Your 3 pounds of brain matter has a huge hold on how you’re conducting your relationship today. If you’ve asked yourself the classic marriage-crisis question, “how to save my marriage,” without fully understanding why you react to your spouse the way you do – you’re spinning in circles.
In this blog, my plan is to help you stop spinning, start making strides forward, and enable you to answer for yourself that ‘how to save my marriage’ question. Keep reading…
A Corner of Your 3-Pound Universe
It’s interesting that couples in marriage crisis ask themselves, ‘how to save my marriage’ – and to answer the question, they’re relying on the very culprit of many of their problems: their brain!
If you stop and think of your body weight, you’ll realize that 3 pounds is almost nothing in comparison. And yet, your brain is a true heavyweight in terms of the power it yields, controlling the entire works – including how you interact with others.
But it’s a section of your brain in particular that we’re going to look at today: the amygdala. You may be more familiar with its work if I tell you it manages the “fight or flight” response. And, it’s a trigger response: your body senses danger, it reacts.
The amygdala helps the brain self-teach. Scientists have also found that this is the well from which emotions spring. As you experience life, you make associations in your brain. And your brain holds these associations so that next time a similar incident occurs, your brain can pull the file that’s similar in order to know how to react emotionally: should that reaction be fear? Love? Joy? Panic?
All experiences get associations attached to them, and when we have an experience that’s similar to one already learned and coded in the brain – we have the emotional reaction that fits.
This helps explain why you and your spouse react to each other in the way that you do, but don’t always understand. Based on your entire individual history, you have catalogued many experiences, and your spouse may say or do something that triggers a previous, closely-matched experience – and the emotion that is attached to it jumps forward.
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Are you starting to see how some of your emotional responses happen so quickly – sometimes faster than you can control them? This can definitely impact the relationship you are in today, and can often result in marriage problems. You have an emotional response, it takes over without your thinking brain even realizing it’s going to occur.
So what to do about it?
A Different Kind of Marriage Intelligence
Reprogramming the brain isn’t something you can do overnight. Often, we don’t have an actual memory of a past event that has created a strong emotional response: it’s, again, going on below the surface of the thinking brain on an emotional level. It can affect how we perceive a situation: your spouse says one thing – coming from their own background of catalogued emotional experience, and you say another – coming from your own experience, and both of you dig in and feel that you’re right. Since you’re literally ‘feeling’ it, it must be so, right?
This is where marital discord can take hold: you both ‘feel’ you’re right, and the rational mind becomes convinced. However, you need to harness your rational mind to manage these emotional responses, using what’s called ‘emotional intelligence.’
There’s more to intelligence than just book smarts or common sense: emotional intelligence is actually self-awareness of one’s own emotions, an ability to almost step outside of yourself and examine your emotions – and challenge their validity. It’s a way of rationally overriding that auto-emotional response that the amygdale – which is only trying to protect you – puts out.
So, here are some steps to begin to boost your emotional intelligence so you can apply it to your marriage and boost your relationship with your spouse.
Step 1: Get in touch with your emotional side
It may be hard for you to admit that you do have emotions – and that they’re possibly not under your direct control. We all want to think we’re always behaving rationally. You or your spouse may have even said to one another at some time: “You’re not being rational.” Maybe not – maybe you’re being emotional.
This week, as you interact with your spouse, try to assess your emotions during these interactions. Write down the circumstances, i.e. having a conversation, arguing over something, working together on a project, and name the emotions you have at the same time. This exercise will help you begin to develop awareness of your emotional reactions in various circumstances.
Step 2: Understand your emotional side
As you learn to gauge your emotional reactions, understand that they are what they are for a reason: they’ve been developed through past experiences and resultant associations. Also, understand that you can experience an emotion, but that you do have some measure of redeveloping an association, which we’ll look at in the next step.
Step 3: Manage your emotional side
As you develop awareness of your emotions, you can begin to manage them. Remember, emotional responses spring up based on past associations with experiences, so understand that you will often have an emotional response that you haven’t thought about.
For example, your spouse calls to say they’re going to be late for dinner, again. This may trigger an emotional reaction based on your childhood, when maybe your parents didn’t show appreciation for an effort you’d made, and you have an emotional response based on this being a similar association.
When you feel a flare-up, hit a mental pause button and ask, “What am I really upset about here?” It’s a skill that may take some time to master, but the better you are at taking control as you experience an emotion, the better able you’ll be to manage the response you give. You may tell yourself, “I feel a flush of anger, I am about to blurt something nasty to my spouse, but let me hit the ‘pause’ button and think about how to handle this.”
Often, marriage problems grow because neither spouse is managing their reactions to the other, or taking the time to be self-aware as to why they feel the way they do about things their partners say or do.
My best to you as you implement this emotional intelligence exercise into your marriage.
Do you and your spouse ever call each other “irrational?”
Do you ever have feelings of regret or wish you could react differently to your spouse in certain situations?
What do you think about your and your spouse’s reactions, when looked at in light of the brain’s manner of handling experiences?
Please share your ideas and personal experiences on this topic with other members of the community.
Wishing you hope and healing for your marriage,