April 11, 2008

"In your anger do not sin." ~ Ephesians 4: 26

All married couples have conflict. These skirmishes can take on many forms. Some end in a stalemate between spouses where one or both are stonewalling or withdrawing. Others can become heated, resulting in one or both partners saying things they later regret. And what about those fights that end in some type of verbal, emotional or even physical abuse? This abuse can make it difficult for couples to recover because trust is eroded and intimacy is thwarted. It is hard to believe that abuse like this can occur in families, yet research shows that 1 in 6 couples in America experience some type of violence. Even very loving couples can fall prey to verbal and physical abuse.

Zach and Kelly were one such couple. We met them at one of our Soul Healers Couple’s Workshops.

“I’m ashamed to tell you,” Kelly said with her voice shaking, “but Zach and I can’t seem to resolve our problems without resorting to some type of violence. We both know it is wrong but we just can’t stop.”

Zach added, “We are so embarrassed that we have never told anyone until now. One of the main reasons we came to this workshop was to find a way to stop.”

Marital violence is one of the toughest issues to deal with, but there is hope for these couples and others like them. Research suggests that as many as 80% of volatile couples suffered from some form of abuse as children. Zach and Kelly were no exception. They both grew up in homes where violence was present. These traumatized couples carry wounds from this abuse that we call soul wounds, causing them to over react in conflict situations. The tendency to give a situation more anger or emotion than it deserves is called reactivity. Reactivity causes couples to respond in a "fight or flight" manner when memories of past trauma are triggered. Self-protection becomes the main objective, and because of this, these couples are highly reactive to real or perceived danger. Such individuals also have trouble distinguishing between past trauma and current marital issues. Frequently violence seems to be the only way they know to defend themselves.

A typical violent ritual for Zach and Kelly started when he would criticize and condemn her for being messy and not keeping the house clean. She would become resentful and retaliate by criticizing him for not helping. As the conflict escalated, both of them would slip into childhood memories of abuse. She felt threatened while revisiting memories of her father’s abusive criticism, and would lash back verbally and at times physically. He would get overwhelmed with reliving his father’s abuse, so to protect himself he retaliated physically. Ironically, their fighting replicated their own childhood experiences. They were re-wounding each other’s souls in much the same way their parents did. Both saw each other as a perpetrator, an intimate enemy, and therefore violence seemed to be their only way of self-protection.

In our Soul Healers Workshops we give couples two basic techniques designed to lower their violent reactions (reactivity) and help them listen and understand each other. The first technique is called The GIFT Exercise. It is built on the premise that anger is not really the main culprit behind reactivity -- anger is only a secondary emotion, usually felt in response to a more primary feeling. Submerged under anger are four basic feelings that help define or give purpose to our rage. Chances are, if you are feeling anger, you can trace it to any of these four emotions. We have developed the acronym "GIFT" for these underlying emotions so that you can easily trace them to their root cause: