Communicating with your spouse may have been an issue prior to your spouse’s affair. Maybe you had arguments that became heated, best described as the “knock down, drag out” variety with no holds barred.
After the shock of finding out your spouse cheated, and the emotional upheaval that has left you reeling – communication may be at a standstill. Either you aren’t communicating at all, or worse: your communication is nothing but arguments and confrontation, where both sides are digging in, entrenched in their need to be “right.” When you argue with your spouse, it may feel as if you’re defending your very life.
Find out what may be causing your communication to stall – now when, more than ever, you need to communicate well in order to rebuild your marriage, and what a leading researcher has found that can turn around the dismal communication between you and your spouse…
What’s Causing the Communication Breakdown?
How can you save your marriage when your ability to talk with your spouse is so savaged? Blame your communication impasse on your amygdala.
You have it, your spouse has it. So what is it?
The amygdala is that part of your brain responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction that once kept us out of the clutches of saber-toothed tigers and the like. Most of us are no longer in mortal danger from animals preying on us, but there’s no way to flip the switch on the amygdala to make it stop its natural inclination: to protect us from harm.
And the amygdala, unfortunately, doesn’t know a saber-toothed tiger from a heated argument with our spouse. If we register and define a situation as being a threat, we are physiologically conditioned to respond with our defense mechanisms up at full force and ready to defend or flee. Your heart beat increases, you may begin to sweat – you feel something akin to panic as your body goes into high alert.
Does this mean you are doomed to always react in a verbal confrontation as if your very life is being threatened? Of course not. Let’s look at why this is, and then, what you can do to change course and improve communication with your spouse.
Taming Your Inner Defense Mechanism
Remember that the amygdala’s response will kick in when we register and define a situation as being a threat. If we’re in control of how we define something, than we have a better chance of defining it in a way that doesn’t set off our inner bells and whistles of self-defense.
Research done by the pioneering marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman has revealed what’s going on when we are struggling to communicate with our spouse: it’s an inability to accept influence – especially when it’s coming from our spouse.
Gottman found that negative emotional intensity causes a reaction, diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) – which is the amygdala becoming involved and setting off that chain reaction. He found that couples can use methods of physiologically soothing themselves or their spouse in order for either spouse to accept influence from the other. In other words – be open to what the other is saying and not taking it as a threat to what our own position is.
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Let’s next look at what you and your spouse can do, starting today, to help ease the tension in your post-affair communication and tame your amygdala.
Making Communication Non-threatening
The biggest challenge in post-affair communication is breaking free from the pattern you’re in, which is one fraught with painful emotions, images and memories, and moving forward into a place where you can begin to rebuild your marriage. Here are three steps:
1- Agree to Being Open and Honest
Again, your defensive reaction to your spouse may be due to your feeling unsafe, in the sense that you are fighting for your life in a hostile environment (not in the physically abusive sense – which should not ever be tolerated). Emotionally, you are in a danger zone, one brought about by the affair. It’s only natural that, after finding out your spouse cheated on you, you don’t feel safe.
By agreeing to a simple ground rule of being able to be open and honest in your communication with your spouse, it will help give you a sense of security.
2- Learn to Speak Well
Have your partner agree to this: when you sit down to talk, one person talks and says what they need to say using an “I” statement: “I feel bad when you don’t listen to me,” for example.
What this form of conversation does is take away the offensive/defensive set-up a lot of arguments take: “You never listen to anything I say, you think you’re so important…”
Out of the two options, can you see where one would cause a safe environment to communicate, and the other would cause a defensive reaction?
3- Learn to Listen Well
Before, anything your cheating spouse has said to you may have felt like salt on your wound: you couldn’t really hear what he or she was saying to you because of the pain you’re experiencing.
One way to tame your physiological response to what your spouse says and avoid the defense mechanism from kicking in is to sit, hear your spouse make their statement, and then explain back in a supportive tone what your spouse has just said. If you roll your eyes or mimic your spouse’s voice, this creates a threatening environment.
To create that safe haven where you can actually have a productive conversation, you need to resist the temptation to flare up and instead, focus on the words and feelings coming from your spouse.
This won’t be perfect every time, but it’s a means for moving you from a communication impasse and defensive reactions to a place where communication isn’t threatening – and you can begin to rebuild and ultimately save your marriage.
My very best to you as you create a safe communication environment and begin to heal.
How would you categorize your and your spouse’s current method of communication: a battlefield, or a safe haven?
What physiological reaction can you feel occurring in your body when you and your spouse talk?
Are there ways for you and your spouse to reframe how you talk in order to tame the urge to fight and defend yourself?
Please share your ideas and experiences with the community.
Wishing you hope and healing for your marriage,