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By Chandrama Anderson

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About this blog: About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and grief and have lived in Silicon Valley since 1969. I'm the president of Connect2 Marriage Counseling. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in ...  (More)

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Premarital and Couples: Emotional Forensics

Uploaded: Dec 24, 2020
If you've watched a crime show or read a mystery, you know the investigator looks at the crime and then works his or her way back to figure out what happened, and thereby solve the crime.

I am suggesting that you do emotional forensics on yourself (and not on your partner -- let him or her do it for him or herself) to improve your relationship, and really, to improve your life.

If you are in fight, flight, or freeze (i.e., angry, frustrated, wanting to get out of there, avoiding, frozen, still, or so on), then you are having a biologically driven emotional reaction to something -- and are likely to behave in ways that are not helpful to your relationship.

But how does this happen? And what can you do about it?

What happened is due to the evolution of your brain. Your brain has three parts:

1. The "reptile" brain is the first that developed in humans. It's job is to make sure we breathe, eat and sleep.

2. The limbic, or emotional brain is the second brain to develop. It is what drives fight, flight, and freeze reactions. It is the brain that has made us survive as a species. It's only job is to ask, "Am I safe? Am I going to live or am I going to die?" This brain reacts in 1/200th of a second, and allows you to step back onto the curb when a car is coming. You need your limbic brain.

It is also the area that is partially responsible for creating implicit memory; memory such as how to ride a bike, and stores what happened to you growing up -- even if you can't remember and tell it. In contrast, explicit memory is stored in another part of the brain. Explicit memory allows you to tell a funny story; it's accessible data. (Memory is another topic, outside the scope of this blog.)

The emotional brain does not know time (i.e., I am eight years old or 30 or 50, or it's 2021 or 1990). So when your partner says or does something, or you notice his or her body language, your limbic brain may be triggered into having a "safety" reaction that may or may not be equal to what just happened, and likely informed by implicit memories.

This is where reactions come from -- biologically you go to fight, flight, or freeze.

3. The cortical brain is the last brain to evolve, and is our conscious, thinking, logical brain. This is the brain that can respond (vs. react) to what just happened between you and your partner.

Unfortunately, your emotional brain beat you there. And it will continue to do so.

Okay, this explains the question of what happened. So what can you do about it?

This is where the emotional forensics comes into play. The main goal is to calm your system (body and mind) so you are able to respond (vs. react). 

You find yourself in fight, flight, or freeze.

Remind yourself: "Oh, I'm having a limbic reaction." Your task is to breathe deeply, and keep your lips zipped (until you can say, "I'm having a limbic moment").

Next, relax. Look around and notice what you see, hear, and smell in minute detail. For example, "I can hear a crow calling. I hear the Caltrain going by. I see the photo of so-and-so on the wall that is painted grey. I see my cat sleeping on the blue chair, and his breath is moving his belly up and down. I can smell coffee, and a flower; I'm not sure what kind it is."

Notice your body, your breathing, let your shoulders drop, relax your jaw and behind your eyes . . .

During this time you have been taking care of yourself, rather than reacting to your partner.

Maybe you two can now have a useful conversation. If one of you has had your heart rate go over 95, then take 20-30 minutes to let your physiology settle down.

The key is to come back after the 20 minutes and try your conversation again. Don't just disappear. Don't sweep it under the rug. Neither of you will ultimately feel safe if the issue is not addressed. If you don't address the issue, you may begin another limbic/emotional reaction by a move that is intended to calm you but leaves your partner feeling avoided.

There are early warning signs of an impending emotional reaction, usually in your body (e.g., change in breathing, clenching fists, jaw, legs, a feeling in your belly). What is your warning from your body?

As you learn to slow things down, you can recognize your body's early warning system, and ask for a break from a discussion BEFORE your limbic system triggers. There will be a lot less emotional clean-up in your life, and you will be happier.

Support each other in your emotional forensics. Thank one another for slowing down and learning how to have better interactions on emotional topics.

See other blogs of mine about how to have good conversations.
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