ERP 095: How Your Beliefs Can Destroy Your Relationship [Transcript]

ERP 095: How Your Beliefs Can Destroy Your Relationship [Transcript]

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 95, How Your Beliefs Can Destroy Your Relationship. Now, I get that this title sounds extremely dramatic, yet I wanna really describe some of the mechanisms that are at play when we’re developing long-term intimacy and how our beliefs play a role in that.

We’re gonna get into that in a moment, but before we get started, I like to just set the tone, set the intention and the goal and the focus of what this conversation is all about: why I’m doing this podcast, why you’re listening, and why we engage in this topic about relationship. The landscape of intimacy is complex and is challenging at times, and in my mind what gets activated in our romantic connections with our significant other are one of the most profound ways that we grow and develop as human beings; it is a mirror to us, showing us our areas for growth, our areas for possibility and expansion.

For this conversation, my intention is to help you have a little bit better understanding of the landscape of it, because many of us, at least here in the United States, in this Western perspective, get seduced almost by these romance stories in books and novels and movies. We really glamorize and epitomize that first few stages of relationship, which are really about finding someone and partnering, and the romance and all the connection and the beauty that happens in that courtship.

However, the danger of this is that we can compare long-term intimacy with this first elated stage, so when our relationship isn’t mirroring that stage that, like I said, we tend to glamorize or fantasize as the ultimate stage or the ultimate experience of love, then we can really confront feelings of disillusionment, disenchantment, and just pure perplexed like “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

So the conversation that’s happening on this show is really helping you understand all the things that are happening in long-term intimacy so that you can have a different framework around what’s actually going on, so that you can be more skillful, more thoughtful and mindful and intentional about what you’re cultivating. Because I truly believe each one of us, in our romantic relationship, have a huge impact on what gets created. We are co-creating with our significant other the type of relationship that we’re experiencing. We can create a relationship by design, or by default, one that just happens to us, that this is kind of what the relationship is and we expect it to just maintain itself and nurture itself and grow itself.

Or, what I’m really trying to invite you into is how to be mindful and intentional in creating your relationship in alignment with your values, what you’re wanting and your ultimate real vision for what you’re wanting in relationship.

Again, the intention here is to improve the quality of these romantic connections that we’re in, our romantic partnerships, learning how to see conflict differently, how to negotiate the hardships and the challenges with a different framework that allows you to show up differently and have a better result, a better outcome. It’s for the interest of what you’re gonna get on the other side that is the motivation for doing conflict and challenges, approaching them differently.

And really, more than anything, wanting you to have a strong, connected, fulfilling relationship that weathers life. We tend to also not only have our own challenges within our intimate relationship, but we’re also experiencing life, that has many stressors… So how to also weather life together, and feeling confident that you can handle hardships together and that you’re resilient.

I am celebrating the second anniversary of this podcast show, and I would love to get your input, get your feedback. A few of you have already taken the survey, letting me know things that you’re really liking, types of episodes that you’re enjoying more than others… Because on this show I interview experts, I give you input based on topics that I think are really important, I also answer your questions that you’ve submitted via e-mail, and I also provide live coaching that’s aired as an episode; so I give laser coaching with a listener and you get to hear that process.

So I would love to get your input. I’m only gonna ask you again this episode – I asked you last episode. If you can, I believe it would take 5 minutes at most to take the survey. It’s seven questions that are mostly yes/no questions and a couple that have an option to give more feedback.

To find the link for this survey, please go to the show notes page of this episode. Again, this is episode 95. You can find the show notes on my website. My website is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you can find all of the episodes there. Once you click on this episode you’ll see the show notes, and at the bottom you’ll see a section that says “Mentioned”, and you’ll find the link for this survey there. Thank you so much for your willingness to do that, it means the world to me.

Every so often I get a rating and a review, and I’d like to share them with you. I got this rating and review that’s titled “Great Relationship Podcast”. The listener writes:

I’m a frequent listener of the podcast and gather awesome tips from her. She has a great knowledge and makes the listeners have a different perspective before acting. She has also helped me gain some ground and understanding/improving my communication skills. I recommend listening to her podcast. She has some great ideas and examples from her life at times to make us understand better.”

Thank you, listener, for taking time out of your busy day to write a rating and review. It really does help the show and it is great to get your feedback and hear from you. Thank you.

Let’s get started with today’s podcast episode. Again, this is episode 95, How Your Beliefs Can Destroy Your Relationship. I’d like to think that I’m offering you a bit of a series right now… Last episode, titled 4 Reasons Why Creating Lasting Love Is So Difficult, I talked about some major reasons why people have difficulty continuing to develop intimacy in their marriages and in their relationship. Today, I’m actually following up on that and we’re talking about some of the mechanisms that also come into play when we start committing into deeper levels of intimacy, like marriage or a long-term/lifelong partnership.

Part of what you’re gonna hear in today’s discussion is the real dramatic difference of the belief when we’re in courtship and dating, and the belief when we start entering into deeper levels of commitment. We’re gonna underscore that, and perhaps we might not get to it today, so next episode we’re gonna look at the specifics of how those beliefs play into the way we think about each other, the way we think about our relationship, the way we actually feel our experience of our partner and of our relationship. That can be emotionally, as well as what we feel in our body – our heart rate, our muscles… Are they relaxed or are they tense? Is our breath easy and expansive, or is it constricted and shallow?

These things all play a role in how we approach one another, how we behave, what we anticipate, what we expect, and so we’re gonna look at that a little bit more closely, and how those beliefs inform all of these mechanisms. We’re gonna look at examples to help you see this, how it actually manifests and can support your relationship, or it can actually deteriorate your connection with your partner.

Last episode, again, we discussed four reasons why creating lasting love is so difficult. If you’re interested in that episode, you can find it again, it’s episode 94. Another big challenge that we all face on the path of long-term intimacy is learning how to deal with our protective mechanisms. Now, it’s an interesting thing that we’re saying, “Why would we need to protect against our person?” Our person is supposed to be our safe haven, the person that we got to to seek solace, to seek comfort, to seek love and reassurance and soothing, yet there’s some mechanisms at play that make this very complicated. This is an unexpected thing for us to anticipate.

When we enter into relationship, again, that beginning stage, we tend to fantasize truly, because we don’t really know our partner through and through, we just have a projected sense of who they are. But we emphasize the ways that we fit, we romanticize and we fantasize about how great the connection is. We look at the strengths of it and we might ignore or overlook certain ways that we don’t really fit or match up well.

What we’re doing there is we are really giving our partner the benefit of the doubt, and our relationship. We are very hopeful, we have this belief and we approach things as it’s going to work out and that we believe this person is good for us, so we operate with that.

When we enter into that second stage, when we start solidifying deeper levels of commitment and we start to see our partner more fully because we’ve had maybe a few seasons with them – how they deal with anger, how they might deal with upset or grief – we get to see their true colors more to show – and how we deal with these differences will be very telling.

Most of us don’t know how to deal with conflict, and when we feel that we might approach something differently, by very virtue of that it feels like a conflict. Or “You like to walk away when things get heated, I like to talk it through and really work it out; it’s disrespectful to walk away”, where the other person’s like, “No, it’s the most loving thing we can do. I don’t wanna say anything that I don’t mean if I’m not really in my right state of mind, if I’m actually upset. I wanna protect us, I wanna protect you.”

There’s really benefit to both approaches. So we get into this battling, and who’s right, and we start to feel conflict. This can be a very confusing and complicated time, because we’ve almost moved from a position of hope and optimism to one of caution and protection without even us maybe consciously realizing it. So if you’ve listened to my podcast before, you may have heard me talk about just how we’re evolutionarily as human beings designed to survive. What that means is we’ll protect ourself against harm.

The very primal part of our brain, namely the amygdala, will really kick us into high gear when we feel any type of threat… Where the brain has actually categorized all the ways we’ve been hurt, injured, embarrassed, humiliated, abandoned, rejected, pained in any kind of way will remember that acutely.

This essentially is triggering what we will call the fight-or-flight or freeze response. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. We’re ready, we’re en guard, and I’m sure all of us have felt this. I’ve described this some ways in kind of a traffic light analogy if you’ve worked with me before… Essentially knowing when you’re in the red, high alert and ready to either fight or flee, and you’re ready to respond.

This can happen in a nanosecond. With our intimate partner, our spouse, we can see a look or a tone of voice and we could perhaps get activated if we have any feeling inside of us of feeling threatened. I wanna talk a little bit more about what’s going on with that threat.

To back up one moment, our brain basically kicks us into that fight-or-flight or freeze response and it will feel exactly like somebody’s chasing us with a gun. The nervous system is incredibly responsive; all of those things are gonna kick into gear that we need to protect ourselves. Yet, the sophistication of recognizing the false positives or the false alarm isn’t there. It’s an on-and-off switch, essentially.

We can catch this, and part of this is the work that I often encourage – how to slow it down and how to catch some of these reactions to slow that reaction down. But before we go there, I just wanna talk again about the bigger picture here.

Part of what’s happening when we feel threatened is again, if you remember, a moment ago I was saying our brain has cataloged all of our injury and hurt and trauma and pain, and some of this is really without our awareness. We’re not very conscious of it, and some of it has even happened pre-verbal, so it’s stuff that happened at a very early age that we can’t actually recall as well as we might be able to recall something in high-school or even second grade.

There’s this protective mechanism happening, so if we have this catalog of all the injury and all the pain and all the trauma, the survival instinct in us is we’re not gonna experience that again; that is not gonna happen again. And we will be en guard for anything that looks, tastes, smells, sounds, feels – anything similar, that we’re gonna be hip and ready to not go through that again, and we’re gonna be protecting ourselves.

Again, this happens very automatic, without a lot of deciphering and discerning. It’s very protective. If we need to be en guard and protecting, that needs to happen quickly. We don’t have the luxury of analyzing and comparing and really being sophisticated about making a decision. It needs to happen quickly.

One of the major things that’s going on with this mechanism is something called the attachment system. In adulthood, our romantic bonds activate a very deep part of our being which is called this attachment system, which we’ll describe here. It’s more or less an early imprint of your connection. This imprint of connection reflects what you experienced when you were young – how you were cared for, how you were not cared for by your parents or caregivers, how we learn to respond through what we think and feel in our physiology.

If we experience a secure connection with our parents or caregiver, we thinking-wise believe that our needs will be met, and that the world is a safe place, and emotionally we feel loved, we feel confident about our ability to connect and engage and receive comfort and affection. Our body, our nervous system, if we’re in this secure connection, feels relaxed, calm, and is functioning well. The homeostasis, all systems are good and ago.

Well, many of us – the statistic is rather high, and I don’t think that it’s all or nothing… I think that we have a spectrum of insecurity, but a lot of us have experienced some level of insecurity around connection. I talk a lot more about that in the episode where I talk about attachment; I’ll put that in the show notes for you if you wanna reference that. I also give you a research paper that I wrote many years ago that talks about the different types of attachment styles and how they fit with our romantic connection, or marriages and our life partnerships, so you can see how the insecure attachment shows up… Not believing that somebody has your best interest at hand, being fearful or concerned that your partner’s not there for you, might abandon you, might reject you, or feeling like you’re not good enough, you’re not worthy, you’re bad, you’re deficient in some way.

These things are deep in our being, without even some conscious awareness. Just to give you a backdrop of some of our early fundamental years in this imprint of connection through the attachment system – that’s the research term for it – is basically the operating system we got for relationship, and it will get activated again in our adult, committed relationship; we’ll see the mirror of that, we’ll see that operating system taking hold.

When we’re little, we can understand that we needed our parents, we needed our caregivers for our survival; we depended on them. So we needed these connections to get our needs met, so they’re extremely important to our development. And if we look fast forward, yes, they show up in our school years, our high school, young adulthood – all of those things. It’s there and it’s getting reinforced and slightly molded, but it doesn’t show up as strongly until we enter into life partnership or marriage, where we deeply commit to another human being.

I think the reason for this is because we open up our hearts, we enter in a deeper level of loving and bonding than ever before, and the stakes are a lot higher. A lot more is at risk, we invest a lot more, and it almost bubbles up again, this operating system. What’s fascinating is when we feel threatened in relationship, again, as I mentioned, it’s almost as if our nervous system doesn’t distinguish between a physical, life-threatening threat or an emotional threat to the emotional bond. It feels very similar.

If you’ve had any level of insecurity, pain, hurt, injury in the past, then your brain has kept very good track of this experience, so that it can protect you in the future. What’s happening here is that turns into a protective mechanism, so that if we experienced anything that feels in the neighborhood of what we’ve experienced before, we’re gonna perceive that as a threat.

Again, this is happening so quickly that many times it can be a false alarm. It’s better to err on the side of caution. I can tell you I have gotten my car broken into – this was when I was in my young 20s and I would leave things in the car. Since that time, fast-forward 20 years later, I have continued to not leave any valuables visible in the car. The amount of times that I do that per the amount of times there is maybe a real threat – who knows…? There might have been a few that I actually prevented, I don’t know, but I have always erred on the side of caution; it’s not worth it for me to take my bag with me or lock it up somewhere, it’s just worth that extra step. I don’t give anybody the opportunity to break into my car to steal my purse. There’s a lot of protectiveness in that, right?

Well, if we’re switching our belief again, I’m gonna remind you of the belief set here. In the beginning, our partner is the one, they’re our person. We are very hopeful and we are giving our relationship the most positive, optimistic view and belief available. Then when we get into this more protective state and cautious of threats or we’re feeling these old things emerge, then we start to view our partner differently. We might start to view them as the source of our pain, the source of our hurt, and that’s a very, very different approach.

The other thing that’s really challenging about this is in relationship our dynamics, our interactions are moving so quickly. Most of us rarely take the time to slow it down, flush out, “What’s really happening here?” and look at it more closely. So all of this is happening and we’re not even aware of why we’re feeling defensive or we’re feeling reactive or we’re mad at our partner, we feel slighted in some way… Most of that is happening so quickly we don’t even know why.

When we feel this feeling of distrust or caution and we’re tracking for “Don’t hurt me” or tracking for any type of offense, again, that’s a very different approach. The other thing I wanna say here is that when we are fight-or-flight or freeze response, the very primal part of our brain, the protective part, the survival part, all of our pre-frontal cortex, the sophisticated part of our brain is offline. The nervous system is basically saying, “Okay, reduce any extraneous, luxury, unneeded, unnecessary energy, and so this more sophisticated part of our brain is not needed in the nervous system’s operating.

The prefrontal cortex is actually the part of our brain that has the more executive, the higher levels of thinking and processing – regulating emotions, calming ourselves down… It also has to do with perceiving other people’s emotions, decision-making… A lot of these really important ways of processes that we actually need to deal with difficulty and conflict with our significant other. But if we’re triggered in that very fight-or-flight or freeze response and we don’t know it, we’re gonna be reacting and we’re not gonna be at all skillful. There’s almost gonna be no way to be skillful.

It’s really notable to say, “Okay, if I am in the red, my higher faculties are not available. I’m not gonna be skillful.”

The other day I was reading Stan Tatkin’s Wired For Love and he has a section that really describes this nicely, so I wanted to read it to you. It’s on page 24 – again, this is out of the book Wired For Love, by Stan Tatkin. This is on page 24, and it’s titled Thou Shall Not Get Killed, and basically talking about the very thing I’m describing here.

“During courtship, partners are predisposed to anticipate their best hopes coming true. As the relationship progresses and the pair become closer and more interdependent, a couple bubble may form.” That’s meaning like this container of the relationship where they take care of each other and protect each other.

“The perception of permanence may emerge”, meaning that it appears that it’s gonna last, right? There’s some level of commitment happening.

“This is, of course, what they hope for… Yet sometimes, along with security comes its opposite – fears and expectations that date back to early experiences of dependency, but that didn’t arise during courtship or dating are activated as commitment to this relationship increases. As a result, partners start to anticipate the worst and not the best from their relationship. Anticipation of the worst is not logically purposeful, nor does it necessarily surface in conscious awareness, because this type of anticipation resides in a deep and wordless part of the brain.”

Again, this is often happening without our intention to do it, or it happens unconsciously; it’s just a very deep part of ourselves that’s reacting and feeling protective.

“Much of what we do as partners is fundamentally about survival, and our beastly instinctual selves. In fact, we could say the human species has survived over millennia due to the simple imperative ‘Thou shall not get killed.’ Love and war are both conditions of our human brain. Arguably though, the brain is wired first and foremost for war, rather than for love. Its primary function is to ensure we survive as individuals and as a species, and it is very, very good at this.

Unfortunately, the parts of our brain that are good at keeping us from getting killed are also quite stupid. “Shoot first and ask questions later” is the basic credo. For instance, if you’re standing on a train track and the train were speeding towards you, you probably wouldn’t be wondering, “Hm, how fast is that train moving? How many people are aboard? From where did it depart, and when will it arrive at its destination?”

If you did, you likely would very soon be dead. Danger requires fast action, and the fastest-acting part of your brain doesn’t care about specifics, calculations or any other factors that are time-consuming. Its job is to keep us from getting killed. Period.

So is the brain good at keeping us alive? Definitely. But is it bad at love? You betcha. Our brain’s survival skills can be at odds with love and relationship. The things we do to keep from getting killed often are exactly the things that keep us from getting into a relationship and in staying in one.”

I really loved this quick excerpt, because it really describes the thing that I am talking about today. The thing that I’m really interested in exploring with you is the start contrast between those early stages of relationship where we are believing, we’re hopeful, we’re optimistic, and in contrast with when we start to feel those threats emerge and what we do with those threats. Again, most likely, the natural instinct is to be protective and to be cautious and to perceive perhaps the negative.

I’m really excited about getting into more specifics with you, exploring examples so you can really see the real difference here, and the opportunity, essentially. In the next podcast episode we’re gonna do that, we’re gonna get way more specific, work with some examples so you can see how this actually plays out, and again, to this point of how your beliefs have such a strong impact on the quality of your relationship, what you’re cultivating together in your marriage and in your relationship.

So again, we’re gonna have to work with the nervous system. It’s not about just purely overriding… It’s how to balance and work with the tendency, because those threats are real. If you have felt trauma in the past, if you have felt injury in the past, you want to befriend that part, you want to work with that part, help that part feel safe, and how to approach a relationship from a more goodwill stance, or believing in benefit of the doubt so that you can be creating something in the positive, rather than anticipating the negative, perceiving the negative and almost self-fulfilling prophecy experience the negative.

Again, a summary – how to anticipate the best, rather than anticipate the worst, recognizing when you might be reacting and jumping into those conclusions, and it’s almost as if I’m gonna help you learn how to slow down your nervous system to discover what’s going on.

When I was typing up some of these notes for this show, I was like “Oh gosh, it’s almost like training how to do bomb deactivation”, if you ever see on TV episodes; I’ve never been in it live, so I really have no idea what it’s actually like, but how it’s portrayed in the movies and the TV, where the bomb squad goes in, and there’s a bomb and they have to deactivate the bomb – everything is on extreme high alert. Every little move is calculated, but also has to be very specific because of the great cost of tripping one of the wires, and the bomb going off…

Sometimes I feel like it’s walking through a mined field. I’ve had clients that tell me, “Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m walking into a minefield when my spouse and I are at odds, and it just feels terrifying.” So I feel like I’m trying to help you guys learn how to deactivate some of these alarms. And again, you don’t wanna take them out completely, you need them to survive, and you want them. You wanna befriend them, but you wanna also give room for getting the more higher levels of thinking on board, so that you can be more constructive and skillful. That’s where deactivating and being really intentional and specific about what steps you’re taking.

These podcasts are tricky… I’m giving you a high-level overview of some of these things, and I might be able to give you some examples and maybe a step or two, but if you recognize yourself and you’re resonating with any of this and you’re wanting to go into a deeper level of practice with this, you’re wanting more support, wanting more guidance and container around how to really integrate some of this and work it, I will be offering you an opportunity to engage and enroll in a program that I’m gonna be sharing with you in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned for that.

I would love to have you included and I would love to support you in really transforming your dynamics and really cultivating and co-creating a relationship that you really love. Stay tuned for all of those details.

I’ll also have some free offerings for you, so I’m excited to share that with you. That will be coming up in the next few weeks. If you would like to comment on this show or reach me directly, my e-mail is jessica@drjessicahiggins.com. You can also go to the show notes page by going to my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com click on Podcast, and you’ll find all the episodes there. Click on each episode to get the show notes, and if you wanna comment, you can scroll down to the bottom and comment there.

I always love hearing from you. If you have a question you’d like to submit, a question about your relationship, a challenge or wondering, please feel free to reach out to me. I look forward to answering your questions.

If you’d like to be on the show, you can also find the details on my contact page of my website, and you can learn a little bit more there. Until next time, I hope you take great care!

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