Retraining Those Emotional Muscles

Lately I’ve been focusing on reminding couples to be patient and to develop an acceptance for how long it can take to develop new patterns in their relationships.  Couples who get down on themselves when they notice they’re slipping into their old problematic patterns might not be showing themselves a lot of self-compassion, but they’re coming from an understandable place.  They recognize the old patterns, they’ve identified new ways of doing things, and they’re sad or frustrated that that’s not enough, that they still find themselves pulled back into the trenches of the old pattern.

If we think of success in this area as a matter of sheer will, then yeah, there’s some reason for guilt or shame.  But it isn’t all a matter of effort; there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

The attachments we have with VIPs in our life (parents, siblings, a spouse or other romantic partner) create intense physiological experiences in us – positive and negative.  Think about what it’s like when you feel adored by your partner. What about when you feel disregarded, forgotten, or criticized? We all tend to feel these positive and negative emotions in different parts of our bodies – some people feel a pit in their stomach when they fight with their spouse while others tend to choke up and feel it in their throat or head. If you don’t identify with any of these feelings, you may have gotten really good at ignoring them, but they’re there.

So when we start to accumulate a lot of negative interactions with our partners, we also accumulate a lot of experience with negative physiological responses.  The emotional and behavioral cycles we get into are like muscle memory.  That is, our bodies themselves become primed for the old way of interacting and the old emotional response that resulted.  When the pattern has become really entrenched, the slightest glance or change in tone of voice from our partner can trigger us to have an intense emotional response because our body has learned to associate that look or tone with a negative interaction.  Our body gets ready for what it thinks is coming next – even if it doesn’t actually come next.  And that physical response then influences our behavior.  We might shut down, get defensive, or attack because we’re anticipating our partner’s old behavior.

Sound crazy?  It isn’t!  The brain is a muscle, and just as the muscles change if a sprinter needs to transition to long-distance running, the brain and other parts of the nervous system need time to transition to a new set of patterns in a relationship.

The moral?  We do need to make conscious efforts to change the way we interact with our partners when we’ve gotten stuck in problematic patterns, but we would also benefit from acknowledging that our bodies and minds take time to learn a new way of doing things.  

So keep up the hard work AND have some forgiveness for yourself and your partner when you slip into the old rut ’cause it takes time to retrain those muscles!