One of the worst things you can do to your husband is psychoanalyse and pathologise him.
With every self-help book I pored over, I was exhilarated to find a new label. He was ‘reactive’, ‘defensive’, ‘hyper-vigilant’, ‘fearful avoidant’ ‘immature’ with ‘arrested development’, ‘passive aggressive’, ‘covertly hostile’ and quite simply out to ‘sabotage’ my happiness.
We had regular flare-ups. I would approach him for understanding and reassurance or just try to discuss a benign issue and he would resist and retreat. But the dance didn’t stop there. I pursued him and the hurtful exchange escalated.
Charged with the searing pain of rejection, I would retaliate with a screaming diatribe and inevitably end up a crumpled heap on the bed, howling and sobbing, grief-stricken.
The cycle was debilitating our health and derailing our stability. At these agonising low points I was full of misery and despair and he was full of anxiety and shame.
Our marriage seemed almost hopeless and we felt helpless to stop the habitual flare-ups. But we also knew we had so much goodness going for us; a deep devotion, a wonderful family we adore, our shared history and an exciting future if only we could crack this vicious little nut.
In over three decades together we had amassed an imposing stockpile of grievances, bad habits and emotional wounds that were opened up to bleed with every ferocious clash.
During the lull between fights we stood back and surveyed the smouldering mound of emotional debris and glimpsed the glowing coal of fierce and pure love struggling to stay alive and re-ignite.
We had to solve this problem. Like a comic knight, I’d been riding my horse called Hope on a desperate quest for decades. We had tried an assortment of marriage courses. But none of them could explain the deeper dynamics, the underlying dark forces of relationship destruction.
I finally ‘discovered’ Dr Steven Stosny. I like to imagine that I personally discovered the master. Actually Oprah did, and so did thousands before me. I devoured his books and blogs and knew in my heart this was IT.
Dr Stosny cast all labels aside and revealed the simple truth. We were both consumed by chronic resentment; a potent brew of accumulated anger laced with a burning sense of unfairness that poisons love.
The only catch for us living in London was that Dr Stosny’s couples boot camps are held in the States, in Maryland, outside Washington DC. Still we figured it was worth the cost of the flights and accommodation if a three-day training could save our marriage and our sanity.
So mid-March, as spring was tentatively breaking through the winter gloom, we grasped the nettle and boarded the plane on our way to transformation.
The room was full of stressed couples as desperate as us for respite and reprieve. They had come from all over the States and some from other parts of the world.
Dr Stosny has soft brown eyes, a kind face, and a warm, honeyed accent peppered with a quirky sense of humour from his New Jersey upbringing and Italian heritage. He is not a tall man. But he packs so much knowledge of psychology and biology into his compact form he fills the room. In a smooth, fluent delivery, he held us enthralled for endless hours as he unravelled the tangled mess of our marriages.
As he says, handling each other with care is not that difficult. Rats would get it and stop harmful behaviour instantly but humans persist in doing the same dumb stuff expecting a different result. To be fair, humans are at the mercy of unconscious triggers rats don’t have.
Through extensive research, Dr Stosny has uncovered how the Automatic Defence System (ADS), or fight or flight instinct, is easily activated in the enmeshed relationship of the twosome.
The ADS is continually activated by an underlying shame and fear dynamic with a gender twist that explains why husbands and wives don’t ‘get’ each other and inadvertently trigger each other’s vulnerabilities.
Females are biologically wired with fear of three things: isolation (rejection and disconnection from loved ones); physical and psychological harm and deprivation of security and comfort.
Males are biologically wired with shame about being inadequate or a failure. They are keenly sensitive around their rating as a provider, protector and lover. If a wife wants to hurt her husband she only has to taunt him about his poor performance in any one of these roles.
And so the dance begins. A wife inadvertently ‘insults’ her husband and he fires up or withdraws. She feels rejected and pursues him and he gets more defensive and lashes out. She is scared and feels unloved and retaliates with criticism, sarcasm, name-calling and put-downs that further increase his shame.
The cycle of fear and shame can escalate and spin wildly out of control until you are both thrashing around in intense emotional turmoil and disconnected from each other, seeing each other as an opponent, or worst still, the Enemy.
The endless cycle of painful flare-ups and stand-offs and disconnection leads to a build-up of resentment that becomes toxic. You blame your partner for ‘causing’ your emotional pain. You see him or her as the problem, instead of recognising that the feelings are happening within yourself.
Blind to your own faults, you start to psychoanalyse why he/she is doing this to you and reach for self-help books, advice from friends and even seek counselling and therapy. But all the delving into childhood issues does not solve the puzzle of why you react to each other in such a crazy way.
And you feel guilty and ashamed because your bad behaviour with your partner behind closed doors is out of sync with who you are in the rest of your life; a rational, capable and caring human being!
As Dr Stosny points outs, the problem is not so much psychological as physiological. The ADS becomes hyperactive, set on high alert, on a delicate hair trigger. It keeps going off constantly like a faulty smoke alarm and needs to be disarmed and re-set.
The ways you behave when triggered will depend on the habits entrenched in your relationship, originally adopted from the template laid down in your formative years from watching your parents. If your parents were expressive, fiery and explosive or conflict avoidant and prone to shut down or flee, you might role model on their example. Or you might have a temperamental leaning (towards fear-based flight or anger-based fight) to do the opposite of your parents.
The extent to which your ADS is over-reactive to fear and shame triggers will depend on the intensity of your unconscious Core Hurts (formed through unresolved traumas and past wounds). Dr Stosny is specific about Core Hurts, which he lists as feeling disregarded, unimportant, accused, guilty, devalued, rejected, powerless and the very deepest hurt is either feeling inadequate or unlovable.
But exciting news! Dr Stosny has not only cracked the nut of why the madness happens, he has devised a solution; a way to give up blame and resentment and the cycle of outbursts through managing your own emotions and accessing a much better part of yourself that can override your destructive instincts.
He helps couples develop compassion for each other’s vulnerability. Dr Stosny defines compassion as simply: “Caring when your partner feels bad with a desire to help.” (Guys, ‘help’ does not mean fixing the problem, just listening, understanding, empathising, consoling and soothing).
Compassion allows the couple to stay connected and calms a woman’s fear of rejection and isolation and helps her lavish her man with nurturing and the appreciation, tenderness and support he craves.
Compassion is the most profound form of love that surpasses dizzy infatuation and will sustain you through a lifetime together. Once opened, like a beautiful flower, a compassionate heart will enrich everyone around.
Dr Stosny helps couples cultivate compassion through practising HEALS. The process re-programs the neural pathways in your brain to take a different track. When you feel resentful, angry or anxious you stop and experience the Core Hurt that has been triggered then you access your Core Values.
Your Core Value Bank comprises eight components; Basic Humanity, Meaning and Purpose, Loved Ones, Spirituality, Nature, Creativity, Community and Acts of Kindness.
By daily accessing and adding to your Core Value Bank you strengthen your goodness and can love yourself and solve problems from this compassionate, powerful state of mind rather than from the distorted, weak state of resentment, anger or anxiety.
Dr Stosny says compassion is empowering. My husband and I have discovered this is true. Just a week after the boot camp my intense feelings of hurt and disappointment, frustration, anger and judgements and Andrew’s anxiety, walking on eggshells, defensiveness, resentment and blame have evaporated as if we have woken up from a bad dream.
We are feeling connected and attuned to each other. We have fallen in love again and celebrated with two days sight-seeing in Washington DC where we didn’t have one argument! A miracle!
We are committed to practising the HEALS process 12 times a day for six weeks to re-program our brains. Real change comes not from learning external skills, but from the inside.
We are grateful for finally finding the way out of painful interactions back to true love, care and compassion.
Dr Stosny runs Compassion Power boot camps for couples at the Wyndham Gardens Gaithersburg Hotel in Maryland, United States every six weeks.
The website is Compassion Powerh
He also runs boot camps in Perth, Australia. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Stosny’s blog Anger in the Age of Enlightenment is featured on the US Psychology Today website
His best-selling books include How To Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (co-written with Dr Patricia Love); Love Without Hurt and The Powerful Self. He is currently writing Toddlers In Love.