I’ve worked with couples for 30-plus years and have been married for nearly as long. In that time, I’ve come to recognize one of the most important things necessary to make a marriage work well. This ingredient is crucial for a marriage not only to survive but to grow. I want to share it with you, not because it is a groundbreaking revelation but because we have to be reminded of this “fact” often. You see, our reactive “amygdala” in our emotional mid-brain (aka the limbic system) would always have us forget this simple yet most profound principle. The principle: Own your own Stuff.
The “Flight” reaction
There are three dimensions of the relationship world: Power, heart and knowing. In each of the negative manifestations of the three dimensions, we find the old biological notion that organisms protect themselves in one of three ways: Fight, Flight and Freeze/Appease. In each situation, the reactive amygdala kicks in. Although much can be said about the Flight and Freeze limbic reactions in a marriage, I want to focus today on the “Fight” reaction. This is the shame-and-blame limbic reaction. It’s a reaction because we often do it automatically—without thinking—and certainly without love or empathy for the other. This is a desperate and habitual Ego-reaction to protect one’s “sense of self” without regard for a true, honest and necessary interpersonal process.
Conflicts that happen in the process of protecting the “sense of self”
Let me give a very simple example. On the way back from a dinner party, Trina tells her husband that she was embarrassed by something that he said in front of everyone. Terry’s reaction is swift: Like a professional boxer he blurts out, “like you always do everything right. And besides, I was right, you’re so passive aggressive when it comes to my mother.” Immediately Trina “blocks the punch,” explaining (once again) why she was late. She might even throw a counterpunch about how he’s the one who has a problem with his stupid mother. Let the limbic boxing match begin. The argument escalates as they exchange limbic punches until they are exhausted and full of resentment (cancer for any relationship).
What just happened?
In this case, Terry heard what she was saying to him as a threat—perhaps to his ego, or maybe it activated the critical mother he carries around in his head. He instinctively reacted by attacking her as if he was being attacked (and so what if he was?). Tina then reacts to him and a very destructive interaction takes place. If this type of interaction happens often enough, the quality of the marriage will be significantly degraded.
How could this have been different?
If Terry’s prefrontal cortex had arrived on the scene in time, he could have “detained” his aroused amygdala long enough to ask her to tell him more. And if he carefully listened, he might have realized that he did, in fact, say something hurtful. He then might have had the humility (and courage) at that moment to acknowledge that he was wrong to discuss personal matters in public and to offer an apology. Trina would have felt understood and valued. Alternatively, perhaps Tina could have been the first to start the conversation mindfully. She didn’t have to be defensive but instead should have realized that Terry was reacting from sensitivity to her disclosure. The outcome from a more mindful (less reactive) interaction would be significantly different from the one in the previous scenario.
Own your mistakes first
The principle is simple (but so difficult when the amygdala and/or Ego are aroused). Own your own stuff. From the beginning of the discussion if you can, but as soon as possible at any rate. By the way, this does not mean confessing to crimes you did not commit. Rather, simply be open to your part in any impasse—and it almost always takes two to tango. A marriage that has two partners who do this on an ongoing basis have a (non)fighting chance at a growing and fulfilling marriage. However, if a marriage has one partner who never acknowledges their own part in any problem, the emotionally intelligent partner will have to make some difficult decisions about the relationship. And if neither person in a couple can “own their own stuff,” . . . well, good luck making a go of it at all.