Guatemala: I journeyed to Antigua, a Spanish colonial World Heritage city in Central America’s Guatemala, where a family member currently resides. At the steps of a church in partial ruins were a little girl and her mother who were selling votives. I purchased a votive in exchange for a photo of the pair. When I made my request in Spanish the mom answered with her hand over her mouth. I thought perhaps she was shy. However when I aimed the camera at her, I saw that she was missing her top two front teeth. The next day, in reference to work with battered woman, it was mentioned to me that it seemed to be a badge of honor for some men to knock out the top two front teeth of their wives in a domestic dispute. Light bulb!
The Popularity of Bully Wives: In another corner of the Western Hemisphere, I sit and write this blog. Of late, I have seen the statistics of my popular posts shift and in ascendance is the one entitled Bully Wives. Over the three years since I began posting, I have published 371 posts. Bully Wives is now amongst the top 3 posts. Light bulb!
Aggression Comes Dressed in Many Robes: Yes, it is true that verbal aggression, whether it is ridicule, insult, cursing, mocking or screaming, does not knock out teeth. Nor does it show up on the police blotter or rob children of their mothers. But it is aggression. Emotional and psychological aggression and not limited to bully wives. There is no shortage of bully husbands as well. Cultural norms range widely and what is a tragically acceptable macho statement in one culture or a tolerated wifely prerogative in another does not offset its costs. All these behaviors smack (pun noticed) of dysfunctional outlets for intense anger in the Coupledom. Here’s the question: why don’t we teach how to fight fairly in elementary school, to disagree with dignity? At least in a country where there is compulsory education.
The Reptilian Brain: The human brain has three parts that match our evolution from animals to humans, though they are enclosed in our skull as one. Our earliest is the reptilian brain, pre-verbal, pre-historic, the flight fight adrenalin rush, compulsive and rigid. This layer of cerebral matter is followed by the limbic brain, and now, officially mammals, both memory and emotion are introduced. The neocortex section of the brain arrives with the advent of the primate. Finally we are capable of standing up, using abstract reasoning, being self-aware (consciousness) and able to communicate thought with language. We access all three sections of the brain all day everyday for survival, but there are moments when we do yield dominance wrongfully and dysfunctionally to the primitive brain, at great cost to all.
Grunts and Spitting: Threats to our safety, psychological or physical, can activate the primitive brain without the influence of the upper chambers. Sometimes that is great. We jump in front of trains to save a fallen subway rider. We don’t know why but we do it, some of us. We stick our arm out when we have to stop short in a car, to protect our child even though they are wearing seat belts. We just do it and think about it later. But when we are very angry, we do it too. We pick up the nearest weapon, our curses and insults (like grunts and spitting), pitchers and platters, and tragically, our fists and guns. Of course we need these lower brain parts, for sex, for amorous attraction, for rescues and memory, for sports and breathing and moving, for digestion. But for negotiating with the emotional realm, the interpersonal realm, we need to call upon the neocortex.
The Neocortex: This is the part of the brain that has “almost infinite learning abilities” and can be taught to search for the language of expression of emotion, to interrupt the knee jerk fight/flight option through practice. But few are teaching this course in the home or in the school, though that is changing through programs such as The RULER. RULER is an acronym for the five key emotion skills: Understanding, Recognizing, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions. This program was developed by Mark Brackett, Ph.D. Deputy Director of Yale’s Health Emotion and Behavior Laboratory, to train anyone from school children to top administrators across the country and abroad in the healthy utilization of “emotion skills” for all aspects of living, including and importantly “relationship quality.”
The Mute Coupledom: This is where I come in. Many of the couples that end up in my office appear emotionally mute at first. They were not trained in the skill of identifying their own emotions, let alone the language of communicating those emotions to their partner. We start from scratch and develop together the interest in and curiosity about feelings, thoughts, interpretations, and projections. Even though individuals know that they are hurt and angry, and stuck, which is what brings them to my office, they are often aware of only the surface aspects of those feelings and are limited to a fairly primitive method of communicating them: tone, look, words that are nasty or whining; the read my mind if you care type, the passive-aggressive punch format of communication or just the punch. Much like grunts and spitting. We need to do better, to teach better so that we don’t bust out front teeth or give “honey-do” lists laced with acid.
Here Is My Suggestion: If you are reading this post, let’s assume that you are open to learning, tapping that marvelous asset, your neocortex. Terrific. Now pass this post on to your partner with these words: “Here is something we can learn together” for our Coupledom, our kids, our future. We have a chance to learn the art, the skill, the tools of identifying our feelings and finding the language to communicate using “our words.” Very civilized? Well yes. The best emotional language starts with “I feel…” not “You are” and draws on one’s curiosity to know oneself and one’s willingness to learn about the other person’s feelings. Then there is a negotiation that links both parties to a common goal: to improve our lives together through a higher level of emotional conversation, tolerance, awareness and negotiation. For adults, now out of school and therefore not as able to benefit directly from such training programs as RULER, this goal can be achieved by reading, searching within and embarking on a shared process together.
Surprising Outcomes: Couples therapy is one way. Earlier is usually better but I have seen couples come to therapy deeply stuck in the cement of mutual alienation and have been happily surprised that, though laden with rigid thinking about each other, with help they successfully crack open new avenues of connection. Hard work, courage and a growing belief in the benefits of RULER: Understanding, Recognizing, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating emotions provide the chisel, the hammer and the heart of the process.
You can’t always tell a Coupledom by its cover. That neocortex has an almost infinite ability to learn.
Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012