Stop Automating your Partner!

What I learned from a quality espresso machine.

A sticky coffee situation

“Give me room to grow!” I found myself asking my husband when we recently got stuck in a triggering conversation about spending money, being on the same team, and assuming we could predict each other’s feelings, intentions, and reactions. A little background: he recently ordered a quality European espresso machine, a dream he has had for years. My husband never spends on himself and is extremely responsible financially. 85% of me feels supportive and excited for him to enjoy this small daily luxury. The other 15% is anxious about the cost and feels guilty about such a splurge. Twenty-six years ago, when we first got married, those percentages would surely have been reversed! I have been working on my own emotional baggage around money and judgment, slowly but surely, and learning to be supportive and appreciative of his differences.

Assume the best about me!

This morning, however, when I asked about the coffee-related packages that were arriving and shared my desire to be included in the fun of receiving them, my husband responded with wariness and suspicion. While this made me feel sad and misunderstood, I can also completely understand his concerns, given that I have been critical, controlling, or fearful around some of his choices in the past. He had lots of good reasons to be wary; I would have reacted the same way if I had been in his shoes. Yet I longed for him to assume that I had good intentions–to focus on the 85% and let go of the 15%! I want him to see me in a positive light and trust that I can continue to change around these patterns, slowly but surely, with his help, in a climate of appreciation and acceptance.

Old brain patterns                                                                            

Why can it be so hard to give our partners room to grow and shift into new habits of thinking, feeling and acting? The way our brain is hardwired can explain a lot. Neuroscience teaches us that our brain has a powerful “negativity bias.” Our nervous system, in an attempt to keep us safe from harm, constantly scans for danger or threat. That’s why we pay much more attention to the bad things that happen, often making them seem more important than they really are. This is also called “positive-negative asymmetry.” As Imago therapist Maureen McEvoy says, “Our brain would rather assume the worst than be caught unaware, with our pants down so to speak. So, it records all possible dangers. That means each of us has a file on our partners when they were not at their best, and our partner also has a file on us when we were at our most reactive.”          

Partner on auto-pilot

This negativity bias affects the way we relate to our partner. If we expect the worst and negatively anticipate how our partner will react to something, we will approach that interaction with our defenses already on high alert. Have you noticed how quickly, in conflict, we are tempted to accuse our partner with “You always do this,” or “You never say that”? We end up automating them! This makes sense because, to conserve energy, our brain likes to automate not only repetitive behaviors, but also thinking, doing, feeling, and negative patterns.

Change is scary

On an emotional level, this unconscious attachment to familiar negative interactions makes sense as well. Even though we may say we want change–in ourselves and in our partners–change is scary and often causes anxiety. We all learned to adapt as children with strategies to keep ourselves connected or safe—such as getting angry, or withdrawing, or pleasing others, for example. Typically we find that those defense mechanisms don’t work in our adult relationships and instead fuel power struggles and painful repetitive conflicts. Even so, the idea of shifting some of these old behaviors can bring up all kinds of resistance and uncertainty. We may even sometimes unconsciously sabotage our partner’s attempts at creating more positive relational patterns. “We are attached to the familiar regardless of merit. We would rather have the hell we know than have a taste of heaven and lose it,” as Imago trainer Maya Kollman aptly puts it.

Room to grow

While we can’t change our biology–the way our nervous system is wired to respond to situations that seem dangerous–we can learn to manage our reactivity. We can change how we respond to people and situations. With practice, our brains are amazingly able to grow new neural pathways that allow us to respond in more positive ways in relationship and to accept change in ourselves and our partner. We can train our minds to focus on the good in our partner. What we pay attention to grows! We can balance the old file in our brain with a new file, filled with memories and felt experiences of joy, safety, and connection.

Intentional practices can help with this challenging process.

Here are just a few:

  • Express daily appreciations to your partner
  • Hold a positive image of your partner in your mind every day, for at least one minute
  • Remove negativity (blame, shame, criticism) to increase safety in your relationship
  • Create more opportunities for pleasure and fun
  • Learn the Imago Dialogue and use it to support your growth as a more conscious couple

New rituals

Thanks to our practice with the Imago Dialogue, my husband and I were able to share our feelings and listen to each other’s perspectives. He validated my longing for him to honor my efforts to be more supportive and accepting. I validated his fear of feeling controlled and his desire for me to embrace all of him–including his passion for excellence, beauty, and hospitality, through exceptional coffee. It can be hard to give our partner room to grow, but if we can trust that conflict is change trying to happen, then we can help each other stretch into our full potential as human beings.

I am looking forward to beginning a new ritual of connection: savoring a homemade macchiato with my barista-husband as we welcome each new day.