One of the three worst jokes I tell is that "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." OK, quit groaning and get back to reading — I promise to not tell you the other two.
I begin today's column with this witticism to draw attention to the frontal lobe section of your brain and the enormous impact it has on your entire life, which certainly includes your marriage. The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain which is responsible for thought, reason, logic, etc. It is sometimes referred to as the "command center" of the brain.
You have other parts of your brain as well, but another I want to highlight is the limbic system. This is located in the interior of the brain and is sometimes called the deep limbic system. This is the seat of emotions. If you're happy, sad, frustrated, excited it is the limbic system — in particular the Amygdala — which is in operation.
We humans are often vulnerable to what is commonly called "emotional hijacking" or "Amygdala hijacking." This occurs when the emotional part of the brain overrules the thinking part and when that happens all bets are off.
Emotional hijacking helps to explain, but certainly never excuse, road rage and other acts of idiocy committed in the absence of a properly engaged frontal lobe. John Gottman, a well-known marriage and family researcher in Seattle, calls this condition being "flooded." Many of you are old enough to remember cars with carburetors which would on occasion become flooded — too much gas in the carburetor.
When a car was flooded you could turn the key as long and as hard and as often as you wished, but the car would not start. You could also pump more gas while turning the key, but arrive as the same unproductive result. Oh, I can hear some of you now — those of you who knew how to start a flooded car by pouring gas into the carburetor or by holding down the gas pedal, but shut up, this is my column and my illustration. I'm sorry, I mean please be quiet, and besides where were you when I needed you?
At any rate, my purpose today is not to give lessons in brain chemistry or auto mechanics. My purpose is to point out that there have been times in your marriage when one or both of you were flooded and you figuratively kept turning the key and pumping more gas. Now, please pause for a moment and think back to one such incident when that was a smart and productive thing to do. Just give me one time when engaging in a heated discussion when neither was operating from the frontal lobe that produced positive, marriage enriching results. I'll wait. And I'll wait. And I'll wait some more and I seriously doubt you will come up with even one such occurrence.
The best and only solution I know of is to call a "time-out" in such situations and give each other the time and opportunity to calm down and get back into your thinking brain. When one or both are too upset to speak lovingly, kindly and graciously to each other you are very likely to say things you will later regret and wish you could take back. You might even, in such situations, do things with your fists that are certainly to be avoided at all costs.
So my challenge to you this week is to come up with a time-out signal that will indicate that now is not the time to talk. You can use physical signals like the crossed hands in the "T" formation famous in football and other sports. I know of one family whose signal is both hands clasped atop the head. This gives a visual representation that "I am about to blow — back off."
Bill and Pam Farrell, authors of "Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti" and several other books, use verbal clues with each other. When they are getting upset one will stop and say "hold on, it's not you, it's not me, it's just life. Let's not take it out on each other." Or another is "hold on, it's not you, it's not me, we're just both really tired and stressed right now. Let's agree to talk about this later."
My wife and I have a long-standing 9 p.m. time-out rule in our house. If we are upset with each other and the conversation is not going well, we will automatically stop it at 9 p.m. and agree to pick it back up the next day — if necessary. The reason for the 9 p.m. time-out is that we realize we are both tired, stressed and not at our best and it would be foolish to expect a reasoned and productive conversation to emerge from two folks in such a state.
I say "if necessary" because it is frequently the case that after a good night's rest and refreshment, the issue that was of concern no longer even exists. We know we love each other and we never want to hurt each other, but there are times when we are just not at our best. Please tell me we're not alone and you well know what I'm talking about.
I prepared a couple for marriage a few months back and insisted that they come up with a time-out signal which they would agree to use to avoid ugly encounters. At a subsequent meeting, I asked what they had decided on. They told me their time out signal was RED. To my astonished look they informed me that RED stood for Redirect Emotional Distress. I was impressed and immediately suggested a slight tweak. I now often recommend couples establish Code RED as their signal that now is not the time to talk.
As I close this column let me leave you with one very important consideration to the time-out rule. It is time-out, not cop-out. If your spouse has an issue he or she wants to discuss, you have the right to say not now, but you do not have the right to say not ever. If it is a concern to him or her then it better be a concern to you. So if you call for a time out you are responsible to call the time in — a time when you will be willing to talk about the issue or concern. Typical time out periods should not be longer than 24 hours unless both parties agree to a longer period.
When you do get together to talk you should do so using the LUV talk, but that must be a matter for another time. Time out.