How to Avoid the Split-up Seasons: One Couple’s Story

According to David McCandless, who analyzed the status of millions of Facebook users, there’s a huge spike in breakups around the holidays and another at spring time.

What’s Behind These Breakup Bonanzas?

Perhaps you’re thinking about it yourself, because you’ve been arguing a lot or have been feeling lonely for a too long.

Breaking up might be the best way to go if your relationship feels toxic, abusive, or is mired in serious struggles such as untreated addiction.

But what if you started out your relationship by feeling an almost irresistible magnetic pull to your partner in the beginning, with a feeling of “this is so right,” and there is no toxicity? If that is the case, you might want to roll up your sleeves in order to revive your relationship.

McCandless Study of Peak Break-Up Times

Whatever your symptoms are—feeling constantly irritable, or tense, losing interest in sex, feeling lonely, or misunderstood—they do not necessarily mean that your relationship is terminal.

Relationship Difficulties Can Be Your Gateway to Growth

All relationships, even those that are great at first, come under stress and strain. Sometimes it’s about money, or lack of quality time together, hostile or unpleasant family or in-laws, or the stresses of becoming parents.

And of course, the stresses endured by LBGTQ couples can be overwhelming. There have been significant strides in the last decade, but it’s hard not to notice lingering discrimination, or a lack of understanding or acceptance, whether overt or subtle.

But there’s more to it than that. We’ve all encountered the Hollywood myth of living happy ever after, which is exactly that—a myth.

As Harville Hendrix put it:

“Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”

We are invited to another stage of growth, whether we want it or not.

The hidden gift in conflict is that we can learn to grow more from our difficulties and stressors than when things are going smoothly.

All healthy, growing relationships shift and change over time—sometimes very uncomfortably. That very discomfort can provide the fuel that pushes us to expand into ever-growing levels of personal and spiritual development.

Brian and Dan Were Not Thankful–Yet

As a NYC psychotherapist, I’ve literally seen thousands of couples come through my door trying to recover the blissful first days of their relationship.

One such couple were Brian and Dan (and, of course, I’ve changed their names to maintain confidentiality). Brian, an artist and Dan, a lawyer, had been together for a few years. When they first met, they both felt like they had found, as they put it, The One. It was love at first sight. They were blissfully happy and fulfilled for a full year. But then small irritations and then doubts about each other began to creep in.

On their third Thanksgiving together, they decided it was their turn to host. In their first year as a couple, Brian and Dan had gone to visit with Brian’s parents, then the following year they had both stayed at Dan’s mom’s house. The visits had gone well. They had both felt accepted and welcomed by their families. They were also relieved about that, as this was certainly not always the case for their many LGBTQ friends.

As Brian and Dan sat down to plan out their feast, Brian started to feel increasingly angry. Once they tallied the total cost of the food and drinks, it did not seem fair to Brian that he should be paying for half of what he saw as an overly elaborate Thanksgiving meal. When Dan started talking about buying decorations and hiring a cleaner, Brian finally lost his cool and angrily accused Dan of being “selfish and self-centered.”

Brian earned much less than Dan, and the income disparity had begun to cause a lot of stress, at least for Brian.

Brian felt creatively fulfilled in his work, but he also had a vague but uneasy feeling of unworthiness that his earnings were so small compared to Dan’s.

Dan never put Brian down about money, and even liked to pay more than 50: 50 as his contribution, so that things might seem fairer. Brian, however, found it hard not to feel “less than.”

Instead of getting to the point of breakup, Brian and Dan decided to get help by starting Imago Couples Therapy.

At my office, I was able to help them by having them learn about and practice a few simple steps they could use when a fight between them was brewing.

So, how were they able to reconnect to each other? As a kind of conflict “First Aid” there are some steps they learned to follow, steps I am sharing here.

I’ve dubbed these the 7 Steps to Reconnection. If you follow them carefully, they can transform your intimate relationship from being “a problem” into an opportunity to grow and heal old wounds.

Eventually, by following the 7 Steps, Brian and Dan were able to approach their conflicts in a much more satisfying way.

What are the 7 Steps to Reconnection?

The 7 Steps Are To:

  1. Recognize Emotional Hijack.
  2. Make it a Mindful Moment (and drop the Anger Armor).
  3. Focus on compassion, not on finding fault.
  4. Distinguish your thoughts from your feelings.
  5. Access your deeper feelings.
  6. Brainstorm some solutions to your situation.
  7. Celebrate finding your way back to each other!

1. Recognize Emotional Highjack

The first step is to simply recognize that when things get heated between couples, one or both of you are in what’s known as an Emotional Hijack.

Suddenly, the most evolved part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, is not available to you any more. It’s been hijacked by a very ancient part of your brain—the amygdala. That’s why it’s also known as an Amygdala Hijack (a term coined by Daniel Goleman).

The amygdala is designed to keep you safe from danger. It’s been there since our most distant prehistory to keep us safe from physical threats (e.g., saber-toothed tigers).

Unfortunately, it’s not well suited to modern life. That is because it can also be triggered by other humans. Your amygdala “alarm” has gone off when you are heated and angry at your partner. If your partner is angry at you, you might feel the intensity of fear.

Your amygdala can be like owning a car whose alarm goes off in the middle of the night because of rainfall. It’s an over-reaction.

Whether you or your partner go into full attack mode (angry), freeze mode (hiding, keeping quiet), or running (avoidance) mode, you are definitely on full alert.

In Brian and Dan’s case, it was Brian who got angry about the cost of Thanksgiving. Dan started to shut down, a kind of freeze response, which only seemed to contribute to Brian’s anger.

Whatever the response, during an Emotional Hijack, our ability to come up with bigger picture thinking is gone. With alarm bells ringing in our ears, we lose the ability to create solutions and to maintain a connection to our partner.

What we all need at this point is to get the prefrontal cortex to take over again, and the way we get it back is to mindfully reclaim it.

We need to turn our Emotional Highjack into a Mindful Moment.

2. Make it a Mindful Moment (and Drop the Anger Armor)

During an Emotional Hijack, we can consciously create a Mindful Moment.

“When you make a choice, you change the future.”
—Deepak Chopra

If we don’t claim back the rest of our brain, our default setting during conflict is what you could call Anger Armor.

When anger shows up during conflict, it is always a defense—against vulnerability.

Anger protects us by covering over our more vulnerable emotions, such as fear, shame, or hurt. It’s a form of armor.

Just being aware of this beforehand can curb the potentially destructive power of anger that is there if we let it run the show.

3. Focus on Compassion, Not on Finding Fault

Anger gives us a laser-like focus on finding the faults in our partner, because when we are angry we need to win the argument. Winning becomes more important than preserving our relationship and sense of connection.

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be in relationship?” ― Harville Hendrix

As a key component of our Mindful Moment, we can choose instead to extend compassion to ourselves, and hopefully to our partner.

Willingness is often enough to soften our Anger Armor, and sometimes, especially with practice, to dissolve it completely.

It was with practice that Brian noticed he could find the courage to set aside his anger during conflicts, even when it welled up in him.

He described to me how vulnerable it made him feel to lay aside his anger. He said that all he had now was his underbelly, but I was able to reassure him that to experience this was normal and healthy.

4. Distinguish your Thoughts From your Feelings

I then asked both Brian and Dan to identify the thoughts that arose during their arguments.

Distinguishing your thoughts is a crucial step because most of us confuse thoughts with feelings, and if we can’t identify our thoughts, they can be taken hostage by anger again, looking for reasons to win that argument.

Brian said, “Dan is really insensitive about money. It’s easy for him to say it’s not a big deal to put on this feast, because he earns plenty, but I don’t.”

Now it was Dan’s turn. “Brian’s got that kind of chip on his shoulder that I don’t like. And he’s kinda pissy with my friends from the office. I feel bad for him and my friends and me when he acts like that.”

I reminded them both how they would need to be courageous to go deeper.

Dan now seemed to soften. “Brian’s been so irrational about money. I’ve told him countless times that money does not matter, but he’s not been listening to me.” After a long pause he added, “Perhaps he does not trust me.”

Then Brian added, “To be honest, I worry that Dan will leave me for a richer man. Sometimes I think it’s only a matter of time. I even catch myself thinking that perhaps I should leave Dan before he leaves me.”

It became clear that both were hurting and frightened about losing their relationship. I felt encouraged by the fact that they were willing to be so honest and open about their thoughts in my office.

5. Access your Deeper Feelings

A lot of us have lost easy access to our deeper feelings. There seem to be a couple of reasons for this.

One seems to be that we become trained to value our thoughts above our feelings, at least in mainstream culture. Many of us have forgotten that our thoughts are what we have, not who we are.

Another reason is that we learn to numb, suppress, or ignore our feelings growing up in order to protect ourselves, as a coping strategy.

But it’s important to reclaim our emotions as essential emotional guideposts to help us guide us through every situation we find ourselves in.

As Dan Siegal famously put it, when it comes to emotions, you have to “Name it to Tame it.”

We need access to all our feelings, whether pleasant or unpleasant, so we can navigate our worlds and especially our relationships.

The good news is that we can learn to recognize and embrace all our feelings—even the so-called “negative” ones—as part of our path of growth and healing.

Here’s how:

  • If you can’t say it in one word, it’s a thought.
  • If you use the words “that” or “like” with “I feel” then generally it’s a thought.

It took some practice, but in our sessions together, Brian and Dan were soon able to distinguish their feelings from their thoughts.

At first Brian had said, “I feel like he’s not listening to me and does not trust me.”

I explained that this was a thought, not an emotion. As we stayed with it, Brian was eventually able to access that he was both scared and ashamed.

Dan too was able to notice that he too was scared, but also that he felt hurt.

At this point, both clearly still cared about each other. By showing such courage and honesty they had begun to build a deeper sense of trust in each other.

6. Brainstorm some Solutions Around your Situation

Once you’ve got access to your deeper emotions, you will be able to be a lot more creative in coming up with solutions that address the original point of conflict.

Once Brian had been able to share his fear about not having enough money for the Thanksgiving dinner, Brian found it a lot easier to talk openly to Dan about what their options were.

They soon decided that it would be good to turn it into a family potluck. That way other members of Brian’s family, who had actually also felt a little intimidated by Dan’s wealth, could feel more comfortable.

7. Celebrate Finding Your Way Back to Each Other!

As we’ve seen, once Brian and Dan got to their more authentic, vulnerable feelings by following the 7 Steps, they were able to reconnect.

And like anything in life, they got better at reconnecting with practice.

In time, they were able to look back on that Thanksgiving as something of a gift. They both ended up feeling genuinely thankful that on that Thanksgiving they chose to be in relationship, instead of “being right.”

Is Imago Couples Therapy for You?

So, before you alter your status on Facebook from “In a Relationship” to “Single”, think about contacting me. We can see if Imago Couples Therapy might be for you.

©Anthony Patterson 2017

By |2017-12-01T18:16:17+00:00May 22nd, 2017|

About the Author:

Anthony is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor. A highly skilled, eclectic, integrative and results-oriented psychotherapist who offers a mindfulness approach to emotional healing.