Column: Tips to help safeguard your marriage
I often meet with couples to coach them in their marriage and routinely share two tips which, if followed, can help immensely. The first tip is to never threaten to end the marriage. All of us, at times, get so exasperated with our spouse that the thought of divorce might enter our minds. That is normal and in my view totally OK — so long as the thought never leaves your mouth and reaches their ears. When you married, you made a commitment and threatening to break that commitment can leave scars that could take months or years to heal.
The second tip is to call a time-out when one or both of you are too upset to speak calmly, civilly and respectfully. We have a segment of our brains that thinks. I've heard this referred to as the frontal lobe or pre-frontal cortex. This is the seat of reason, thought, rationale, etc. It's where I hope you are right now as you read these words and give them meaning. By the way, the frontal lobe is where we get the expression, "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." OK, please keep reading and I promise not to do that to you again — at least not in this column.
We also have an emotional center of our brain, known as the deep limbic system. The amygdala is said to be the core of our emotions and is located within the deep limbic system. No, I am not a neurosurgeon, but I have learned this information from those who are.
What happens to us humans far too often is that we can get so upset about something, so agitated that we will literally shut down our thinking brain and get smack dab in the emotional. When this occurs, we are capable of doing or saying things we would never do or say under normal conditions.
You may have heard the term "emotional hijacking" to describe what happens when our emotions overrule our thoughts and determine our actions or behavior. John Gottman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and well-known marriage and family researcher, uses the term "flooding."
Many will remember cars that would on occasion have too much gas in the carburetor and the car could not start until the gas subsided. The introduction of fuel injection eliminated this problem. I'm told that if your car was flooded you could hold down the throttle, force the gas out of the carburetor and be on your way. I did not know that trick when it might have come in handy. For me, and I presume many of us, the only remedy was to wait for the gas to recede. Repeated turning the key or pumping more gas would have only made the situation worse.
Most of us can recall times in our marriage when we were so upset or frustrated and angry that we lashed out at our partner in a hurtful manner. As Gottman would say, our emotions "flooded out" our thoughts.
To prevent this from hurting relationships and getting us into unnecessary conflict, it is wise to call a time-out. This enables us to settle down and get back into our thinking brains. While we normally think of time-outs for childhood misbehavior, voluntary, self-imposed time-outs are absolutely essential throughout the lifespan.
When we feel we are about to "lose it" and let our emotions come out our mouths or fists, we must call a time out. By the way, it is permissible to say "I need a time-out" or "we need a time-out." It's probably not a good idea to tell your spouse "you need a time-out."
Your spouse will get on your nerves at times. Situations will arise that greatly disturb you. While you cannot prevent these occurrences, you can determine how you respond. By calling a time-out, you are far more likely to make a reasoned, rational and appropriate decision.
Time-outs can take many forms. The sports "T" can be very handy as it is widely recognized, understood and in most instances simple to initiate. You can also use words. Bill and Pam Farrel, authors of "Men are like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti," will pause 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, "Hold on, we're both tired and edgy. Let's not do this right now."
My wife and I have a 9 p.m. time-out policy in our house. If we're in the midst of a disagreement and it gets to be 9 p.m., we shut it down and agree to pick it back up the following day, if necessary. It's incredible how many times we can go to bed upset about something and wake in the morning clueless as to why it had bothered us so.
We realize that if we attempt to resolve a situation when we are both tired and not at our best, it will only serve to cost us a night's rest, and our chances for a successful resolution are severely depressed. I was sharing this illustration in a group setting, and one of the participants asked if I meant 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. After sharing a great laugh, I assured her I meant 9 p.m.
One family I heard of has an agreement that any member can put his or her hands to their head as a signal that, "I am about to blow — back off." Every member of the family understands the import of this signal and honors the request. What would happen if every home, every workplace had a similar policy that anyone could quickly diffuse a potentially hostile situation by calling a time-out?
I prepared a couple for marriage, and I insisted that they come up with a time-out signal. The next week they informed me that their signal was the word "red." They further explained that "red" stood for "redirect emotional distress." I liked that idea and have since tweaked it to be "Code Red." Whenever someone is getting flooded or about to be emotionally hijacked, he or she can announce a "Code Red" and back away calmly and peaceably.
For time-out to be effective, there is one rule that you must follow. Time-out serves the purpose of postponing the discussion — not preventing it. Whoever calls for the time-out is responsible for scheduling the time-in, the time when he or she will engage the other in conversation about the issue. Typically a time-out should be for no more than 24 hours except by mutual agreement.
Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.