It is in our nature as humans to go into defensive mode when we feel threatened or attacked. When someone or something threatens our children, we automatically protect them. When someone “hits” us–physically or emotionally–our instinct is to “hit” back. More often than not, our “hitting back” is in the form of yelling, making excuses for behavior, blaming someone else for their behavior, pushing someone’s buttons, or threatening to leave. Many psychotherapists would describe this as the body’s “fight” mode of the “fight-flight-freeze” response system.
Another component of this response system is that of “flight.” Literally, this means wanting to remove oneself from the perceived threat. In my work with couples, I often witness the “flight” response when trying to work through the difficulties of marriage. When things get bad–REALLY bad–our instinct is to leave. To remove ourselves from the person we feel is hurting us. To flee or “take flight.” To separate. To divorce.
Sometimes, we can also go into “freeze” mode (think “deer in the headlights”). When we feel threatened, we may not know what to do. We feel confused. We are overwhelmed. We feel stuck and may have lost hope. We become non-responsive. Our spouses (or anyone in interaction with us) may interpret this behavior as not caring, being stubborn, or as being given the silent treatment. This is often not the case–the person simply “freezes.” It is yet a different way to protect one’s self.
Again, all three of these responses are natural instincts and may be useful and appropriate as a short term solution. Many times, however, these responses do not solve the issues or problems in our marriages. They protect us in the moment, but do not offer a long term, lasting resolution.
My encouragement is to try another option: Staying.
Not fighting back, not running or fleeing the marriage, not passively freezing.
So what does it mean to “stay” in a marriage when things get really tough? When you open wounds in order to do the “work” of therapy and all you want to do is run out of the office screaming?! How is “staying” different from the “fight-flight-freeze” response?
Several definitions of “staying” include the following:
1. To continue to be in a place or condition.
2. To wait, pause, endure or persist.
3. To stand firm, stick or remain with.
Marriage is hard work. When you stay in a marriage and work on resolving the difficulties, you endure. You stand firm. And yes, you may cease to move forward for the time being. However, it is during those times when we wait and pause and stick with the process that we have great opportunities for growth and change. We learn from our pain and our mistakes. We learn from our suffering. And, when we “stay” when things get rough, we find our way THROUGH the pain and suffering. It is BECAUSE of staying that we eventually move forward.
Tim Keller discusses “staying” in his book, “The Meaning of Marriage” (my favorite book on marriage, BTW). He describes Jesus’ act of staying on the cross as the greatest act of love in history. At any moment, Jesus could have abandoned the process of dying for our sins. He could have fought back. He could have literally flown away from those crucifying him. He could have stood frozen through the process or even frozen time itself. Yet, he did not. He stayed. He continued on his path. And in doing so, he saved people during his torture and death. It was BECAUSE of staying, BECAUSE he endured one of the most painful and gruesome methods of death, that we can be in relationship with God and find the strength to “stay.”
Choosing to engage in therapy to assist in solving problems in a marriage is also hard work. I often share with clients that sometimes things may get worse before they get better after therapy has begun. This can be very discouraging and many may choose to “flee” from therapy (and sometimes ultimately from the marriage). The tough thing to do when the marriage is in a mess–and especially when it gets even “messier”– is to focus NOT on getting away and leaving, but on STAYING and finding out what God is trying to teach you and your spouse in the middle of the mess. THIS is the work of therapy and saving your marriage. Shortchanging the process will also shortchange your future. The journey of restoring your marriage may be as important as arriving. Please know, however, that you will not be alone in this process. As a therapist, my pledge is to “stay” with you and partner with you as you work through the “messiness.”
Will you make a commitment to “stay” in your marriage?