Couples attend Couples Workshops with various issues but what is probably the most common problem is what happens to healthy communication when we get triggered into anger, fear and defense.
Many couples fall in love and enjoy each other and feel deeply that this could be the person they can build a life with. They commit to each other, plan to live together and get married and often, even during the preparations for the wedding, they start having communication problems. Life in general, and certainly the process of getting married- produces stress.
Stress is a part of life, no matter how incredibly a couple is matched. Stress affects our thinking, our judgement, our desire and passion and our compassion in detrimental ways. We deal with stress as well as we can. We try to find our patience for ourselves and each other. But as stress accumulates, all of the above start going out the window. Human beings are wired to protect themselves first and then those around us. If stress is high enough, a person goes into Survival Mode which is a neurological, physiological experience that puts a person into a higher state of alert and makes it harder to listen and understand others.
Survival mode often cuts us off from our own personal resources to listen closely and to take another into consideration. We are basically focusing on just surviving the situation. Empathy is not very accessible for the relationship when a person is deep into defense.
Here is an example:
Basia and Maciej are crazy in love and want to be together forever. Their relationship has been going really well. There are many indications that they are a good match and that they will thrive as a couple.
Maciej was well loved as a child but to an extreme. He describes his mother as a “smother mother” and has harbored great resentment towards “bossy women” all of his life. He gets very defensive when a woman appears to have any demands on him. He has an unconscious power struggle issue that triggers him into Survival Mode.
Basia is a wonderful woman and gives of herself generously. She was an only child of overachieving parents who to this day do not seem content or satisfied with life in general. They gave her the message that no matter what she did, it wasn’t enough, so she often feels inadequate. Marcy covers up her inadequacy issue well, and keeps on giving, hoping she will finally be enough. She gets triggered and hurt deeply when she feels unappreciated.
Basia : Honey, I need for you to go to the store while I pick up your mother to bring her over for dinner.
Maciej: What do you want from me now (voice rising) All I do is have to do it YOUR way!!
Basia: (talking quickly, starting to cry) I can’t believe this. I am trying so hard to make this visit with your mother good and you’re yelling at me? And how about all the times I have taken care of things for you?
Maciej: (snapping back) Don’t you hear yourself? All you do is criticize me.
On top of Maciej feeling the same old apprehension he has always felt knowing he was going to be around his mother, he probably heard a tone of voice in Basia
He gets very defensive when a woman appears to have any demands on him.
that reminded him of how his mother treated him and perhaps still does. He was fully triggered into his old issue and it was only a short hop from there into Survival Mode.
REMEMBER: Survival Mode has an enormous impact on relationships. All of us as children and throughout our adulthoods have been hurt, wounded and traumatized in a range that runs from mild to severe. Since childhood we have learned different ways to cover our wounds and move on. Sometimes we even wipe from our consciousness painful or traumatic memories, but they live on in our subconscious minds and lodge themselves deeply and often seamlessly in our bodies as well. We call these old, hurt pieces of ourselves issues. We go into Survival Mode when we are triggered into our issues. This is not a conscious process! We are usually triggered on a visceral level and then respond, instantly and physically, by going into Survival Mode, or what is clinically termed an anxiety reaction.
One of Maciej’s life tasks – and something that will benefit his marriage greatly – is to name his issue and begin to separate his old, built-up resentments about how his mother treated him from the normal requests that his wife makes, therefore learning to respond to his wife as a separate adult human being.
On the other hand, Basia may have to explore her own deep seated issues around never being enough and how quickly she is triggered when she gets what she perceives to be that message from Maciej. She may also benefit from observing why she gives and becoming aware of how her inadequacy issue motivates her. In other words, by always giving to get something, she is setting herself up for inevitable personal pain.
As much as Maciej and Basia want to have free flowing loving communication, they hit these unreasonable situations that make them doubt their compatibility with each other.
Learning to identify WHAT triggers each one of them and sharing that with each other is a first step. Then each member of the couple has the responsibility to take care of their own heightened “survival mode symptoms’ through physical intervention; breathing, taking a time out, getting grounded and coming back to themselves, so that they can finally get back to each other, which is where they want to be is the process. The work of confronting the negative beliefs and expectations of each other that feed such disturbances is as important as learning to calm oneself down.
Not small tasks, but learning and applying these tools can save a relationship, comfort doubts and help a couple find true compassion for each other.
We invite you to workshop to strenghten comunication in your relationship.
Ela Carl 01/2019
Elizabeth Szczygielska Carl LCSW, CCEP, EMM, Co-Director of the Core Energetics Polska Institute in Poland is a body psychotherapist who has worked with individuals, couples and groups for the past 30 years. She has co-written the book POWER TOOLS FOR COUPLES