By Drs. Bev and Tom Rodgers

How We Resolved Reactivity In Our Own Marriage

The cold Chicago wind blew through me, cutting me like a knife, as I (Bev) walked through the campus of Northern Illinois University, where I attended graduate school. Tom and I had only been married six months when he moved me from the warm, balmy climate of Los Angeles. I loved LA, with its palm trees and constant summer breeze, and miles and miles of beaches.  But, as the dutiful wife, I traded it all to follow Tom to the dreaded frigidity of Illinois, where he took a job at a college there. This was just one in a long line of resentments that began to brew in my soul as a young bride.

 I hated the cold weather. Growing up in the south, it snowed infrequently, and it was a glorious occasion. Schools closed, work was cancelled. It was a time for snowmen, sleds, and eating snow cream. The North was a different story. When it snowed there, they didn’t close schools, offices, or churches. They marched on and trudged through the frozen stuff.

            Don’t get me wrong, the first snowfall was beautiful with its stunning white powder covering the landscape. Pine trees looked like crystal angels. Elms and maples wore icy shawls to outline their silhouettes. It was magical! But then it stayed, and stayed, and stayed. As the weather became colder, my heart grew colder with resentment too. But I shoved my pain down deep in my soul, afraid to make any waves.

My parents fought constantly and finally divorced, so I falsely concluded that fighting led to divorce. I vowed never to fight in my marriage, which I now know is a big mistake. I avoided conflict at all costs and mistakenly thought that I was practicing a gentle quiet spirit, like the Word talks about in I Peter 3:4. What I now know, from research, is that my withdrawal and stonewalling are the highest predictors of divorce in America.

What did I know? I was twenty-two years old and fresh out of a really dysfunctional family that gave me no role model to follow in building a healthy marriage. Tom’s situation was not much better. His parents divorced after twenty-five years of struggle.  As children of divorce, we felt like fish out of water when dealing with marital conflict.

Our parents’ divorces were not the only demons in our newly-formed marriage. I came from severe physical and verbal abuse at the hands of a mentally ill mother. Tom’s father was critical, negative, and impossible to please. These scars set us up to have a difficult time doing marriage successfully.

            As I walked along the frozen tundra of what they called a campus, my soul was heavy, remembering the awful fight we had had just the night before. While the snow pummeled my face, the bitter memory pummeled my heart.

             Last night I had been so proud of myself as I was preparing dinner for my new groom. We were poor and lived from paycheck to paycheck so I prepared a delicious, nutritious dinner for only $1.88. Proverbs 31 women had nothing on me! I thought I was truly the ideal bride. But that economical meal happened to be quiche. Unfortunately, a book came out in the early 1970s that quickly became a thorn in my side. The name of that book was Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. I want to find this clever author some day and tell him just how I feel about his literary contribution and the trouble it caused me in my early marriage.

   As I prepared the food, Tom started making faces, curling his lip, and asking what I put in the quiche. He began to tell me about his distaste for mushy egg dishes. Now, as he tells the story in workshops, he says that this had nothing to do with him being “a real man” at all. His honest impression of quiche is that it looks like something that was already eaten once and someone brought it back up, baked it, and tried to eat it again. Usually this gets a “yuck” response from the audience, which further proves his point. As we sat at the kitchen table “discussing” quiche, our conversation quickly turned into an argument. Tom got heated and said, “I’m leaving. I’m gonna go out on the porch to cool off.”

 When he was young his mother told him that all good, hot-blooded, Portuguese boys should cool off when they get mad. His mother taught him to, in lieu of losing his temper, and hurting someone’s feelings, go outside and calm down. One would think that I, his bride, would see the healthy rationale in this–but no!  To my surprise I had a major meltdown as he got up to leave.

             “Leave!…Did I hear you say leave?” I clung. I cried. I grabbed his leg.  “Please don’t leave.  How could you be so mean as to leave me at a time like this?!”

             “Huh?” he sighed incredulously. “What are you so upset about? I’m just cooling off like my mom taught me years ago!  Can’t a guy get a break around here?” At that moment Tom thought he had married a psycho woman, and what was worse, I thought that I had become one! What had happened to our wonderful honeymoon haven? Why did we both feel so raw, so betrayed, I wondered, as I made the icy trek to school?

            I arrived at my professor’s office for our weekly consultation session with these painful questions still echoing in my mind. I was so frozen that I didn’t remove my hat, coat, or gloves. As you can imagine, Professor Jones thought I was strange. Cold to me was forty degrees. Cold to him was forty below. I could hardly contain myself as I sat before that wise mentor. “Boy, do I have a case to staff with you,” I said, barely holding back the tears. He knew me well enough to know that I was about to share another difficult scene from my young marriage. I shared the whole sordid quiche affair with him.

His deep-set eyes looked calmly as he spoke. “I’m going to give you a preview of the neurobiology unit I will be teaching next semester,” and away he went.

 “Brain function has a great deal to do with how we respond to real or perceived pain.”  I sniffed back the tears, grabbed my note pad, as I had done many times before, and tried not to miss a word.

“Humans are the only mammals that have a new brain,” he said, as he stroked his Freudian-like beard. “The new brain is the part of the brain that helps us take in information, organize it, and make decisions. It gives us the ability to observe ourselves and evaluate our own behavior.” 

            “Beneath the new brain, lies the brain stem or old brain.  Cradled at the root of the brain stem is the limbic system, which is our survival mechanism. This primitive old brain is a part of our fight-or-flight response. It floods our body with chemicals when it senses real or perceived fear or danger. Painful memories from childhood can trigger the old brain’s fight-or-flight response.”

Wow, this was making sense to me, I thought. Off came the hat and gloves and I was writing profusely.

Seeing the idea light bulb go on over my head, the wise sage continued. “When our autonomic nervous system kicks in, we have physiological triggers, such as sweaty palms, heart palpitations, panic, and perspiration.  Another key aspect about the old brain is that it has no sense of time. So, a trauma that occurred at age five can be relived at age twenty-five, with the same feeling and emotion that you felt as a child.”

“What?” I interrupted incredulously, “You mean that I was responding to a wound that happened in my childhood?” I slug my coat off my shoulders in a writing frenzy.

“Yes,” Professor Jones methodically proceeded.

“In psychology, we call this reactivity. Reactivity is giving a situation that occurs today more emotion than it deserves because a childhood soul wound had been triggered.”

“You mean I’m not crazy?” I asked heaving a huge sigh of relief, unable to hold back a flood gate of tears.

“No, you are not crazy, just reactive.”

            With tears rolling down my cheeks, I was in deep thought, remembering a painful memory from my childhood that I thought I had carefully buried years ago.

            When I was a young girl, I would listen to my parents fight, and become anxious and fearful because the conflicts would often result in violence. My father would typically threaten to leave my mother. He had done this many times before, but one night when I was five years-old, they had had a particularly bad fight when my father said he was going to leave, and I somehow knew that this time he meant it. He told my mother that he could not take her crazy behavior anymore. All of a sudden, I knew he was serious. All I could think about was that my mother was not normal. She said and did crazy, violent things and I panicked at the thought of being left alone with her, having to take care of my younger brother and sister. I feared for our safety.

In my panic, I grabbed my father’s leg and clung to it for dear life. I begged and pleaded with him to stay. In his angst, he drug me across the plank floor, opened the screen to the porch and slung me off saying, “Sorry kiddo, I’m outta here.” I can still feel some of the original old brain trauma of embedding my fingernails in the screen door and begging, through sobs, for my father to come back. He never did, except for limited visitations after that.

I did everything in my power to put this painful memory out of my mind. And I was successful, until that night with quiche. Unfortunately, my reactivity triggered a soul wound in Tom also and he became reactive as well.

Tom

 I grew up in a Christian home and had a pretty good childhood until I was thirteen years old and I discovered that my father was having an affair with a nurse at our family doctor’s office. I told my mom the horrible news and the family blew apart. Mom and dad managed to stick it out, just barely, for the next ten years, but they were never close again.

Because of her pain, my mom started to confide in me and tell me what a poor Christian and bad husband my father was. I wanted to be there for her, but her constant clinging and neediness was suffocating to me. I could not wait to graduate high school and go to college, just to get away from her constant smothering. I, like Bev, thought that I could outrun those painful feeling of being clung to… until the fateful night of the “quiche affair.”

As I stood up to leave the room and cool off, Bev reacted to her childhood soul wound of abandonment by begging, pleading, and clinging for me to return. Unfortunately, this triggered my soul wound of being suffocated and clung-to by my mom. I overreacted and felt the overwhelming urge to escape. Bev’s reactivity triggered my reactivity and both of us were severely overreacting. We now call this phenomenon-interactivity but back then, we just knew it to be marital purgatory! We were wounding each other in much the same way our parents had wounded us and we could not seem to help ourselves. We felt like the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15, when he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (NIV).

Bev

            One of my greatest fears was that Tom would leave me, yet my hysterics could actually facilitate this reality.  My reactivity could have actually made it hard for him to stay.  We were doing that which we hated, because we were responding out of our fear and creating a painful power struggle for each other. It was truly marital purgatory!

            The wise Professor Jones said that the psychological cure for reactivity was Intentionality. Intentionality is a concept that is used a great deal in self-help groups involving addiction. “Fake it till you make it” is the more colloquial term for this notion. In other words, act a certain way regardless of what you are feeling. Alcoholics Anonymous  teaches you that even if you do not feel like walking past the bar door, even when you are dying for a drink, resist it any way. After a while, your feelings will follow your behavior. Many A.A. participants refer to this as “white knuckle sobriety.”  This means staying sober by an act of your will, not your emotions. We now called it “white knuckle matrimony.” 

            I drove the thirty mile trek home from school that night with so much information I was about to burst. I wanted to tell Tom all that I learned so that we could develop a plan to move out of our marital purgatory. As I drove past the sleeping cornfields and mounds of gray snow, I thought to myself, perhaps this frost will end inside and outside of my life, and for both, spring will come again after all.

I rushed into our small apartment, dropped my books on the floor and sunk into the cushy bean bag chair that was the sole piece of furniture in our new love nest. (I told you we were poor). Tom sat across from me on a pile of pillows and I poured out all of the wisdom that I learned that day. We then sat there looking at each other, kind of stuck, trying to figure out how we were going to become intentional.

We knew that Psychology teaches that if you act a certain way feelings will follow.  This made sense to us, but we wondered where we were going to get the emotional strength, moral fortitude, or desire, to act loving when we felt our own needs were not being met. Try as we might, Tom and I just could not imagine being intentional and calm when our childhood soul wounds were being triggered. We both knew that when we reacted, we felt like we had no control over our actions.  

One of the problems we encountered with some of this great new information is that it did not align with our core beliefs. Thirty years ago psychology was purely humanistic. There was no such thing as Christian counseling, so we pioneers in the field had to take what we could get and integrate our faith into what we were learning.  Humanistic psychology taught that man is basically good and he could be intentional by an act of his will. The Bible teaches that man is sinful and needs God’s redemption. Tom and I knew that we were fleshly creatures and could not practice intentionality on our own.

Then, it hit us. In the marriage relationship, intentionality is pure agape, or loving unconditionally no matter how you are treated. It is acting loving when you are being wounded. All of a sudden, we both had the same notion at the same time (or shall I say that the Lord gave us the same vision simultaneously). This is exactly what Christ did on the cross for us. The Lord gives his children unconditional love. His gift cannot be earned and is not deserved, yet He still chooses to give it.  So, if we act loving and healing when we are hurting, we will be like Christ. What then can motivate us to act intentionally or with agape? Certainly not our basic, innate goodness. Yes, it would have to be the example of Christ’s unconditional love for us that enables us to give agape to our mate, even when we are wounded and don’t feel like it. Isaiah 53: 5 says that by His stripes we were healed. Because He loved us unconditionally when we were wounding him by our sin, we can love each other when we are being wounded.

            That was the beginning of us turning soul wounding moments into soul healing moments, and we are still doing it some thirty-two years later. But that’s not all, it was also the beginning of a model of marital therapy called Soul Healing Love that we have used with thousands of couples over the past twenty-seven years in our counseling clinic. We now teach this model across the globe and continue to do Soul Healers Couples Intensive Weekends where we share with couples what we learned so many years ago. We have written books and developed training products that also enhance our ministry.

 Soul Healing Love helps you become Jesus with skin on to your partner. You then replicate the I Corinthians 13 passage, and become patient, kind, and unselfish. You are transformed by God’s unconditional love from being a wounder to becoming a healer. We have often said that we want to take our last breath in the counseling chair helping another couple “get it.” We believe that this is what the Lord put us on the planet to accomplish and today there is no greater joy for either of us.

             By the way, we did move from the frigid wilderness of Illinois to the gorgeous green grass of North Carolina and that did wonders for our relationship. After over 30 years in this warm southern climate, I think I have finally thawed out in more ways than I can possibly imagine!

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