Who could you go to for comfort growing up? Who was that caring person you could trust would be there and meet your needs if you felt sad, hurt or lonely? As a doctor of Clinical Psychology, I ask this question to my patients because I want to know if, as a child, they had a safe adult who was responsive to their needs. Many will say their mom or dad, or another caregiver, but unfortunately, too many respond with, “I had no one, we couldn’t talk about feelings in our family.” God created us for connection, from the cradle to the grave — first to Himself and then to others, and when we feel disconnected emotionally, it affects every part of our being.
Over decades of scientific and psychological research, we’ve learned that the early years of life are a sensitive period for developing safe and secure bonds with our primary caregivers. When they have been responsive to our physical and emotional needs, we become securely attached to them and grow up feeling confident in a world that is primarily safe and where we can trust the significant people in our lives. However, if our caregivers did not respond appropriately to our needs, or responded inconsistently, we become insecurely attached and can grow up to believe that having emotional needs is not safe or important to share, or is something that we must stuff down, deny or hide. But it’s not just our childhood experiences that can wound us emotionally. Being rejected by a close friend, abusive dating relationships or traumatic experiences can cause us to believe that people will hurt us and we need to guard our hearts.
And then we get married… to the one person we’ve chosen to spend our life with, bond to and trust with our deepest longings, needs and feelings. And yet despite desperately wanting to do it differently, those old feelings get triggered and we feel unsafe again, causing us and our feelings to go into hiding. Or the feelings can trigger anger and hurt and we go into a rage. If this is you or your spouse, first, you’re not alone. And second, thankfully it’s not the end of your story. Regardless of your past experiences, you can heal from the insecurity of sharing your emotions, let down the protective wall you have around your heart and learn to trust your spouse to hear you, be there for you and respond to your needs.
Dr. Sue Johnson,* founder of Emotion Focused Therapy for couples, says that how we engage and manage conflict in marriage is like a dance. If we’re able to keep from escalating in conflict and share our soft, vulnerable feelings, the music we’re dancing to is sweet and easy-listening, and as a result we want to turn towards each other in a slow, gentle dance. However, if we quickly escalate with hurt feelings, and angry or critical comments, our music is more like a screeching, ear-splitting noise that makes us want to fight or hide. I call this the amygdala dance, because once our conflict has escalated, we’re no longer using our prefrontal cortex, or the higher level, rational brain. We’re being driven by our more primitive, threat-center, the amygdala, that tells us we’re in danger and we need to fight, flee or freeze. And it’s in our amygdala where those past painful experiences are imprinted, telling us that the primary people in our life aren’t safe and won’t be there for us when we really need them.
Except your spouse isn’t them — but your amygdala doesn’t know that. And so your body tells you to do what you did before — you fight harder, louder, meaner. Or you shut down, go away, self-soothe or self-medicate to make it better. But no matter what — at all costs, you can not be vulnerable, because being vulnerable usually means getting hurt.
Whether it’s what I’ve experienced in my own marriage, or in counselling couples, I’ve come to believe that regardless of the circumstances, couples tend to have the same fight over and over. It may be about the household chores one day, or managing the children the next, but it usually comes from the same root that triggers an attachment panic in us. This panic tells us that we’re not respected, our wants and feelings don’t matter, our spouse isn’t there for us, or worse — maybe they don’t really love us or want to be with us. And even before we can cognitively process what is happening, our bodies respond and we go for the attack, or we shut down — and it all happens in a nanosecond!
Is this sounding familiar?
Understanding what is happening is an important step to begin healing. But how can you change years of a heightened (ready to fight or flee) amygdala when it comes to trusting your spouse with your emotional needs and feelings?
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” In the world of psychotherapy, anger is considered a defensive or surface emotion. It is often the first feeling we have when our spouse does or says something that touches on a raw spot. But anger is a way to protect our more vulnerable feelings of being hurt, abandoned, rejected or disrespected.
Changing the music with our spouse first begins with getting in touch with what vulnerable feeling is being triggered and then expressing those deeper feelings in a soft, gentle way. It won’t happen overnight — and you’ll likely need help learning to change the music in your conflict from someone who can guide you together and create a safe place for you to hear each other. To begin, just notice what happens to you when your defensive emotion is triggered and ask yourself these questions:
• What did your spouse say or do? Was it the look in their eyes, tone of voice, what they said or didn’t say?
• What do you tell yourself about what happened? He thinks I’m stupid, she acts like I’m not a good husband, I’m failing as a wife, she’s bored with me.
• How does this make you feel? Unloved, sad, hurt, rejected?
• What is happening in your body when you have this feeling? Do you feel tension and want to fight? Or do you feel a sense of shame and want to hide or run?
• Try filling in the blanks: The emotional trigger for my sense of disconnection is when I see/sense/hear _________________. On the outside I show _________________. But on a deeper level, I am feeling _________________.**
It’s important to remember that your spouse isn’t your enemy. The music you’ve been dancing to is. But the good news is that once you recognize what’s wrong with your current music, you can begin to change it together. It will begin with letting God show you the emotional wounds you carry and allowing His gentleness to heal your heart. Because being able to respond softly and gently to your spouse will first begin with being soft and gentle with yourself.