My wife and I were at a wedding this weekend. The bride was the daughter of some of our closest friends. She and her new husband are a wonderful couple. The excitement and energy around supporting them in their new venture together was electric. Their commitment to each other was clear and deep, as it is in most weddings.
What was also inspiring was the hope and optimism about the future and the endless dreams of adventure and accomplishment. I am always energized by this age group. I have noticed for years that this feeling is not as apparent in a gathering of adults. I am not sure what age is the tipping point where people seem to become more worn down. What is puzzling is that many adults have the means to actually do what the younger generation is dying to experience.
I always wonder in light of this initial celebration why so many marriages fail and why does the enthusiasm wane? It is a neurological trick. I realize that this is a simplistic statement and relationships are complicated. For example, many unseen problematic mental health and substance abuse issues can’t be concealed from a life partner. However, even in the best of situations, marriage is often more of a struggle than it seems it should be and why wouldn’t the excitement about your life together build as you continue to lay down the foundation.
The first neurological “trick” is the well-known effect of thought suppression. When you try not to think about something you not only think about it more, you think about it a lot more. There is a documented trampoline effect. So in a relationship, there are many things you like and admire about your spouse and a few traits that are less than ideal. Since they are minor in the big picture, you ignore (suppress) them. They are not that big of a deal; except you are exposed to them over and over and over again. They are still minor except that the suppression over time creates a monster in your brain. Five years later this simple irritation becomes intolerable and often irrational. The good traits are still there and maybe even better. Yet the irrational response begins to become overwhelming and “talking” it out can’t work with the unconscious brain. In spite of an overwhelming number of positive aspects of your commonly shared life, it frequently is blown up because this unconscious survival response is so much stronger than your rational brain.
The kitchen cabinet doors
Early on in our relationship, it frustrated my wife that I regularly didn’t close the kitchen cabinet doors. Initially, it wasn’t a big deal and not worth seriously addressing (at least for me). A couple of years into our marriage, it became a bigger issue.” I was doing it to irritate her and wasn’t respecting her needs.” The problem was that my mind was in a different place and I never knew and still don’t know if I close them or not. I have tried many times to figure out a way to consistently close them and I think that I accomplish it most of the time. However, I wouldn’t know since I never could see if I did or didn’t in the first place.
We don’t talk about it much anymore. Maybe I do close the cupboards or it is more likely that she just gave up trying to deal with it. I am not that bad of a person because I don’t (can’t) close the kitchen cupboards. It is just one of many examples of issues that are not that important but can slowly erode your capacity to have a great time together.
So the same concepts that apply to chronic pain are applicable to relationships. It is repetition of negative sensory input. Even if your chronic pain is relatively mild, it often becomes a major distraction over a period of time. The same is true of aspects of your relationship with your partner.
There are other neurological tricks that wreak havoc with your home and your relationships:
- Mirror neurons
- Your reactive patterns are learned from your own family of origin. They play out in your new family. Your deepest and strongest triggers are in your household.
- Anger destroys awareness, which is the foundation of any relationship.
- Humans are extremely social creatures and the need to belong and connect with others is almost as strong as your need for food and water. This can manifest in being willing put up with more negative energy than you should and why people stay in abusive situations.
If you step back a take a look at this somewhat incomplete list, you might realize that they are all part of your survival unconscious brain. Rational strategies can’t and don’t work. All of us know that a lot of our behaviors are less the stellar at times, yet we continue to engage in them. The behavioral patterns too powerful.
What does all of this have to do with your chronic pain? The basic problem is that your pain pathways are linked to anger and frustration circuits. Whenever you are triggered for any reason, especially by your family, your pain pathways will fire up. It is more difficult to heal when you are being frequently set off. It is one of the reasons why I ask all members of the family to engage in the DOC concepts and the family structure can be an important source of healing.
The solution lies in understanding the problem. Once you understand that the automatic neurological aspects of your aggravations are not solvable, you can quit wasting your efforts. You can then direct your energy in a new direction and re-connect with your youthful perspective and sense of adventure. You can’t do it with positive thinking or good intentions. You cannot have more commitment to treating your partner well than you observe at a wedding.
The DOC process is one of the ways to de-energize and re-direct your reactions. Whatever approach you work with, you must learn tools to become aware and calm down. Additionally, you have to learn when to let go and move on. My wife and I have SLOWLY learned how impossible and irrational we can become over minuscule issues and we are working on simply disengaging with each other when we are upset.
Don’t let these neurologic tricks take away your capacity and energy to create and live your vision. The strategies to address them aren’t difficult and will allow you to thrive. Enjoying your journey with others is an important aspect of living a full life.