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One Look Says It All

Tell me if this sounds familiar…

You and your partner are having a disagreement.  You turn towards your partner and make a statement and you see a look on your partner’s face.  It could be a micro second of an expression or a particular pitch in their intonation.  But you are sure that they are being dismissive, annoyed, critical or condescending. 

  • You feel it in your gut.  When you confront your partner they say, “What look?  I didn’t give you a look!  You’re crazy!”.  When you probe further they become increasingly defensive and now the discussion has changed from the original topic to a fight about a look and who is right.

The truth is, we’ve all been there.  This is a common dance we play out in our partnerships when we are feeling defensive.  The particular nuance in this example is that there is no residual proof of the micro facial gesture ever happening, no way to turn back time to replay the split second of non-verbal communication, and if there was, there is no way to prove the assumption that your partner was feeling what they were feeling in that second!

It feels so complicated!

In fact, it is such a complicated and subtle interaction that it can leave a person feeling like they are crazy!  

Let’s break down this event into smaller, more bite sized pieces and see if we can make sense of it.

First, let’s start off with some basic facts.

In Dr. Stella Resnick’s book, “The Heart of Desire” she asserts that, “we know more than we think” and that our gut feelings are actually our barometers for safety.  She highlights research conducted by Dr. Dan Siegel on “interpersonal neurobiology” that describes the nonverbal signals unconsciously sent between two people that promote a sharing of mind and emotion.

You’re ability to pick up on the microsecond of facial expression from your partner is actually your genius brain and limbic system attuning interpersonally to the one you love for survival, soothing, and comfort.  

Dr. Resnick states, “The brain receives and responds to the totality of implicit messages that include the other’s grimaces or gestures, tone of voice, and posture, and it sends a message of comfort and security or tension,” (The Heart of Desire, p.118).

When we fight with our partner we are picking up on implicit messages sent through our body movements, facial expressions, and energetic response.  It can make us feel defensive, criticized and threatened.  We are now reacting from our nervous systems response of survival as our brain perceives the threat of disconnection, abandonment, and rejection.

The reverse is also true.  When we are connected and attuned lovingly with our partner we are also picking up on implicit messages.  A smile, a wink, the dilation of their pupils, the soothing clam of their voice.  We feel calm, safe, and cherished.  We are still responding from our nervous system and now we have good feeling hormones in our blood stream and we are no longer in survival.  We are in safety, sweetness, and connection.

Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, connects these attunements and responses of survival and safety to our patterns of attachment.  Attachment begins with the relationship we have to our caretakers and lasts throughout the lifetime. 

Now that the experts have validated our ability to pick up on our partner’s micro-gestures…what do we do now?

As a therapist, I encourage my client’s to share research and information on interpersonal neurobiology, attachment, and limbic responses with their partner.  

Often, however, the response I get back is something along the following:

  1. They won’t watch it.
  2. They don’t believe in this stuff.
  3. They won’t listen to me.
  4. It will just start another fight.

If you believe these things to be true for yourself and your relationship, you are probably right.  The truth is, you cannot make someone learn more, or see things your way, or show them evidence to suggest that you are right….because that means that they are wrong. 

Which triggers the nervous system into fight, flight or freeze…

Which threatens safety…

Which promotes defensiveness and attack…

Which defeats the purpose of trying to connect with your partner.

However, you can do something.  And that is to recognize how you are feeling and regulate your own response.  When the scene above plays out and you are now fighting with your partner ask yourself:

  1. How is my body feeling right now?
  2. Where is there tension, stress?
  3. What feelings are coming up right now?
    1. Do you want to cry, scream, hit, run, hide, disappear?
  4. What does this incident bring to mind from the past?
  1. Do you remember your mom or dad?
  2. Maybe an ex or someone close to you?
  3. What was that relationship like?

Once you calm down, then you can approach your partner in a more empathic and caring way.  Reflecting on your own experience and calming down might then open the door to hear your partners side.

As a therapist, I use my nervous system and emotional empathy to de-escalate couples from fighting and into more calm states.  I also use the science that we know to validate what’s going on and help adjust the conversation from heightened reactivity to calm responsiveness. 

It’s a fact that you won’t always be happy with your partner.  But you do deserve to lift your relationship to the next level.  A harmonious and mutually supportive marriage or long term commitment is well within your reach.  With all that we know today about the mind-body relationship and interpersonal reactivities there is help, you need only reach out and get it.

~Angela Jensen-Ramirez, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Austin, Texas.  She works with couples of all stripes and relationship phases.  If you or someone you know could use support in their marriage or relationship you can e-mail her at angelaj@anewtherapy.org.

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