years later. She was able to let him care for her and take over as primary parent. He was able to let her see his pain and vulnerability.
Establishing a deeper level of understanding of our partners’ reasons for blasting into the old brain reactivity helps us get closer and enriches our connection. The next time we find ourselves in reactive place with our partner, asking ourselves “What is this really about?” can help us move through the current conflict and into a deep abiding love.