No matter how we behave within our relationships, most of us truly want our relationships to be healthy. We don’t want to be filled with anger that eventually turns into resentment. We don’t want to feel contempt towards the one we claim to love or once loved since contempt destroys almost all feelings of closeness and emotional intimacy.
If we want our relationships to be healthy, why then do so many of us behave in ways that obliterate our connection?
The answer: We do want we know. We do what we have always done. We protect ourselves in ways that are destroying our relationship.
“If you always do what you have always done, you always get what you have always gotten.”
Below you will find 2 powerful practices that will improve your relationship. They are based on research and they work.
Challenge this myth: People say what they really mean when they are angry. This is not true! People get angry when they feel threatened in some way. Their brain protects them by activating their fight or flight response system. This means that when our partner feels threatened by something we have said or something we have done, he or she will either withdraw from us and run away from the threat (flight response) or say something hurtful to hopefully shut us down and stop us from hurting them (fight response). It is important to know that we might not even understand why our partner feels threatened. The fight or flight response may have been triggered by something that reminds our partner of a time in the past when the threat was very real. (Sometimes our brain gets a little mixed up when it is trying to protect us.)
When the emotional part of our brain (the amygdala) responses to a real or perceived threat, the reasoning part of our brain (the “thinking” cortex) shuts down. This is because the amygdala responds about ten times faster than the “thinking” cortex part of our brain.
So when your partner says something hurtful and apologizes saying that he or she did not mean what was said, he or she may be telling the truth. They may have acted just like a spooked horse and said things they really didn’t mean in order to shut you down and protect themselves.
Challenging the myth that people say what they really mean when they are angry can make forgiveness easier. If we are to have long-lasting satisfying relationships, we are going to have to practice forgiveness. At one time or another our partner is going to hurt us and we are going to hurt our partner. Because we are human, this is unavoidable. We must be willing to forgive.
With that said… No one should ever tolerate abuse! We must be willing to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t continue to hurt our partner over and over again. This leads us to our second practice which involves retraining our brain so that our thinking can catch up to our emotion.
Practice Taking an Intermission
We must recognize the sensations in our body that tell us an explosion is coming. We must take an intermission before our fight or flight response system is activated. Taking that intermission or pause will give the logical part of our brain time to catch up to the emotional part of our brain. And anytime we make a thoughtful mindful decision rather than one based on pure emotion alone, we are going to make a better choice.
To better explain the intermission, take a look at the following excerpt from my book, The Snowball Effect: How to Build Positive Momentum in Your Life.
So pretend that you are watching a play and it is the end of the third act. The plot has reached an emotional high, and your body is overwhelmed with sensations. Your heart is beating quickly, your shoulders are tense, and you are sitting on the edge of your seat. And then the curtain closes. It is time for an intermission. You get up, take a deep breath, stretch your legs, and take a trip to the restroom. You return to the theater calmer than you were at the closing of the curtain. The intermission has calmed you down.
When you identify sensations in your body that let you know that you are getting ready to lose control, it is time to take an intermission. By forcing yourself to pause when you are emotionally triggered, you can get yourself back into wise mind. You allow the reasoning part of your brain to catch up to your emotions.
It is often the intermission, not the event, that is life-changing. Between the event and your reaction lies a very small space. That space might be only a quarter of a second long. But if you practice inserting an intermission in that space, you give yourself time to think about how you want to react. Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, put it so well: “Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Yes, that space can be lengthened, but it takes a lot of mindful practice and focus. You can change what feels like an automatic response into an automatic intermission. And believe it or not, that is all you need. An intermission that is only several seconds long will change your response, which can transform your life.
Life is too short to spend it in a miserable relationship. There are many practices you and your partner can do to improve your relationship. I really want you to be happy. Refuse to settle for the status quo. If you would like to learn many other tools and techniques to help you let go of resentment and explosive anger, please check out my book, The Snowball Effect: How to Build Positive Momentum in Your Life. Although this book was written for the general public, within several weeks of publication it was purchased by Yale University for student therapists to read. The book, which is a quick and simple read, is full of profound lessons, tools, and techniques to get you and your relationship moving in an extremely positive direction.
The kindle edition is now only $3.03 on amazon, which is a great deal given that it includes tools and techniques that could be covered in a whole year of therapy. (Kindle edition, click here.) If you would like to take notes on the designated pages and rip out the cheat sheets with bulleted highlights, you may want to opt for the soft cover edition. (Soft cover edition, click here)
Don’t ever settle for less!
This post was written by Kristin Barton Cuthriell, MEd, MSW, LCSW
Author, Educator, Speaker, Licensed psychotherapist
“I highly recommend Kristin’s book for anyone trying to overcome adversity and move forward in life, stop explosive reactions, be less critical of themselves, and stop holding on to the past. The lessons provide specific and precise tools for people wanting to clear out the negative and learn to focus on the positive gifts in life. Clinicians should recommend this book to their patients or anyone who wants to embrace as much joy from life as they can. I am delighted to have read this book.”
–Marney A. White, PhD, MS, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine