Saturday, March 28, 2009

I Just Can't Find the Words

We are on our way out for the day with our partner. We laugh and hold hands as we leave the house. One of the kids has again left their bike out on the lawn. They have been asked to put it in the garage countless times. Our partner gets upset, picks up the bike and puts it in the garage, making a few angry comments in the process. We say nothing and continue on to the car to wait for our partner to join us.

As we drive away we notice our partner is silent. We ask if they are all right and receive a short clipped, yes. Obviously everything is not all right. We feel that they are asking to be drawn out and once again ask gently if all is well. The explosion that follows lasts only seconds, but rocks us to our core. We are stunned by the intensity of the emotional outburst. We sit in hurt silence for a few moments then ask for an explanation. We are told nothing.

Does this seem all too familiar? In cave man times looking into the face of a predator didn't require thought, just reflexive action to keep us alive. That age old survival response system still takes over when we feel threatened. We may no longer be looking into the face of a predator, but our threat response is just as strong. Intense emotions cause our thinking brain, the cerebral cortex, to shut off. The last thing we need when staring into the face of a lion are random thoughts to distract us from surviving. Today's lion may be something as inconsequential as the kids bike or the credit card bill.

Our ability to rebound, after a perceived threat causes our survival response to kick in, is an indication of our emotional health. For some, the thinking and processing of strong emotions is so painful that it can take many hours. This can leave the other party wondering what has gone wrong. Here is where effective communication becomes paramount. In the example above, the overwhelmed party can let their partner know that they are unable to process their feelings as of yet, but will get back to the issue as soon as they can. This gives the overwhelmed partner time to process their emotions and associated feelings, and lets the other party know that these hurtful actions will be talked about at some point.

Children who have lived in a home with much chaos and drama may have no one to teach them how to regain their emotional center when they feel threatened. They may be left to cope on their own with virtually no skills. Many children find numbing themselves the safest way to overcome the extreme pain that being emotionally abandoned brings. As adults, the lack of coping skills that would normally be developed during childhood, makes dealing with strong emotions unbearable. To avoid processing the intense feelings that are associated with survival emotions, these adults still use their childhood defense mechanisms. They shut down and feel nothing. This leaves their partners and family feeling unimportant, ignored and unloved. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Being numb, even for a time, protected them as children from the trauma of emotional abandonment. These adults can learn to feel strong emotions a little at a time.

With our tools and ability to apply consistent self care in our daily lives, we can cope effectively with a partner who may find strong emotions overwhelming. As our partner learns to practice self care and use their tools, they can begin to process strong emotions more effectively. In this way we practice commitment in our relationship and detachment from our partner as we both grow in our ability to communicate and compromise.

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