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Couples: Getting Past the Hurt

By Diane Thorp, California Licensed Psychotherapist

Often couples come to me asking for surefire ways to get beyond the initial intensity of their pain after a hurtful argument with their partner. Although no surefire ‘fix–it’ answers exist, mainly because much depends on personal attributes each partner possesses, there are strategies that can make an impact towards healing after an explosive argument between a couple.

Below are strategies to help calm the storm so that effective communication and healing can actually begin by avoiding the following pitfalls:

  1. Defensiveness: Most problems are maintained due to defensive stances; however, understanding that this serves to actually protect and help that partner in some manner, is vital to remember. In fact, defensive behaviors are normal from time to time, but knowing how to not allow this to interfere with effective communication with your partner is the key. When we act defensively, it actually often provides the opposite of its intended use. That is, instead of opening channels of communication, it brings it to a halt. It does not empower us to make sounds judgments, we don’t end up feeling better about ourselves, and literally increases a partner’s level of guardedness, which defeats the actual purpose than was intended.
  2. Words falling on deaf ears: This is a big one! In this context, the meaning is meant to say: ‘CHOOSING NOT TO LISTEN BECAUSE WE’VE CHECKED OUT.’ When this takes place, our brains begin to shut down in order to ward off danger. In fact, unless the reasoning part of the brain instructs the amygdala that the sensation is in fact, not dangerous, the amygdala actually senses this as fear and in turn activates & triggers a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. Although this is useful in situations that warrant ‘real versus perceived’ danger, we are overpowered with an intense urge to fight, freeze, or run. This perceived danger causes an extreme acute sensory overload and shuts down the very mechanism that we are attempting to open up and communicate with our partner, namely our ears.
  3. Lack of communication becomes habitual: This becomes automatic behavior over time that often occurs without much conscious thought whatsoever. You and your partner likely aren’t CHOOSING to: argue, attempting to lose any or all-effective communication skills, or desiring to maintain the constant brawling; however, this often is the miserable end result. Here’s the paradoxical good news to this…habits can also be the automatic behavioral engagement towards activities, i.e., effective communication, that serves to promote well-being and ultimate happiness between a couple. All this can be attributed to neuroplasticity whereby the brain actually has this incredible ability towards creating new neural pathways that actually alters existing ones. This allows us to adapt to new experiences, bring in new information and creates new memories for us. Think of these endless possibilities; ones in which you have within you the power to relearn new habits, replacing the old unnecessary ones. Who ever said that you couldn’t teach old dogs new tricks? Well, that may still be true with our beloved canines, but not with our human attachments.
  4. Time does NOT heal all wounds: What I have noticed most with couples that continually engage in destructive communication patterns, i.e., fighting, is that the hostility & resentment often leads to apathy amongst couples. Think about what was discussed in #2 with the amygdala being activated and remember that the high state of arousal cannot remain at this highly charged level. This often lends itself to a more toxic environment and one in which partners cannot remain in for extended lengths of time.
  5. Emotional Safety is compromised: We all seek safe, empathetic, and loving attachments and usually we can find this through our partner’s positive unconditional gestures, behaviors, and overall mannerisms. If we maintain a lack of openness, this often yields frustration and anger that builds upon resentment that can erode the trust and ultimately emotional safety, which is the cornerstone for an intimate relationship to flourish.
  6. Giving up: There is a limit to acute levels towards mental, emotional, & psychological constraints. It’s like this; when continual strong emotions are present, the limbic system, or our primitive emotional part of the brain takes over…. it’s now driving our bus, so to speak. It can be likened to a switch in our brain, which literally turns off the intelligent and wise minded thinking in our pre-cortex area. This is ultimately the area of our brains; however, that is necessary to be activated in order to think clearly, explore our options, and look at another person’s perspective. In other words, we begin to have what cognitive behavior therapy calls, ‘thinking errors.’ In this manner, our thoughts are negatively focused, hence much more polarized to black and white type of thinking that can ultimately be viewed as either under or overly reactive. This type of thinking can lead us to be motivated, and in turn behave, in a manner that we initially never intended.
  7. Physical Tolls on our bodies: Constant bickering between partners can literally wear one down to the point that this defensive reactivity places our bodies in a constant elevated stress response that was described above. This response can inhibit rational and clear minded thinking and tax us not only emotionally & psychologically, but physically as well. This is related back to that ‘fight, freeze, or flight’ response whereby; constant high levels of emotional stress can trigger a whole army of health problems on a body. This fight or flight response activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system to actually release stress hormones, such as cortisol. This breakdown on the body’s hormones cause a whole slew of physical reactions such as headaches, irritability, nausea, shortness of breath, and muscle aches and tension, to name a few.

As you may have surmised from what ineffective communication can do to couples, overcoming them should become a couple’s top priority. Be responsible for your role in the fight and avoid the mindset that your partner is somehow, “causing me to lash out.” This way of thinking only exacerbates the endless problem communication do-loop and leads to stagnation, or worse, separation from the one you love.

Originally published at Verdant Oak Behavioral Health (VOBH), a group of collaborating psychologists located in South Pasadena.

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