Gottman, do try this at home

Couples counselor helped us to understand and process the feelings from my fearful walk the night before. I was only focused on the walk itself, how when my anxiety was so high, and I was reaching panic levels, how was my spouse supposed to support me as I begin to attempt these in vivo experiences and start living my life again? But the counselor showed us that yes, that is an important piece, but there is more, bunches more.

The counselor pulled out some worksheets and guided us through using it for the first time, using that walk as the topic. The worksheets were created by Gottman, titled Aftermath of a Fight or a Regrettable Incident. I’m familiar with Gottman for his marriage books, and I was confused by the title. Hubby and I didn’t have a fight. And what the bleep is a regrettable incident…who talks like that? Oh yeah…counselors do.

Counselor explained this worksheet is great any time a couple is experiencing different realities, are not in sync, seem to have trouble communicating clearly, or are on a different page. Oh…well, that describes Hubby and I pretty much any time we try to speak to each other. It’s like I say something and he is using a translator that gets close, but never quite it exactly.

Here’s my worksheet. 2 pages of fun.



So it took the entire hour of counseling to go through this worksheet with the counselor facilitating Hubby and I taking turns and discussing our feelings before, during, and after the walk. The walk itself lasted about 5 minutes before fear took over and we headed back home. Seems crazy to devote two blogs and an entire counseling session to it right? No, not at all. It only took a few minutes for PTSD to hijack my body and make me feel like I was dying. Even though I knew I was safe, I didn’t FEEL safe, and had all the same effects in my body as adrenaline took over. It took me hours to recover from that walk. I was unable to read to my kids that night. I was worn out and frazzled, shaking, cold, nauseous.

Hubby was unaware of all of that. He said he thought I was afraid to fall, so that even though I clearly expressed my anxiety was an 8 he still was thinking I had a physical fear from the surgery, not thinking I had any emotional fears at all.

I kept waiting for him to come up and check on me, but he was fine, so thought I was fine, because how could a 5 minute walk to the corner result in someone being unfine? Through this process, we both shared our point of view, without blame. At the counselor’s office, I felt safe to share what seemed like critical feelings towards Hubby that I tend to keep inside so I don’t hurt his feelings or get a bad reaction. I’m also ashamed of myself for being too afraid to walk down the sidewalk, so it is difficult to talk about to someone who does not understand. But doing that contributes to me feeling lonely, small, and unimportant.

We both left this session feeling closer and better understood. Also better prepared for how to tackle a future regrettable incident. It seems odd to plan to have regrettable incidents, but of course we are human after all, so it is better to prepare for crap than to think we can prevent the crap.

I’m so proud of Hubby for attending counseling with me and digging deep to find his emotional language. This is all new for him. He often gets stuck in the “explain what you were feeling” parts, and the counselor is patient and guides him through it. I just stay quiet. I know it is hard. I was there in that same boat several months ago. Now I can show off and list off multiple complex emotions within myself, all without passing out at all. But when you have not been trained to look within, to listen to yourself, to value your feelings, it is almost like they don’t exist. Now Hubby doesn’t have my traumatic history, but everyone has triggers and sensitivities. He wasn’t abused, but he grew up in a family without much affection and where yelling was the norm. He also learned to hide to avoid setting off tempers. Not as extreme as mine, but its there. That’s why we are finally making progress with a trauma focused couples counselor – he is treating both of us.

Counselor has been coaching Hubby in his own stress management, breathing techniques, and gave him a few phone apps to try for grounding and meditation, like “Stop, Breathe, Think”. I’m so hopeful (yes I used the ‘h’ word…) that he will find some relief and one day will notice the difference in himself. Like I can feel when tension starts creeping up on me now, but I used to live at stress level 8, always tense, and that’s where Hubby is, so every additional stressor sets him off. He suffers with headaches, heartburn, muscle tightness and cramps, poor sleep and needing too much sleep, feeling overwhelmed, upset stomach, and of course yelling at us to blow off steam.

Counselor also discusses our automatic reactions. Hubby did mention that he often feels powerless with me, and that one of his reactions is to do nothing. That’s why he leaves me alone and says nothing. When he is aware of my pain or struggle he feels powerless, with no tools to help, so he disappears and entertains himself to relieve his own discomfort. This insight was huge to understanding what makes Hubby tick, and that my automatic reaction of hiding in shame, well, no wonder we rarely come together during the event itself. So I need to work on telling him what I need, going to him instead of waiting on him to come to me. And he will work on realizing that for a while here, it is very likely that each new activity has the possibility to bring on a strong fear reaction and while I am experiencing strong fear, it becomes increasingly harder to communicate it.

PTSD sucks. I’m so grateful I have fantastic counselors helping Hubby and I navigate these difficult waters ahead. I feel like I have allies now. Something confusing or overwhelming happens, and instead of swallowing it down and moving forward, I see it as a learning opportunity to bring up during my next session. It is still hard. I’m still ashamed. I can’t look my counselors in the eye when I tell them about my problems. I sweat, get flushed, shake, squirm…But I’m there and I tell them because I want to get over PTSD and one day be free. They keep telling me it is possible, that I’m not a lifer.

2 thoughts on “Gottman, do try this at home

  1. Several things came to mind. First, this is really amazing. Second, this could not be used with a narcissist, since they would never accept responsibility. Third, Fear really does shut down communication skills. Hate that. Fourth, I couldn’t look at my counselor for a couple of reasons, 1. Because I was ashamed and 2. Because I’m so adapt at reading body language (had to be since it was usually the only warning of an explosion) I would change what I was saying if I thought my counselor was bothered in any way. Fifth, GO YOU!

    • Good points about the N not accepting responsibility and about being so aware of body language. Ive noticed i look for cues to say the “correct” thing if I look at them, similar idea there to avoiding those explosions. We were trained so well.

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