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Marriage Help: Turn off Your Automatic Defense System

How hair-trigger is your automatic defense system?

Except in the case of abuse or battering, the real barrier to a satisfying intimate relationship is not the personality, selfishness, ill-will, poor behavior choices, or communication skills of you or your partner. The real enemy of your relationship is the hypersensitive Automatic Defense System (ADS) that has evolved between you.

Activated almost entirely without words, the ADS gets triggered unconsciously by body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. By the time you're aware of any feelings, it's usually in an advanced stage. It's the feeling you get when your partner doesn't look at you or or sighs as you or when you hear the door close before he/she enters the room, or when he or she starts with that "tone." Suddenly you find yourself in a defensive posture, prepared for the worst.

Of course, when you are both defensive, the worst is likely to happen. You can just as suddenly find yourself in a battle of cold shoulders or curt exchanges or hot arguments - the missiles seem to start flying on their own, with no one giving the order. You both feel powerless. You get irritable, impatient, resentful, or angry and want to stonewall, ignore, avoid, shut down, criticize, yell, or devalue yourself or your partner.

The sensitivity level of the ADS varies throughout the day. In its hypersensitive stage, anything - serious or trivial - can set off your ADS. There are certain times when it is likely to become hair-trigger:

  • When your physical resources are low - you're, tired, thirsty, hungry, sick
  • During transitions - stopping one thing and starting another, such as coming, going, waking, driving, starting dinner, finishing dinner, etc.
  • Within a year or two of attachment losses - loved ones moving away or passing away.

But even when your physical and mental resources are high, certain incendiary triggers are so powerful that anything remotely close to them will set off your ADS. These usually invoke the memories of some form of past betrayal, such as:

  • Infidelity
  • Abuse
  • Financial secrets
  • Deception
  • Threats of abandonment
  • Having intimately-revealed vulnerabilities thrown up to you (childhood wounds, fears, past failures, etc.).

Over time, the ADS tends to stay in a hypersensitive state more or less continuously, as you come to expect that your partner will let you down in some way.

Preemptive Strikes
Like all defensive systems, the hypersensitive ADS has preemptive strike capacity that is also mostly unconscious. Without intending to, you have an urge to get your partner with some kind of critical remark before he or she gets you. It may seem like you are always defensive, but many times you are striking first in anticipation that you partner is about to do the same.

Good News and Bad News
The bad news about your ADS:

  • It runs on automatic pilot
  • Like any habit, it's hard to break.

The good news about your ADS:

  • You still care about what your partner thinks
  • Your emotional well being is still intertwined.

You probably know couples who are largely numb to one another. They are not interested enough in the negative opinions of each other to be hurt by them. They don't hurt because they don't care. Where there is pain, at least there is life, and a motivation to heal and improve. Following the motivation to heal and improve will help you disarm your ADS.

Disarming Your ADS
It's important to realize that in the vast majority of cases you inadvertently push each other's buttons. Even though it may seem that your partner is out to make your life miserable, neither of you likes the way you feel when your ADS gets triggered. Neither of you wants it to be triggered. The secret to disarming it is to see your partner as an ally in the effort rather than a nemesis.

To disarm your ADS:

  • See it as a pattern between you rather than something your partner does to you
  • Make a core value decision of what is more important to you - giving in to your ADS or disarming it
  • Maintain the will to disarm it, even when it feels awkward or scary to do so
  • Appreciate times of hypersensitivity and the enormous power of incendiary triggers
  • Be compassionate to yourself and your partner
  • Be allies against it - it's bigger than either one of you but not bigger than both of you
  • Be able to say, "Oh, we're triggered again; let's set it right. You're important to me; I want us to be close."

One thing is for sure: Your ADS is not going to improve without determined effort. If you conscientiously try the above and still find that it is too difficult to break on your own, your ADS has become reflexive and habituated. In that case, you may need some internal reconditioning to eliminate it completely, such as that provided by HEALS.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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