“I will survive,” sang Gloria Gaynor in 1978, unwittingly triggering into action a billion tearful karaoke breakup queens.
If the lyrics seemed a little sensationalist – all about survival and staying alive – then that could be down to the heightened emotions that swirl around breakup and divorce.
As a family lawyer, I’m in a good place to comment. The symptoms of common psychological ‘threat responses’ certainly seem to colour clients’ ability to cope with the divorce process effectively.
If your relationship wobbled over Christmas or your spouse is considering a divorce, it could pay you to at least understand how the brain works, or doesn’t, when it comes to relationship troubles. Our guide could help you salvage something beautiful from the ugly wreckage.
When threat emotions such as anxiety or anger get triggered, we lose all ability to read our partner. The result tends to be wild accusations and loss of trust.
When we feel threatened, a bunch of coping mechanisms kick in. Adrenalin and cortisol start to flow. We breathe quickly and our heart rate increases. Oxygen and sugar race into our limbs, ready for fight or flight.
It’s not your fault. You’re designed to over-estimate threat. It’s great for staying alive; less so for staying in a relationship. Here’s what can happen when things go wrong.
Missing the signals
You’re easily triggered in a relationship. Your limbic system can flare and wild emotions colour your feelings. Suddenly, your partner is snuggle-bunny no more. They’re not to be trusted – they’re cold, calculating, ruthless and unfair.
Behind those feelings are a number of assumptions:
• Because we feel angry, we assume there’s a good reason for it
• We assume our partner will be like our exes
• Because we’re upset, we assume it was intended
• When we feel threatened, we see everything in black and white
• Because we feel upset, we assume our partner is in the wrong
• If we have an insecure relationship, we over-emphasise threats
• When partners don’t meet our needs, we see them as the enemy
• When we feel threatened, we’re unable to see our partner’s point of view.
Recognise any of those? On top of all that, we simply can’t accept that we just might actually be wrong. We tend to trust our feelings – listening to our hearts instead of our heads. In short, we’re glued most tightly to our assumptions and feelings at the very time we’re most likely to get them dramatically wrong.
What can you do?
So, basically, it’s not your fault. You’re a hostage to your feelings and your neurological system. What can you possibly do? Here’s a good three-stage process.
1 Recognise and self-regulate
If your voice is raised and your muscles are clenched, you’re anxious enough to need to do something about it. Try to restore calm. Take a break from arguing. Do some exercise, watch TV, read or put your headphones on. Obviously, none of this should involve your partner.
2 Be sceptical about your interpretations
We’ve discussed how unreliable your interpretations are, right? So don’t trust them. Even as you regain your composure, your mental defences are still up. The old limbic system keeps poking you in the eye.
To get over this, remember that feelings can cause false perceptions. Remind yourself that your partner actually does care about you. Put blame on the backburner. Be ‘mindful’: step back and just acknowledge reactions without being emotionally affected by them. Understand that your anger is just a survival mechanism.
3 Change your thinking
Calmed down yet? Good. Now you can try to register your partner as an ally. Start seeing the glass as half-full. Your partner makes mistakes, but they mean well. Give them credit for that. Try to think of ways in which they please you. This is how we put a lid on our threat hormones.
Saving your relationship might require a lot more than these simple acts of understanding and tolerance. However, as a first step, acknowledge how much your perception of reality gets distorted when emotions are involved. That’s a good start to resolving to stay together this New Year.
As the song says, as long as you know how to love, you know you’ll stay alive.
For a FREE consultation on any aspect of family law, call Manders Law on 01245 895 105 or email us here.