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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Do This to Save Your Marriage: How to Calm Down and Speak Non-Defensively

Wife: (taking her seat): I think I’m done.

Husband: (looking confused): With what?

The marriage. I’m done with the marriage… It’s not working.

Wife is as stunned as Husband by her opening comment. No one says anything for several moments.

It worked at one time…

It’s not the way their counseling session usually began. Husband rarely gets reactive. What was different was Wife’s lack of reactivity.

Not that she wasn’t feeling anything. Wife’s emotion was palpable. She was containing her feelings and expressing them at the same time.

Wife: In the beginning it worked. I felt like I could talk to you and it mattered how I felt. But it stopped.

Husband: That’s not true… Of course, it matters how you feel.

Wife (turning to me): This is why I can’t talk to him. I say how I feel and then he negates it.

The Classic Marital Impasse

Marriage researcher John Gottman calls it the “classic marital impasse” — A wife seeking connection from a withdrawn husband.

Until now, this couple’s impasse took a common form. Like most marriages, the wife is more likely to sense when things are off and put it on the table. The husband often has more tolerance for putting up with stuff and sweeping things under the rug.

So, when Wife brought stuff up, Husband preferred not to deal with it. The less responsive Husband became, the more reactive Wife got. What does it take to get your attention? Eventually, only an emotional earthquake registered on Husband’s marital Richter scale.

Wife: When I’m upset, he ignores me. Here’s what happened the last time he saw me crying? He walked into the other room, went outside and started cutting the grass. Unless I’m crying hysterically, it doesn’t seem to register.

Wife: If I try to talk to him about something that bothers me, I get one defensive maneuver after another and we get nowhere. But what’s even worse is when I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall. No reaction. Eventually, I start yelling, but even that’s not enough. I have to be yelling at the top of my lungs to get a reaction.

And yet, here was Wife demonstrating a newfound ability to self-administer the very antidote recommended by Dr. Gottman: Calm down and speak non-defensively.

Wife: It’s not that I don’t love you…

Husband (interrupting): That makes no sense. How can you love someone and not want to be married to them anymore?

Wife: I need basic human connection and it hurts too much to not get it. I need to do something different… now.

Husband (after a long pause): What comes next? Are you moving out?

Wife (shrugs): I’m not planning on it. I just know I don’t want to live like this anymore.

When the Body Relaxes, the Mind Tends to Follow

When Wife was crying hysterically or yelling, we can be pretty sure that the prosocial, problem-solving part of her brain (the prefrontal cortex) had gone offline. That leaves control to the amygdala, an ancient, reptilian part of the brain.

An “amygdala hijack” can be scary to witness in your partner. It’s also scary. There’s a tsunami of feelings in your body and your brain gets flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals.

It’s scary because it’s a reminder that there’s an animal component to our human nature. The amygdala is the animal part of our brain, and it’s wired for only one thing: survival. We’re talking raw emotion, red alert reflexes, and hair-trigger instinct.

Since your amygdala doesn’t have the circuitry for reason, restraint, and problem-solving, don’t bother trying to download it. You’ll just get an error message.

Your reptilian brain may not process thoughts very well, but it can process sensations. A simple grounding, felt-sense experience has the power to put your amygdala at ease and get your prefrontal cortex back online.

Avoiding or shutting down an “amygdala-hijack” can be as simple as breaking eye contact, taking a drink of water, or leaving the room. The idea is to give yourself a chance to calm your body and reengage your rational mind.

Think of it this way: Feelings first, solutions second.

Feelings First. Solutions Second.

There are amazingly simple ways to do this, but in our mind-worshipping culture, they’re easy to overlook.

To get started, instead of trying to ignore or shut down the feeling, meet it.

1. Give your body something to feel.

Your amygdala is programmed to receive and process sensation, so give it something it can process and respond to. Giving yourself a visceral and calming experience will immediately register in your instinctual brain. It’s like when your mom held you when you fell down and skinned your knee. The physical contact (holding you) and emotional contact (comforting) helped you calm down and recover.

Several months earlier, I had introduced Wife to some simple ways to experiment with the calm down part of the marriage researcher’s mantra.

Like most clients, she had the usual this feels weird, I don’t like it reaction to “woo woo” practices like these:

Feel the connection of your feet to the ground.
Gently press your palms onto the tops of your thighs.
Wiggle your toes and notice the sensation.
Make a gentle fist. Gently cover and hold the fist with the other palm.

Fortunately, she was game, probably out of sheer desperation. We tried several variations until she found ones she could “tolerate.” I let the results speak for themselves, and she was hooked.

It may sound simplistic or hokey, but research shows that a “small moments, many times” approach is the most effective way to retrain your brain to break bad habits and form better ones. Like calm down andspeak non-defensively.

In brain speak, experimenting with small moments of new behaviors grows new neural connections in the brain. And doing it many times reorganizes the neural circuitry so it becomes the new default mode network.

2. Unabashedly acknowledge the feeling.

Once Wife had some grounding practices in place, she was better able to process the feeling without being overwhelmed by it. We added: identifying the feeling.

That hurt. This feels awful. Keep it simple: This sucks. Use short phrases and feeling language. I’m disappointed. This is painful. This internal noting process allows you to absorb the feeling, like a damp cloth soaks up a spill.

Acknowledging the feeling gave Wife a way to hold it with a tiny bit of detachment. This ability to meet the feeling head-on without being overwhelmed by it, was comforting and empowering. It put her in a position to act with a better chance of being heard.

What You Can and Can’t Change in Your Partner

Wife had evidently learned enough about how her mind worked to translate it into doing something different, something better. Calming down made it easier to speak non-defensively.

An unanticipated side effect? It put pressure on the marriage. Wife’s growth was now putting pressure on diamond-in-the-rough Husband to up his game. Could he catch up with her growth in social skills enough to make this work?

If you’re in a committed relationship, sooner or later you will face the inevitable reckoning: Coming to terms with what can and can’t be changed in your marriage.

As a couples’ counselor, my job is to help you figure out if you’re in a solvable state of gridlock or, if there isn’t much you can do about your differences, at least for now, or maybe ever.

Along with a focus on solving problems and getting happier, there’s the process of making peace with what’s not going to change — or starting to consider other options.

An often-overlooked option is a decision to look for personal happiness, regardless of a difficult or less than ideal marriage. It usually means developing more emotional independence from your spouse.

Instead of moving out, you lean out.

Instead of Moving Out, Lean Out

Taking more control over creating your own happiness will be good for you. But it’s not entirely selfish. It may also be contagious. If you get happier, your partner may get happier, too.

By making your happiness a priority, you go for it in an “I count, too” way. That may include sometimes going on anyway, even when you’d rather have your partner join you on the journey.

Does leaning out put you at risk of moving into parallel lives and therefore put the marriage at risk? Yes, it can. I don’t recommend it as your opening move when your marriage is under stress.

Here’s the flip side: Going for happiness in ways that depend less on your spouse can take some pressure off a partner with limited capacity for intimacy. You may feel less disappointed in your partner and, in turn, your partner may feel less put upon or defensive.

By taking the risk of leaning out in some ways, you may discover other ways to lean in.

Renegotiating the Terms of the Relationship

Wife’s decision to lean out didn’t take the form of becoming withdrawn and cold. No one moved out. Husband and Wife continued coming to counseling sessions.

Wife: A lot of our talk time is me being a good listener while you talk. If I didn’t elbow my way into a conversation…

Husband: Well, then that’s what you need to do…

Wife: Believe me, if I hadn’t trained myself to do that more, we wouldn’t have made it this far. Husband: So, what’s the problem?

Wife (continuing): It’s exhausting. I need you to do your part to balance out the talk time. Ask me what I think sometimes.

Husband: I don’t need to be asked. If you have something to say, why don’t you just speak up?

Wife: Not everyone is like you… You’re very confident. You just march right into the room and start talking about whatever’s on your mind. You’re a really smart guy and your stories and observations are very interesting.

Husband (grinning): I know…

Wife: The thing is, I’m not looking to always be entertained. I want someone I can talk to, have a give-and-take conversation with.

Husband: If you knew I was this way, why did you marry me?

Wife (ruefully): I thought I could overcome it. I thought you’d change! (laughs).

Husband (laughing): I see…

As the interaction continue to unfold, I couldn’t help but think, “You go, girl. You may just save this marriage. And your diamond-in-the-rough husband may just let you do it.”