The Marriage Podcast for Smart People


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Why Your Husband Can’t Hear You During Conflict

So you’re trying to have a serious conversation with your spouse, but it doesn’t seem to be working. They aren’t answering the questions you ask. Instead, they seem to be ignoring you or shutting you out. And that just gets you even more upset. Don’t they care? It’s easy to take these situations personally, to assume that these actions are deliberate. But what if it wasn’t? When you conflict with your spouse, something interesting happens inside of both of you that inhibits your ability to hear or even to remember what is said. What’s Happening on the Inside? To properly understand what is going on when your spouse appears to be shutting down or shutting you out during marital conflict, you need a quick primer on the nervous system. Your central nervous system (CNS) is a collection of nerves and cells that connects your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body, allowing signals and messages to be transmitted back and forth. Always on, it enables you to control your bodily functions, most of which are subconscious. By not having to concentrate on things like your heartbeat or digestion, this frees you up to focus on higher level tasks. You can work, exercise, watch movies, or talk with others. Since the CNS handles the plethora of unconscious tasks in your body, you can focus on the conscious challenges. When Stress Happens In the event of a stressful situation, the CNS responds, affecting you on both conscious and subconscious levels. Based on the severity of the threat, it begins to override every other priority that you have at the moment. This strong response is designed to protect you from potential danger. If you encountered a wolf as you walked in the local park, your CNS response would allow you to quickly stop worrying about what’s for dinner and instead focus on not becoming dinner. These responses can range from moderate to extreme, depending on the situation. Extreme responses are usually given for extreme situations when you are in clear, imminent danger.[1] In these cases, your CNS might shut down enough body functions that you flee, collapse, faint, or dissociate from the experience. Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive [or to think about much else, for that matter].[2] While marital conflict does not typically trigger this extreme reaction, it still is common for conflict to trigger a notable CNS response. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel that your spouse is a threat to you. However, if they are upset with you, then your safety in your marriage is at risk. Because safety is at risk, your CNS triggers alarm bells to try to protect that safety. When you have a serious conflict with the most important person in your life, your body registers this as a significant emergency. It activates all of the fight or flight tools for survival like increased heart rate, respiration, and cortisol. And worse yet, it decreases your ability to reason, ironically making it more challenging to deal with the conflict at hand. What Really Happens When You Fight Another issue with this response is that it is most concerned with self-preservation. When you are fighting with your spouse, you need to focus on preserving your marriage, not yourself. Please note that this is about typical marital conflicts, not situations of spousal abuse when you do need to be focusing on self-preservation. When your nervous system is activated, your thought patterns do not run the same way they do when you are calm. Your CNS response makes it more challenging to be open and engaged, making it more difficult to exchange information and affection. It affects nearly every single organ in your body. Your body starts to release hormones like adrenaline. Your mind becomes hyper-aware of your environment. Your heart begins to race, and you might even start to sweat. Your fight or flight system activates,