Last year, my husband and I took our youngest children to the local amusement park for a “Frightmares,” event. The fun zone was transformed into a Halloween fiesta, complete with spook alleys and wandering zombies mildly harassing the visitors.
At one point, we were standing in a loooong noisy line for the chance to wander aimlessly in a strobe-lit, gory, cacophonous wonderland. I engaged my husband in conversation and noticed peripherally that a zombie about my size with ironic cheerleader pigtails was lurking about.
While I was talking, I saw my husband looking over my shoulder and I realized that somebody was screaming in my ear. I glanced at cheerleader zombie and turned back to my husband, asking, “Has she been screaming at me?” I resumed my conversation with him as she determinedly fixated on getting a reaction. Eventually, she got right in my face and roared, “YOU CAN’T IGNORE ME.” That little outburst elicited amusement on my end, as I laughed to my husband, “She has no idea who she’s dealing with, does she?” My husband agreed and instructed the zombie with, “She has 7 children with 5 boys, and that has been way scarier than you are. She has developed superhuman powers for tuning out noise.”
In this case, the more the zombie tried to get a reaction from me, the more resistant I became, until she gave up and went away.
Just like so many marriages.
Usually in marriage, there is one partner (often the female) who will raise the volume in an attempt to signal to her more withdrawing partner that something is wrong in the relationship. Unfortunately, that withdrawing partner (often the male) in response to the escalation, will get better at disconnecting and numbing, shielding himself from the pain of being a disappointment.
Anyone trying to get a partner response without success experiences distress. It’s less distressing to get an angry, bitter response from a partner than no response. Couples quickly develop circular patterns of one becoming more aggressive as the other defends while exiting the conversation. Over time, defending partners learn to become numb to the negative escalation in their spouses. Upon getting no response, the aggressive partners give up and retreat and eventually burn out on trying to get any connection at all, leaving the couple at a stalemate.
What to do if you think you have entered the zombie apocalypse zone in your marriage:
- When things aren’t escalated, ask your partner what impact you are having on him/her in these difficult moments. Odds are that you think you’re not having an impact when you are actually having a very negative impact. People who look calm in the face of relationship distress are often physiologically aroused (heart rate, skin conductance, etc.) and working very hard to regulate emotion. I have asked many calm looking men what’s happening as they hear their wives express emotion about the marriage, and a common response is, “I want to get away. I want to get up and walk out that door right now.” They often have difficulty even labeling emotions because they are so practiced at escaping negative emotion. We start socializing men to disconnect from vulnerable emotions when they are boys and then we criticize them throughout their adult lives for being so good at what they have been taught to do. It’s very confusing, and really not very fair.
- Tell your partner more about how it has helped you when he/she has been responsive. I maintain that it is easier to get people to do more of something than less of something. If you tell a spouse to “stop doing that,” there may be lingering confusion about what is expected. Sometimes in a distressed marriage, even if responsiveness increases, it isn’t recognized or trusted and is subsequently rejected, leaving those partners hopeless and helpless about change.
- Try to tell your partner in the moment when you are experiencing responsiveness. If you can tell a partner, “What you are doing right now is helping,” it provides a powerful example of what it is you are asking.
- Increase clarity. People often unfairly expect partners to know when they are needing connection. It would be nice if spouses could mind read and predict moments of high emotional need. They can’t and it’s a crazy-making, unfair expectation.
While Halloween has become in many ways representative of what we fear the most, the iconic symbols shrink in comparison to the fear of failing in our most important relationships. For most of us, losing connection is the real stuff of which nightmares are made.
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