Is Your Brain Creating Fights in Your Marriage? (pt. 3)

This video continues using the ‘swoop diagram’ to manage or interrupt marital disagreements before they become full-blown fights. In marriage counseling, this “on-ramp” phase gets a lot of attention, because most couples get the greatest benefit to avoiding fights by interrupting and changing their unconscious patterns in this phase of disagreements.

This video covers several actions most often recommended in marriage counseling to be practiced and developed by couples, both to avoid fights and to build effective communication and cooperation during disagreements with their marriage partner.

- Asheville Marriage Counseling Length: 06:16
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Let’s go ahead and look at the second area where we can make changes in our marriage that will reduce the likelihood of us getting into the danger zone.

And that’s when we are in this stage of becoming emotionally charged (after) we get triggered by something, but before we’ve tripped over into the amygdala (trigger.) We have an opportunity to do some things differently in that area that I refer to as the on-ramp. One of my marriage counseling clients once commented, “if you go past the on-ramp you get on the free-for-all highway” – and that’s the way that many of my couples counseling clients experience it. So while we’re on the on-ramp, we want to do some things to prevent us from hitting the tripwire.

One of the first things to do is to recognize and avoid what I call anger accelerants. These are triggers that make it more likely that our partners will increase their anger and they’re pretty obvious kinds of things.

Making accusations, being provocative or using taunting statements, using generalizations or absolutes, like “you never do this” or “I always have to do that”.

Anything that is actively blaming or shaming our partner is going to trigger their natural defense of reaction and once a defensive reaction is triggered it’s very difficult to get back to a positive conversation.

Bringing up the past. I know this is a difficult one and I wish I could go into detail on it. I’ll simply say many people bring up the past, because they are currently feeling like they felt in a past circumstance and they’re trying to help their partner understand the similarity. However, it is almost always detrimental to bring it up in the course of the current situation, because the partner feels like it’s piling on or (ringing up) things that are not forgiven. So, bringing of the past tends to accelerate anger rather than help keep the discussion at the moment clean and focused on today.

And then lastly anything that is belittling or demeaning or contemptuous obviously are things to avoid and are real red flags in terms of the health of a relationship.

So we want to avoid anger accelerants and what can we do instead when we’re on the on-ramp – to avoid hitting the tripwire? Well, remembe while you’re on your on-ramp things change within you. When we become emotionally charged we have certain sensory and physical changes and if we can recognize those as cues, then we can be more aware that were beginning to repeat that old pattern. (It) gives us a heads up to interrupt it.

Those can be things like getting flushed, your voice changing, sweating, becoming agitated, etc. Learning to recognize those cues, so you can do things differently at that point.

And that is the second one. Developing what I call “pattern interruption”. It’s knowing that you have a pattern that is likely to play out unless you consciously do something differently. Part of what we address in marriage counseling sessions is what you will do differently, because unless you have a plan already in mind almost certainly you will do what you’ve done before when you’re becoming agitated. It’s a much more difficult to come up with a plan to do something differently at that time.

Being able to assess “relative importance”. I have another video that talks about how our brains tricks us and gets tunnel vision as we’re on our on-ramp and we’re becoming more and more focused on just the one thing that’s annoying us. And (because) we’re emotionally charged sometimes things that are really not that important turn into big arguments, because we haven’t taken the moment to ask “how important is this really?”.

I mentioned earlier being able to genuinely listen and genuinely inquire of our partner what their experience is can be so powerful in avoiding the on-ramp escalation.

Simply being able to recognize you’re going to have differences. All couples have differences. So accepting them and not making them right or wrong, but just making them different is often very powerful and changing your perspective and changing how you would deal with those annoyances when you are in discussion with your partner or you’re in disagreement.

It’s important you speak from your experience and not from (assumptions of) your partner’s experience. This is often referred to as using “I statements”, and it’s become a little cliché – almost to the point that I hesitate using that term. But the fundamental principles matter. Speaking from your own experience and how you are being affected can be very powerful and it avoids the implicit accusations that are made when you use “you statements”.

And then lastly affirming your connection, even in the stage of disagreement. Actively affirming we’re still a team, we’re still ‘us’, this is a difference that’s causing a some difficulty in our marriage and were doing it together is very powerful. I’ve mentioned before John Gottman in another video and he’s come up with a recognition that couples who report a strong relationship and having good predictability of being together for the long-term actively connect five times for each one time the experience of disconnection. And they continue that ratio even in their disagreements. So even in a disagreement statements of understanding and connection and affirmation, of being a couple, can be very useful to decrease the likelihood of hitting the tripwire.

And if none of those work the single most important thing you can do is disengage! Disengage before hitting the amygdala’s alarm so that you avoid the danger zone.

Presenter: Geoffrey Bullock, LCSW of Asheville Marriage Counseling

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