Podcast Transcriptions

Pursue What Matters

Episode 198: Are You Caught in a Relationship Storm?

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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Are you caught in a relationship storm, you fight you retreat, but the concerns are never fully addressed. And so before too long, you’re in a storm again. Join me today to understand this storm cycle and how to move to sunnier weather.

Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. And so it has been said that there are two types of couples in the world. Those who fight and those who distance and Terence real who is a phenomenal couples therapist and author, one of those master clinicians has said, there’s a third category, those who do who do both, right, so we think about the Hellstorm. And the tortoise, right? The Hellstorm is the fighter, the tortoise distances, right, maybe very slowly, but kind of the shutting down. And so today, I want to share with you the relationship storm cycles, just a little term I came up with so that you can better understand what might get in the way for you and your spouse or your loved ones when things get tough. So you know, we’re really going to be talking in terms of relationships, because that’s kind of our focus right now. And you know, you think about your primary relationships, so with your spouse or your partner, but I want to be really clear that that these storm cycles can apply to any relationship, right? Like anywhere where we have some investment and connection, these cycles can present, right, so it can happen with other family members, it can happen with colleagues, people who you have a vested interest in who you maybe work together, you know each other very well. And so I hope that you will think about the different relationships that you have and how these cycles might show up. Of course, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in one of three areas. So leading with clarity, what matters. What are you doing, and why does it matter? Right? Second, leading with curiosity, this is where we’re really focusing on increasing self awareness and self leadership. That is a big focus for our podcast today, and then leading in building a community. So what are the skills that can help us to be more effective with our teams with our relationships? And so of course, that one also features prominently. So let’s jump right in with our first point, in terms of understanding the relationship storm cycle, so how do you respond to challenges in your relationship? So when there’s a disagreement when there’s a frustration? Are you in the driver’s seat of your behavior? Or are you taken for a ride by emotional upheaval? So do you get emotionally hooked? So what do I mean by that? That’s a term that we use in psychological literature. Dr. Brene Brown uses it quite a bit in some of her work as well. But let’s think about something your partner says, sets you off, whether it’s a past garage or core belief, a past difficulty, right?

So your partner may say something, maybe there’s a side eye, maybe there’s an attention, whatever the behavior is, it sets you off, you get emotionally hooked. And perhaps that brings up a past garage, a core belief, a past difficulty. And so in that moment of being emotionally hooked, you can go from being a mature adult to a wounded child in a matter of seconds. And let me tell you, these storms come on fast. So let’s look at the different parts of this cycle. So the first part of the cycle is, of course, the storm. So this is an interaction that goes off the rails, maybe it’s a fight, maybe it’s an argument. reactions may include exploding, shutting down, blaming, stonewalling, leaving lashing out, right? So think about a storm, there’s a lot going on, there’s lightning, there’s thunder. And it can, it can be pretty intense. So let’s also consider how you’re relating to your partner during this storm. So maybe you forget that you love this person. You might see this person as the enemy, and you take on a stance of me versus you instead of us instead of we’re in this together. And so what’s happening during this storm? So first and foremost, we’re having a huge stress response. Right? So think about that fight or flight response. And what how begins with a stress response is that our higher order functioning goes out the window, right, we move into survival mode. And so the higher order functioning of perspective, reasoning relatedness, they all fly the coop when this storm happens when we get emotionally hooked. And so because this this higher order functioning departs the scene with there’s a lack of soothing connection between the prefrontal cortex and the subcortical system, right?

So prefrontal cortex is the house of higher order functioning, right, so executive functioning, and the subcortical system is really that physiological response, it’s that fear response. It’s that stress response. And so because we lose that soothing connection between prefrontal cortex and the subcortical system, we write, like, we lose the pause between what we feel and what we do. And so we move into automatic reactions, rather than being able to slow down to pause to be able to say, wait, I still love this person and wait, even though I’m really upset, like, it’s not the end of the world. And so when we lose that connection in that soothing, right, watch out, because that’s when the storm can really intensify. And so the primitive brain and body take over, and things usually end poorly, right? That’s why it’s a storm. So, you know, we want you to, to pay attention to, you know, this idea that there are two things that make it hard to remain calm and connected, when you become emotionally hooked. So first is the evolutionary force of the stress response. There’s a very powerful physiological response that can happen very quickly. But the other factor is trauma. So some some sort of history of pain of not being seen not being heard, maybe being rejected, being blamed. Whatever that looks like, for you, right, that that history can move us very quickly to survival mode, and move us to, to protect ourselves to lash out to flee. And so I just, you know, I just want to say that trauma can mean many things. But stay tuned, we’re gonna talk about that more as we move forward. But I don’t want you to just dismiss this conversation, when you hear the word trauma, if it’s helpful to think about history, right, like, we all have some challenging histories, because no one’s perfect, no one’s family is perfect, the world can be a hard place. And so we all carry the impacts of that to a greater or lesser degree. And that is one of the factors that contributes to, to to whether we get emotionally hooked. And you know, the degree to which we get emotionally hooked. So that is the first part of the site of the cycle, which is the storm. So now let’s move to the second part of that cycle, which is the calm after the storm. And so what’s happening physiologically, the initial stress search response has retreated, which is good. You might, you might feel like you’re coming to your senses, you can breathe a little bit better, you’re not, you know, you’re not raging with anger, what’s happening cognitively. So after in the calm after the storm, there’s more sense of perspective, you can bring in a little more objectivity to the situation. There’s more nuance and contextual thinking. And, you know, hopefully a more flexible approach to the situation. Now, what’s going on behaviorally is so this is the time where you might move into damage control of like, oh my goodness, I behaved really badly, I need to fix this. Maybe there are retreats and apologies. For some couples, they pretend nothing happened, maybe one one partner pretends nothing happens, which emotionally hooks the other partner again. And the other thing that can happen is we move on without addressing the concern, or the hurt of the interaction. And so those are some predictable behavioral responses. And then let’s take a look at what’s happening emotionally right in the calm after the storm. So there can be a lot of shame and guilt. And the shame and guilt is about the reaction about you know, your behavior after being emotionally hooked.

Maybe you feel shame around something your partner said, there can be embarrassment, right? Because when we’re caught in a storm, you know, it’s not our best selves showing up in those moments and so there can be real embarrassment. There can also be in Right, you still might be really fired up about the situation, you could be experiencing righteous indignation, right? Like you really, you know, prosecuting the case is still happening in your mind. You might also have fear of admitting your part due to fear that your spouse will hold it over your head, right. And so even though you can recognize like you didn’t behave very well, and that you probably need to apologize, you might resist apology due to, you know, the fear of of how your partner might use that against you. Or you might resist that apology due to shame. So if I admit that I’m wrong, then I’m going to sink down into a shame sinkhole, right, where you move to a place of I’m a horrible person, you get caught in some of those negative core beliefs. And so there’s a lot happening during the calm after the storm, right at the surface, things are smoother, quieter, right? The clouds have passed. But what I would say is there’s often a storm that continues at to a lesser degree internally, right, so we think about how that shows up physiologically, cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally. And then we move to the third part of the storm cycle, which is the resurgence of the storm. And this is the part right, like, it can be kind of heartbreaking. But what’s true is that if we have not found a way to do things differently, the storm will always come again. And here’s the other thing, sometimes the storm will come again, even when we’re using our practice skills, we’re doing the best we can to not get emotionally hooked. because life happens, challenges happen, no one’s perfect. So if we haven’t truly addressed the concern and the hurt of the interaction, right, the storm will always research after a time. So wounded feelings don’t go away, when they are not addressed, they accumulate. they fester. And then they show up during the next interaction, right. So that that storm always circles back. The storm also comes again, because you know, guess what, no one’s perfect. In a marriage, we constantly are rubbing against one another’s rough edges, I actually think that’s one of the the great purposes of marriage is to smooth one another’s rough edges. But you can imagine that that process is not pain free, right? That that that that involves a lot of personal growth. And, and growth is painful, right? I mean, growth can often feel like failure growth can be so incredibly painful. And yet, is there a purpose in that? Can you see that? So we see patterns of behavior in our partners, and we tell ourselves stories about those patterns. And so, you know, we’ve got to be careful about what we do with those patterns. And we got to be really careful about the stories we tell ourselves, in relationships, right, especially in our most important relationships. So if we think about our marriages, our family relationships, we have great potential to become emotionally hooked by our partners. And why is that? So? Right, like, I mean, we have so much dirt on them, and they on us, right? There’s a lot of vulnerability, there are so many ways that they can hurt you and that you can hurt them. We see their behavior and patterns better than they do. You know, what’s true is we don’t all we don’t see ourselves objectively. But those in close relationship with us tend sometimes see more clearly, our behavior and our patterns. And so you know, if you’re not careful, that can be used against you. And the other thing is that we can be judgmental instead of benevolent with what we see. So what do you do with that information? Right? When you see an unhelpful behavior or pattern showing up? Do you move to judgment? Do you move to blaming move to shaming, or do you move to compassion? Do you move to encouragement?

And so those responses make a really big difference. And then, you know, the other thing to pay attention to about this resurgence is that repeated storms take a toll on our relationship over time. It is hard to be out in the storm getting battered all the time. And I mean emotionally battered, right? Like definitely we don’t want any physical abuse happening there. There’s absolutely zero tolerance for that. But these these storms, the arguments, the getting emotionally hooked, it just wears down a couple over time. And so if you’re not careful, you become more weathered, more embittered, you might become more brittle, right that you just get set off more easily. We can lose our sense of purpose and connection in the relationship. And you know, as a result of that we give up on loving one another, right? We forget the reasons, we love them, because there’s just so much hurt in between. And so with that, we tend to jump to unhelpful reactions more quickly. And we bring in old baggage that was not addressed in the first place, right. And it’s enough to address the issue at hand, if every time there’s a disagreement, we’re hauling out old baggage, you know, it’s gonna be really hard for a marriage to thrive in those situations. And so those are the parts of the relationship storm cycle. So I hope that that can be helpful for you. And now, let’s move to our second main point, which is we want to bring more sun into your relationship, is that even possible when you’re stuck in this cycle? First of all, yes, but it’s going to take some work is going to take some effort, but the best things always do. And so I have some tools that I want to share with you today. So I have three tools that are designed to help you bring more sun into your relationship. So the first tool is to be to be realistic about marriage. Now, that might not sound very sunny. But actually it is because it can kind of be a relief. So you know, the first question I would ask is, Well, what was your expectation about marriage, many of us are sold a bad bill of goods, when it comes to expectations about marriage, maybe what you were, what you were taught is that you’d be skipping through a field of flowers on a sunny day, every day of your marriage. And so if that’s your expectation, or you have no template for, you know, the realities of life and relationships, then when you get into marriage, and you know, you’re angry, and you’re upset, and you’re fighting, you might that might really throw you for a loop. And so I think it’s always better to live in reality, right? Like, we don’t want to pick a fight with reality. And so, you know, one of the most important realities is that marriage is hard. And, and that’s right. There are many reasons for that. But if we just think about one of the purposes of marriage is that we, we smooth off the rough edges of one another, and that there can be great purpose and great meaning in that, then, right, that’s an expectation that you come into marriage and recognize, like, it’s not always going to be easy that there are challenges to that. And that doesn’t mean that we’re doing it wrong. And it doesn’t mean that it’s a problem. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t be successful. It’s just an acknowledgement of what’s true. It’s not an acknowledgement of reality that marriage is hard. So from Terence, real who, again, is a is an amazing master clinician, when it comes to couples work. He’s an author of many best selling books. He says this, and I just I love the he’s just right to the point, relationships can be held in the heart to heart combat of close relationships, we lose it in ways large or small, often over and over again. So to have this master, couples therapist, say this relationships can be held. Well, if you are going through how, with your partner, and you hear this from Master clinician, maybe you actually feel a little bit of hope that like okay, well, like, I guess, I guess we’re in good company. I guess that this that this isn’t too uncommon. And so even though it sounds like very negative, or very pessimistic, this message, a message about being realistic, and that marriage is hard, it resets your expectations, and it can actually bring you a little bit of hope that like, Okay, well, I can work hard, and we can work hard towards a similar goal. And we can we can, we can walk through hell together. And so it’s really good to understand that fact. So when we understand that marriage is hard, it shifts our expectations, right? So you become more realistic about what it means to try and integrate two lives. It’s work, it’s consistent effort, but it also can become an incredible gift. And in a very real way, right? Like, in in the marriage relationship more than any other relationship, you reap what you sow. And, you know, I come from a family of farmers. And so you know, thinking in terms of farming, and you know, the planting and harvesting cycle, right is really familiar and near and dear to my heart. And if we think about the life of a farmer, right, we think about planting in the spring. There’s so much uncertainty. It’s so much work right? If If farming is anything, if it’s anything at all its work, you do your best you work every day, you have to put in a lot of faith and a lot of hope and a lot of good skills. And you know, there are still a lot of factors outside of your control. But it can be many months right? Before you before you see your harvest right before you you see the fruits of your labors. And that can be very true in marriage. And that doesn’t mean you have years and years of storms before you get to sunnier weather. But it just means you got to be consistent. And that that a marriage done well is is plenty of work. Right? But that it doesn’t mean that it’s miserable work, it can be some of the most meaningful and profound work, but it does, it does take effort.

And so you know, understanding that marriage is hard can shift your expectation. But it also shifts your willingness, so you become more willing to work to make your marriage good, right? You don’t assume that like oh, my goodness, I’ve just discovered my partner’s not perfect, I’m out. Right? Like you have more willingness to stick with it. And you recognize that you need you know, like in a marriage, like many things, it’s grow or die. If you don’t grow towards one another, if you don’t make the effort to understand your marriage will die on the vine. So what do I mean when I say grow or die, you’ve got to figure out how to communicate, right? If your communication patterns are not working, you to better work together to learn new communication patterns, right. And you might need some professional help to do that. That’s okay, that is not the end of the world that can be very, very helpful. You need to figure out how to show up for one another. What does that mean? What works for you what works for your partner, you need to figure out how to love how to really love and I think this is a big struggle for many of us, we are taught to be independent, we’re taught not to show any weakness. And yet that model falls apart. In, in the heart of a family in the heart of a marriage, we need these tender moments, we need the love and the affection and the care, you need to figure out how to accept one another right, it has to stop trying to control one another to stop trying to change one another. But to really remember what it is that drew you to your partner in the first place. And so we need to accept our partner as they are, which leads to change toward our higher selves.

So we become better when we can accept instead of Judge. So as the psychologist Carl Rogers put it, the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. This principle absolutely applies in marriage as well. When we are met with loving acceptance from our partner, it helps to give us the fertile ground to change to make the changes that we may need to make in our own lives. And that happens both directions. So it’s very true of the most successful marriages. And so again, from Terence real, we look at our partner through the wrong end of a telescope, and they seem either pitiful or overwhelming or both. And so we need to learn to take that telescope down to accept our partner as they are, can we accept them with non judgement, and that that becomes the fertile ground where growth and change can happen. So in talking about the fact that marriage is hard, right, it shifts your expectations, it shifts your willingness. And then finally, it also shifts your responsibility. So when you understand that marriage is hard, you recognize that it takes both of you making a focused and sustained effort to make your marriage work. Both of you have to be invested. From from Terry real, you signed up for marriage. This is what often people people often say right like that you signed up for marriage, not a lifelong self improvement course. And this is what I would say to that, guess what, if you signed up for marriage, you actually did sign up for a for a lifelong self improvement course. But that should not be at the direction of your partner. So again, we need to give unconditional positive regard to our partners, we need to love them and accept them for who they are. But the nature of marriage is to grow and to improve. And so it’s, you know, no one wants to be in a self improvement course, where their teacher is, you know, controlling them judging them blaming or shaming them to, but to be in a self improvement course of love and acceptance, and where are we going and what matters. That is inspiring, right that inspires growth and change and so So, you know, as we cultivate that love for one another, we have a greater desire to change ourselves, and to change how we show up to the relationship, because we don’t want to do things that are hurtful to our partner. And so it becomes more about selflessness. And you know, being who being who we can be in our best selves to really show up for our partner, and that that needs to be mutual, right. So, it, when you look at your responsibility and what’s not working in the relationship, it can’t be about your partner. If that’s where you start, you’re dead in the water, it cannot be about them, it just can’t. Because that will prevent you from making the changes you need to make for the good of the relationship. Now, I am not saying that your partner doesn’t have things to change, right? In fact, they probably do, I’m sure they do. Because marriage is, is a team sport, right? Like we all bring our baggage and our issues. But if you focus on the change your partner needs to make, instead of the changes you need to make you are what you’re looking in the wrong place. And so you can’t make it about them, you actually need to look in the mirror and focus on Okay, well, what change can I make? And as you make the change you need to make that gives you really good information about okay, do I see changes in my partner? Is there a willingness or it’s like, gosh, this person is still stuck and intractable. That’s good information to have. It’s painful, but good to have.

So we change our partner, and we are changed by our partners. And there’s no other way that is marriage. So now let’s head to our second tool, do your own work first. And always. So that is a random quote. And I just love that, that idea that we always need to be doing our own work first and always. So first is we need to reconnect to ourselves first. So your feelings your needs and desires? Do you understand what you need? Do you understand what’s working for you, in your life, what’s not working for you in your life, one of the dynamics that can often happen is you can have a partner that’s very unsatisfied at work for a host of reasons, right? But instead of actually addressing the challenges at work, right, which would maybe require some hard conversations and you know, a change in, in the job, where we just show up grumpy at home, we were just not fun to be around, we’re difficult to be around. And so part of part of doing your own work first and always is really looking at, well, how am I doing in other areas of my life? Right? Well, okay, like I’ve been, you know, I’ve been avoiding this conversation at work. And I need to have that conversation. Because, you know, when we have these stressors that we’re not addressing, they accumulate, and most of them, we carry home with us, and they show up at home, through blame through arguments through petty, petty disagreements. And so a great relationship starts with your relationship with yourself. So you need to take accountability for your emotions, your stories and your reactions. So when you get emotionally hooked, you got to take responsibility for that. So are you reacting to your partner? are you reacting to your stories? are you reacting to your own history, take responsibility for that. And then coping skills, you’ve got to manage your stress reactions, lowering your reactivity to to, to distress helps you to stay away from storms, it brings in more calm, it helps you to feel more grounded, so that you can take on the winds of life without without contributing and making those worse.

So that’s the second tool. And now let’s head to the third tool. And that is to show up to your marriage willing to work every single day. Absolutely. So we talked with the first hole, we talked about the fact that marriage can be really hard, but I also just want to be clear that marriage can be really, really good. And like I said, You reap what you sow in a very real way. And what I would say I have I have learned personally right in my marriage but also clinically in working with lots and lots of folks over the years is that when it especially and in family life and in a marriage, the small things are the big things. How you talk to one another, how you attend to one another how you greet one another when you come home how you say goodbye to one another, how you regard one another, your thoughtfulness towards one another. How you make decisions together, how you prioritize one another, how you support one another. These are the small things every day that communicate love, that communicate affection, that communicate respect to one another. And so you know, these mites feel like small things, but they happen every single day. So if every single day for decades, you know, your communication with one another is disrespectful, you’re not going to survive, you’re going to be having a lot more storms. And so the small things are the big things. take interest in your partner, be curious, give them the courtesy you would a stranger, put down distractions and be present. Remind yourself of why you love your spouse, and treat your spouse the way you would like to be treated. Right. And then the last thing on on this third tool is prioritize intimacy. Don’t underestimate the importance of intimacy to strengthen a marriage. Life is hard. Child Life can be very challenging intimacy in a very real ways designed to help us cope with the challenges of life, right, we think about oxytocin, we think about the benefits of real connection, and affection. Don’t underestimate that don’t think that that’s a distraction, or an unimportant part of your marriage. That is a woeful mistake too many couples make.

So I hope this is helpful for you as we take a look at the relationship storm cycle and today I shared with you three tools to help bring more sun in your relationships. So the first tool Be realistic about marriage. second tool is do your own work first and always. And third tool is show up to your marriage willing to work everyday. Show up with show up with your with your gloves on shift not not to fight but to work the fields show up with your tools ready to work. And so you can learn more about this episode and check out any resources I might have by heading to my website at www.drmelissasmith.com/198-relationshipstorm. Again, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/198-relationshipstorm. I’m on Instagram. I’d love to interact with you there. I always have more content related to the podcast there. That’s @dr.melissasmith and in the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.

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