Marital Eruptions and Brain Neuroplasticity

Before I begin the inspiring tale of how brain neuroplasticity can change your life, let me set the backstory for the marital eruption that took place in our home last weekend. Some would laugh at the term eruption, maybe labeling it more “spark” or “puff of smoke,” but for two incredibly sensitive, empathetic, and terrified of anger type personalities, it was a bloody Sunday. And as a backstory, to the backstory, first let me lay out for you the requests I have made of my dear husband, Atma, in the last six months. As much as I desperately want to, I will not go into the reasoning behind these requests, because I am creating a new behavioral pattern of not explaining or justifying my quirky behavior to anyone else. So, I will open myself up to judgment and pretend like I don’t care what you think, even though I secretly care. A lot. (But one day I won’t, so as my Mama says, I’m going to “fake it till I make it.”)

But I digress, back to my requests.

First, I asked him for more space once a month during my ultra-sensitive pre-menstrual week and he offered to travel away from home during that time.

Second, I asked him to begin seeing massage clients outside of the home instead of in our meditation room.

Third, I asked him to move his desk out of the bedroom. He could not find another good space for it, so has now moved his workspace down into the cement blocked, low ceiling basement, or as he calls it, “the dungeon.”

And most recently, I have asked him many nights to sleep in the other bedroom.

On top of this, he definitely does more than his share of the household chores. I have not asked this of him, but it comes from my slower pace of getting things done and his service oriented heart (and maybe tiny touch of clean house OCD).

As one might surmise, as much as Atma supports me, all of these factors put together have at times created some distance between us that we are still navigating how to find our way back from and some underlying resentments that arise, especially under stress. As I mentioned before, I will not go into the back back backstory for these requests, but I will say that I have hit a point in my healing process where my body is calling out for space. Or maybe I have always craved space, but I am just now honoring that desire in a conscious way. I am finding new ways to discover more space every day. Just yesterday, after dealing with months of pinching shooting pains in my sacral area, accompanied by a continuous achiness, cramps in my hip flexors, and tenderness tipping over to pain with intercourse, I came upon an answer that centered on the idea of space. I have been to the doctor to rule out cysts, infections, etc., and after Atma and I searched through anatomy books and tracked the areas of pain, we discovered that my pelvic floor is holding an incredible amount of tension and inflammation. It makes sense after four pregnancies, 2 miscarriages, 2 d&c procedures, one botched C-section, one vaginal birth, hip injuries, and a more recent bout of yeast infections and bladder infections. So, I am learning to constantly release the holding and tensing that I am doing in my sacral muscles. It feels as if I am waking up from a decade long kegel exercise. My feminine organs want me to release and give her more space to breathe. Calling out for attention and love, I have intuitively sensed this by becoming more protective of my sexual body. My body is calling out for release, space and rest and I am learning how to verbalize this to my family. But it has, and continues to be, an adjustment. At times I feel incredibly selfish which can quickly transform into defensiveness.  I also have two young boys who I only have 50% of the time due to joint custody with their father. So, when they are home, I am in full on mommy mode, often leaving little energy for intimate connection.  I have moments of clarity where I can see that my creating distance has hurt my husband.  The majority of the time he has a superhuman amount of support and understanding, but there are times when he has human moments of frustration.  One of these rare moments came Friday night. After an energy intense week, I had a glorious day of massage, girlfriend lunch date, and afternoon nap before starting to plan my workshop for the next morning. Atma, on the other hand, had been on his computer for twelve hours in the dungeon finishing up a work project. It was getting late and we had not had dinner. Because of my late start, I was feeling pressed for time, so I ventured downstairs to ask Atma if he would make us dinner when he got to a stopping point. I was unaware of the struggle he was having, and this final request was the match for the eruption waiting to happen. I won’t bore you with the details of this fight, but the basics were, he got angry and I felt hurt because I did not yet understand the much deeper root of his outburst.

After trudging through a painful evening of disconnect, a fitful sleep, and an effort to figure it all out the next morning before I had to teach, we finally had the conversation that allowed him the opportunity to put together the build up to the fight. I realized clearly that he needed the space to express his feelings and be heard with love and validation. It does not mean that he is right and I am wrong, or vice-versa, it simply means he needs to be heard and know that it is safe to do so. OOOOH that sounds so lovely in theory, doesn’t it? It does sound lovely, but it is not my comfort zone.  Anger directed at me paralyzes me.  I feel much safer becoming defensive, justifying my behavior ad nauseam until we all want to jump outthe window, and twisting the conversation until somehow I have become the victim. But I am committed to stopping the internal fight, the need to be right, so I take a deep breath and give him space to release. In order to be able to do this, I have to continuously internally drench myself with self-love and validation. I have to assure the tight fisted child within me, who is terrified of being wrong or “being bad,” that she has done nothing wrong. That I know I am doing the best I can to take care of everyone in my family and myself. I say to myself, “He is not attacking me.  He just needs to be heard.” And then, I can give him safe space to vent his frustrations without taking it personally, feeling betrayed, or needing to defend myself. I can say to him, and mean it with all my heart, “Everything you are saying is valid and your feelings are important to me. I am sorry that I have had to be a little selfish in my healing process. I am sorry that you feel left out when the boys are home- that must be hard.” And I did it. I said it and I meant it.

I listened without (for the most part) becoming inflamed. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I have been able to achieve this neutrality. Let me try to find the words to describe how difficult this was for me, and also share with you the scientific reason that it feels like climbing uphill during a California mudslide. We attended a wonderful workshop last weekend by Yogi and Scientist, Shawn Galin, on the topic of Yoga and the Brain. Shawn introduced a topic that helps pull of this together. There is an amazing quality of the brain called neuroplasticity. The general idea of neuroplasticity is that for our entire lives, our brain has the capability to grow, re-shape, and re-wire.  Through repetition and focused thoughts we can create new neural pathways that allow us to change our behavior, patterns, and way of viewing the world. Practices such as meditation and chanting mantra can strongly aid us in this process. But in the beginning, when the new neural pathways are developing, it can be so hard! Imagine a mountain that has a rushing river cascading forcefully downward. The water has flowed for so long that the river stones are smooth and slick. The riverbed is deep and the water rushes down without resistance. This old rushing river is our deeply engrained behavior, thought patterns, and addictions.  In the realm of conflict resolution, my smooth, old river is inflamed defensiveness. When someone even subtly insinuates I did something wrong or hurtful, my immediate reaction is to rush down that river of indignation. Of self-preservation. A scared child afraid of punishment or having her innocence challenged takes over with bared teeth. But now I have decided to create a new rivulet. And as you can imagine on a mountain, the beginning of that process is tedious and takes great determination. You begin with just scratches on the surface and a lone drop of water. You meet much resistance and as you grow weary, you will want to jump back into that comfortable, familiar rushing river, even if it slams you around along the way. And you will jump back in. Many times. But gradually, after days, months, most likely years of scraping and digging and re-directing water down the new rivulet, the new way gains momentum. The stones get smoother and the bed gets deeper. One day, to your soul’s delight, you will have a new river and find the old one dried up.

And so, day after day, I am feeding my new little baby stream drops of self-validation and self-love. And this week, I reached a new depth. I was able to hear my husband, feel his love for me and his fear of losing my love, and at the same time continue to honor my need for space to heal and nurture. The two are not mutually exclusive, although my fear was fighting to prove otherwise.  I was even able to pause long enough to ask, “What aspects of this conflict are true? What can I shift to bring us back into balance? What is my role in this?” I can honestly say that I reached this new depth…but it did not quite stick! The new river is still young, and the old neural pathway still has enough energy to pull me back in.

After Atma had released all he had been holding, he felt so light and relieved. He was ready to re-connect and shower me with love. I felt so exhausted by reaching that new emotional depth, that I was sprinting quickly back to the old river. I couldn’t dig anymore, but at the same time, I knew that jump back into the old river would cause a break in the trust we had just created. Like an addict tearing apart the house to find any drug to take the edge off, I was desperate to begin defending myself, justifying my choices, and blame him for something to even the score. I didn’t know what to do and I became frozen, not allowing myself to speak because I knew what wanted to pour out. So this is the tricky middle ground of creating new relationship patterns.  There can be a delicate balance of one partner being in the new river while the other partner splashes in the old. Then that partner finds the courage to tiptoe into the new, but by that time the other partner is exhausted from the effort and has retreated back to the old. You will have those mind-fuck moments of continuously missing each other, but it is so worth it. Because the imminent joy and heart expanding love you both feel when you finally jump in the new river together is breathtaking. You forge on together, hold the other up when they get tired, and lovingly pull them back when they give in to the compelling rush of that old damn river. This time around it took about three days of running back and forth before we both settled together into the new space of honest, heart centered communication. It was a challenge, but I am ok with that. I know there are new pathways forming and I am starting to feel safe there.

I know I have the tools that will continue to help the new river of self-validation and self-love to gain momentum.  One of these tools, a brain balancing meditation called Kirtan Kriya, has been an incredible aid to me during this process. I would love to share this amazing practice with you. (SEE LINK BELOW FOR KIRTAN KRIYA)

If you do not resonate with Kirtan Kriya, any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice will slow down the stress response in the body and allow the brain to create new neural pathways. Another practice that has deeply increased my capacity for self-validation is creating Personal Love Statements. You can find the full description of this practice in the amazing book, Whatever Arises, Love That, by Matt Kahn. But the basic idea is to say to yourself all of the things you have been waiting your whole life to hear from others. Ask yourself what are my main triggers and who has hurt me the most. And then, what do I need to hear from them and others to feel at peace? The idea is that your subconscious mind does not know or care who says it; she just needs to hear it to feel loved and safe. Find your key phrases and repeat them to yourself over and over. I have so many of these that I use in different circumstances depending on what I am needing to hear from others in that moment, but my go to are “I trust in your goodness. You are doing the best you can. You have done nothing wrong. I am sorry I hurt you. I am sorry I can not always love you in the way that you need to be loved.”

When I speak to myself with such love and gentleness, I find that I speak to others in the same way. And this is certainly a pathway I want to nurture.

Sat Nam, In truth I dwell.