Even the happiest couples face difficult problems from time to time that stem from the way their lives, their dreams, their needs, and their personalities, intersect and interact. Some of these conflicts may even seem unsolvable at times.
One partner might want to save for their child’s education or their own retirement — while the other partner dreams of buying an expensive boat or a vacation property at the beach. One partner might want to change careers — while the other partner shudders at the idea of losing part of the household income stream during the re-education and re-training process.
Here is a big secret, backed up by massive amounts of relationship research: Having problems is not what makes most couples unhappy. What makes most couples unhappy is that when they face problems, they fall into what I like to call the “Pit”.
If you remember your history lessons for a moment, you will recall that a very long time ago, the pit (or tar pit) was where dinosaurs would get stuck and die. We have fossils and bones that show us this is true. These huge creatures, capable of running long distances, fighting formidable and ferocious enemies, and surviving difficult environmental conditions, were stopped by something as minor as a pit of sticky decaying vegetation.
We Have a Lot in Common with the Dinosaurs
I use the Pit as an example with couples because, when it comes to relationships, we have a lot in common with the dinosaurs. Research has shown us, through various types of brain scans, that when we feel threatened in a close relationship, the blood can flow from the top of our brains – where we are capable of reasoning and logic – to the back of our brains – the so-called reptilian brain or old brain, which is involved in survival. These changes in how the blood flows in our brain are also known as the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” response.
This response is an important survival tool, because when faced with mortal danger, such as an attack by a wild animal, we have to make split-second decisions about whether to fight, flee, or freeze. If we did not have this ability, by the time we figured out which response was best, we would be some wild animal’s dinner.
But, as you might guess, falling into the Pit can cause real trouble when it happens with our partner. In fact, if we don’t figure out how to stay out or climb out of the Pit, just like the dinosaurs, we will find ourselves and our relationship stuck.
What Happens When We Are in the Pit
When we are in the Pit, we have trouble with thinking things through, seeing the other person’s point of view, and remembering the good parts of our relationship. Our mind automatically keeps showing us the ways in which our partner is being unfair, is not even trying to understand us, and is being inconsiderate or selfish.
Our reptilian brain is telling us to deal with the situation in one of three ways:
- Moving closer to try to solve the problem (Fight). This is when you can’t stop thinking about the problem, or the ways your partner is hurting you, and how damaging it all is to the relationship. You might try everything you can think of – begging, demanding, even yelling or worse – to get your partner to sit down with you, hear you out, and work with you on solutions. All you want to do is get your partner to help you understand the problem so your relationship will survive. Doing nothing feels like it will kill your relationship. This is the brain’s equivalent of the “fight” response.
- Moving farther away to try to cool things down (Flight). This is when you are so upset by the problem or by the conflict between you and your partner that you can’t stand to be around him or her for long. Even the sound of his or her voice can trigger upsetting feelings. You might be afraid of what will happen if you let your partner get to you. You might spend more time away – at the job, with friends, or staying busy with projects or the kids – just to reduce the arguing and the negative feelings. By getting some distance, you are trying to help your relationship survive. This is the brain’s equivalent of the “flight” response.
- Finding yourself stuck or immobilized at a strained impasse (Freeze). This is when you are not really sure what to do, you may have tried several things and nothing has worked, or you just want to wait for calmer times when you might be able escape the relationship. To others, you might seem to have a happy relationship, but inside you know that you are just biding your time. Real intimacy is not currently an option. This is the brain’s equivalent of the “freeze” response.
Because our reptilian brain is seeing our partner as the enemy, we cannot break out of our Fight, Flight, or Freeze responses. We are stuck in the Pit.
Falling into the Pit is Normal
It seems as though we are hard-wired to fall into the pit from time to time. Research shows us that what separates happy, successful couples from unhappy ones is this: happy couples know how to help each other stay out or climb out of the Pit.
So if you are feeling as though you are stuck in the Pit with your partner and just cannot seem to get unstuck, take heart. In fact we are not dinosaurs. We can use our higher brain to get ourselves unstuck and climb out of the Pit. It takes some effort, and it would be nice if our partner helped us but we can do it by ourselves if necessary. Lots of people have mastered getting out of the Pit are better off for it.
Whether you want to improve your relationship or learn to feel happier in your life, we hope you have found this information useful. If you think counseling could help you reach your goals, we invite you to contact us to set up a free telephone consultation.