It’s 8:30AM on October 1st, 1993. Three Chase Manhattan Bank employees have just been taken hostage by two men in Brooklyn, New York. One employee manages to trip an alarm, alerting the police. The block shuts down as first responders and news reporters fill the streets. Eager to resolve the standoff, F.B.I. agents are mobilized to begin negotiations with the bank robbers. Panicked that their getaway driver had a change of heart and left them, they repeatedly demand a car from the agents, who aren’t willing to acquiesce. (Hevesi, 1993)
So, how did it end? Did the negotiators give in to the bank robbers’ demands? Were the hostages harmed? We will find out later, but first, let’s discover what this tense moment in U.S. history has in common with something that affects the happiness of over 60 million Americans: marriage.
Just like the bank robbery, most marriages endure emotionally charged conflict. Two people with contrasting upbringings, wants, and needs shape their behavior to get those needs met, and often hold children hostage in the process. There is plenty to fight about in a marriage as two people not only tend to their relationship, but also try to form a partnership to meet the demands of their children, home, and careers (Zill, 2020).
Yet despite the high costs, literally and figuratively, of divorce, 42-45% of married couples still call it quits, usually around year seven or eight (Irvin, 2019). People may believe that they deserve to be happy, that life’s too short to be in an unhappy marriage, that they can just find someone better, that they don’t love their spouse anymore, that their spouse is the problem, that marriage shouldn’t be this hard, or that there’s no way to fix it.
The 68% of couples who stay married after considering divorce and are happy five years later (Benson & McKay, 2017) have discovered that no one outside of ourselves controls our happiness, and that life’s too short to think they do (Tolle, 2018). They realize that their intention to make the marriage work, makes it work (Berman, 2017). They come to the realization that we only like people who reflect back the best of us, and we only dislike people when they reflect the parts of ourselves that we don’t like (Jung, 1988). Finally, they come to understand that their marriage is hard because they haven’t learned how to meet their own needs and truly understand others, and that they’re co-creating the dynamic they’re in which will follow them even if they do move on to a new partner (Tsabary, 2016).
According to Pro Tour Golf College, their PGA-hopeful students spend an average of six hours practicing the game each day during the week, plus an additional amount of practice and play beyond that. To become a professional golfer, they must deliberately try different swings with different clubs and learn how to adjust for rapidly changing weather and course conditions (Montague, 2012). To become a champion, athletes in every sport dedicate vast amounts of time to practice and perfect their game.
By its very nature, marriage allows us to constantly experience emotional interpersonal conflict that triggers the parts of us that need to heal, change, or grow. Because each person is constantly evolving, or we hope they are, there is no shortage of opportunities to feel uncomfortable and seek the right tools to navigate out of that discomfort and into a more desirable state. When it comes to personal growth, marriage offers up the practice shots we need to become champions.
Research suggests that staying in a non-abusive marriage advances our personal growth because it requires us to increase our emotional intelligence, mend and care for our mental health, and improve our empathy and communication skills.
Used this way, marital conflict provides the thousands of hours of practice we need to win at the game of life. This personal growth allows us to have better relationships with everyone, including families of origin, coworkers, our children, teachers, strangers, business associates, political leaders, our clients, and beyond. It even helps with other relationships, like those we have with food or money. It helps us negotiate better wages, become better leaders, make a greater impact, show up more authentically, and use our gifts (Ciarrochi, Forgas, & Mayer, 2006). Moreover, without barriers caused by unresolved mental and emotional health problems, we can fully utilize our unique capacities to create change and serve others. We can use marriage to give us the tools we need to have a better life. Let’s discuss three of those tools.
All human behavior is a best attempt to get a need met (Glasser, 2001) and all of our decisions to choose that behavior are driven by our emotions (Damasio, 1996). When we observe another human’s behavior or listen to them speak, often our first emotional reaction points us to our own childhood wounding (McLaren, 2013).
Because we were typically denied the ability to experience and regulate our emotions in a healthy way as children raised with an authoritarian parenting style, adults not only have repressed emotions trapped in their bodies (Patel & Patel, 2019), but they also lack the ability to control the emotions they do have so they can be present to the emotional needs of the other person with empathy. Instead, we feel defensive and project our emotions in return onto them (McLaren, 2013).
Emotions, or energy in motion, are the fantastic guidance system that keeps us alive. Each emotion has a purpose when it comes from the present moment. For example, panic guides us to fight, flee, or freeze in a life or death situation (DeBecker, 2000). Anger alerts us to the need to hold a boundary. Hate indicates total boundary devastation. Sadness appears when we must let something go. And grief surfaces when we’ve lost something we can never get back (McLaren, 2010).
Knowledge of each emotion is critical when we want to interact with others. We must know what we are feeling, and also be able to accurately sense what the other person is feeling. Without the ability to distinguish our feelings from those of others, we can experience “emotional contagion,” where we take on and feel the emotions of others (McLaren, 2013). While potentially helpful, as it gives us the ability to calm someone down if we can be calm ourselves, it can be dangerous if we match another person’s anger or fear with our own (Berman, 2017).
So, the first step, when we find ourselves in conflict, is to regulate the emotion we are experiencing in reaction to theirs and, if it doesn’t match the present moment, either stop to deconstruct the original source of the repressed emotion and allow it to leave our body, or make a note to examine it later at the first opportunity. This somatic experiencing of our own stored emotions not only improves our mental and emotional health, but our physical health as well (Patel & Patel, 2019).
When deconstructing the origin of repressed negative emotions (often called “triggers”), we begin to become aware of any dysfunctional patterns from our childhood that may be repeating in our adult lives (Tsabary, 2016). For example, if we felt abandoned by a parent, do we find ourselves in a relationship where we feel abandoned by a partner? Do we notice that this has a consistent reoccurrence over our dating journey? Did our own parents end up in constant conflict and divorce when we were a similar age to our current children?
We will uncover the adverse childhood experiences that led us to develop maladaptive coping responses to the uncomfortable emotions we experienced as infants or children. Through this, we find the origin of our addictions and self-esteem issues, our rigidity or lack of boundaries, dominating or codependent behaviors, and more (Judith, 2006). We may even realize that attachment was disrupted right from infancy, setting the stress response hormone, cortisol’s, threshold for life (Freedman, 2017).
By exploring our judgments of others, we uncover our subconscious conditioned belief systems and projections of our rejected parts of ourselves onto others (Jung, 1988). For example, we may carry a belief that we are unlovable if we make a mistake, from a time when a parent shamed us as a child for making an innocent blunder. This kind of belief would trigger the emotion of inherited shame and cause us to be very defensive to any criticism as adults. Or, we may judge our partner for leaving a cabinet door open because we rejected the part of ourselves that was forgetful as a child, after a parent criticized and shamed us for that behavior. Because those subconscious belief systems are like our operating system running our lives, we rarely stop to question them to determine if they are true (Berman, 2017).
To deconstruct this childhood wounding, adults can use therapy, coaching, counseling, somatic experiencing, self-coaching, or meditation. Meditation is especially helpful as it can stop the “fight or flight” stress response by activating our vagus nerve and the “rest and digest” response. Meditation allows us to shift out of fear or high beta brainwaves and into calm, alpha brainwaves (Church & Dispenza, 2019), and it helps us create new neural pathways and drop old limiting beliefs that no longer serve us, so we can take control of the thoughts and emotions driving our behavior (Lipton, 2016).
Finally, as we release stored emotions and use neuroplasticity to form new, supportive beliefs, we are able to use the awareness of our present-moment emotions to guide us toward the choices and behaviors that are in our best interest. When we no longer base our decisions on past trauma, we can align our lives to what is best for us in the here and now.
EMPATHY AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS
With our new abilities to regulate our emotions, use emotional contagion to our advantage, and sense the emotions of others, we can now improve our ability to resolve conflict with others. Because we are each driven by our emotions first, in order to have a logical conversation about a problem, we must first help each other to get through our emotions in any argument or heated conversation (Voss & Raz, 2017).
From meditation, we have the ability to control the stream of thoughts that typically would be defensively listening, our ego on the alert to protect our identity no matter the cost (Tolle, 2018). Instead, now we can use active listening skills to not only hear, but to understand the ideas and emotions someone is trying to convey to us (Voss & Raz, 2017).
By mirroring their words, we can tease out their thoughts and ideas and help the other person hear and comprehend their own concerns. Then, through the use of labeling, we can share what we sense the other person is feeling so that we can move them through their emotions—or move their emotions through them!
Finally, with emotions released and the other party able to access their prefrontal cortex and think logically about a situation, we can use carefully chosen open-ended questions to help them think critically, consider other points of view, and make a decision that is mutually beneficial for both parties (Voss & Raz, 2017).
Less than 12 hours after the two bank robbers took their hostages, all five people involved walked out of Chase Manhattan Bank without injury, thanks in part to the patient efforts of F.B.I. hostage negotiator, Chris Voss.
Mr. Voss used all of the above tools we just discussed to engage the men in conversation, which he outlines in his book, Never Split the Difference. First, he regulated his own fear about the potential casualties if he wasn’t successful. He assumed what he calls the “late night radio DJ” tone of voice to help calm the men as he spoke to them. Next, he used active listening to understand the emotional drivers motivating their behavior and make them feel deeply understood. Finally, after teasing out their emotions and getting them to think critically about their choices and the future, they both eventually gave up and walked out to the waiting NYPD.
Their demands, beyond a hero sandwich for lunch, were never met.
Choosing to stay in a non-abusive marriage has far reaching benefits including advancing our personal growth because it requires us to increase our emotional intelligence, mend and care for our mental health, and improve our empathy and communication skills. From our children’s mental and emotional health to the economic advantages of partnership, we’ve always known that fixing a marriage is the ideal choice. But the consequences for our life (and our world) reach further than just saving 50% of our money and belongings and salvaging the relationship we have with our kids.
The personal growth opportunity that the daily conflict of an interpersonal relationship like marriage affords us is priceless. Not only do we maintain the love and support of someone we once knew as our biggest fan, we are provided the mirror with which we can identify the areas where we need emotional, mental, and spiritual growth. This growth, in turn, affects every area of our professional and personal lives. We are able to live more authentically, assertively stand up for what we need, and collaborate with others to expand our success and our impact. Without repressed emotions driving our behavior, we can respond to others by seeking to collaborate rather than reacting defensively. With the right communication skills, negotiation in every relationship improves, leading to problem solving without war or violence.
It turns out our happiness is not hiding from us in some future relationship that doesn’t even exist. It’s available to us here and now, and it’s our choice to create it.
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