We do our best to chore-share around our house. My wife ends up cooking four or five of the seven dinners in any week, and I end up doing most of the kitchen cleanup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Through too much trial and error I have learned that it is not ever in my best interest to say anything about her cooking (which actually is quite yummy). And while mostly she knows it’s not a good idea to offer commentary on my counter and colander cleaning skills, sometimes neither of us can help ourselves. Over time, however, whenever we find one or the other offering “suggestions,” we generally both suspect one thing … we are rarely upset about food prep or health department regs.
That’s the first step necessary for offering kindness: realizing the initial presenting-problem ain’t it.
So, if we’re not upset about the “tetrazzini yet again” or the bit of lettuce stuck to the side of the salad spinner, what might we actually be upset about at the next level down? Or, more to the point, how are we going to suss it out, and who’s going to offer the first olive branch?
It’s the Female’s Job to Take the Lead in Resolving Conflict
Actually, the first olive branch needs to be offered by the person who’s the least emotionally (limbically) high-jacked. But men are often at a distinct disadvantage in this regard. Why? Because of several factors. The first is, we grow up in a culture that does not support or encourage the expression of emotion by men. It’s experienced as weakness. And even women who cognitively know better (like women trained as therapists or teachers), non-cognitively (which is what matters greatly in the Grand Relational Scheme of Things) women don’t end up having their 10th cranial nerve dance with delight in the face of a primary partner in tears of emotional meltdown. It leaves no one to protect hearth and home; to defend the nest against marauding invaders.
The second reason men are at a distinct disadvantage is related to the first. When puberty unfolds, it brings a ton of testosterone with it. Testosterone in nine year old boys shows up at about a cup a day. By age 15 though, those adolescent gonads are cranking out two gallons a day! And testosterone in those doses turns out to be a profound neural inhibitor. And what areas of the brain does it primarily inhibit? The speech and language centers – Wernicke’s Area and Broca’s Area. So not only do men have the culture working against the expression of feelings, but we also have our own brains working against that expression as well (This is probably not late breaking news to most women). So essentially, kitchen squabbles end up not really being fair verbal/emotional fights.
What to do When There’s a Headlock on Your Heart
In many conflicts, for me it’s important to realize that it’s MY neurophysiology working me. I may have been triggered by external events, but it’s always my dorsal and ventral vagus nerve, and my adrenal glands running the show. And for one reason and one reason only in my experience: to try to move me toward greater integration and wholeness.
Given that, the only real advice I can offer in response is: experiment. Adrenaline and cortisol in anger-stage quantities close down perception. We can’t see straight (literally); we can’t hear straight (literally – the nerves operating the muscles in the ear contract them); we can’t think straight (again – literally. Neural modules in the prefrontal cortex required for clear, cognitive thinking are instantly taken offline in response to real or imagined threats to safety).
Laura Munson, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, has a friend who sometimes experiments with what she calls her “pickle jar philosophy.” She says a whole host of tensions can be resolved in her marriage when she hands her husband the pickle jar…
It’s simple like a zen koan is simple:
She’s having a hard time opening the pickle jar.
She passes the jar to her husband.
He opens it.
She says, smiling, “Yeah, well, I loosened it for you.”
But they both know it was a meeting of intention.
Talk about a marital contract. They both walk away with a result that works for each of them (and let’s not forget the plain fact that there will be pickles today). Things are right with the world.
All she had to do was state her need. Acknowledge his “strength.” Ask for his help. Get out of his way. And receive what he has to give.
Not Waiting to Exhale
Another experiment that often works for me is Exhalation Practice. Heart rate speeds up on the in-breath and slows down on the out-breath. By practicing exhaling longer than I inhale many times a day when my limbic system isn’t hijacked and my 10th cranial nerve isn’t making me its cabin boy, I am often able to remember to enact Exhalation Practice in the midst of a limbic mugging.
Yoga practitioners have known the importance of exhalation for centuries. Yogic breathing practice is called pranayama and deep, smooth exhalation has been an important, essential part of it from the beginning.
A second practice that I continually experiment with is something I call Markra Practice (That’s me playing with the word “mantra”). Markra Practice has me consciously recognizing and frequently and openly acknowledging that I can actually relax in this moment, because: “In THIS moment everything’s all right.” Which, except for the Highjack Hormones racing through my bloodstream and my left brain trying to convince me otherwise, everything almost always really is.
End Note: If you live in, or have friends in the Seattle area, it would be great to hang out with you at this daylong event on January 12th: Body, Brain and Spirit.